You’ve heard the saying Rome wasn’t built in a day right? Well the fretboard notes can’t be learned in a day either. Don't trust anyone who tells you any different.
One of the best tricks to help you find notes quickly on the fretboard is to break it down using the 4-Step Memory Method. Step 3 from this effective fretboard memorisation system is to use octave shapes.
Octave shapes are so stupidly effective at helping you navigate your way around the fretboard because you relate them back to notes you've learned on the low E and A strings (this is known as 'elaborative encoding' and is a surefire way to help you form long-term memory for newly learned information).
An octave is an interval (gap) between two notes with the same name. The notes are double the frequency of each other and can be lower or higher in sound.I’ll explain; if you move an octave up from a root note, the new note is double the frequency of the starting note (see Fig 1.0 C1 - C2). If you move an octave down, the new note is half the frequency of the original note (C3 - C2).
C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C E D F G...
1 2 3 4
Fig 1.0 Distance between multiple C octave notes
When you play a scale such as the chromatic scale or major scale, you play from one identical root note to another - this covers what’s called an interval of one octave. If the note repeats itself twice (C1 - C3) it will be referred to as a two octave interval. In the same vein, the gap between C1 and C4 represents a three octave interval. You get the gist.
An Octave Shape therefore, is a movable pattern created on the fretboard when you play two notes an octave apart.
Let's get to the exercise.
Tools to use: Metronome, timer, phone or tablet to record progress clips, notepad for practice notes, blank tablature paper to keep a log of any scale variations to add on.
In this exercise, you’ll be playing the notes in the A minor pentatonic scale using shape one (Fig 1.1) playing octave shapes to substitute single notes (Fig 1.2). Use your 1st finger on the bass note, and your 4th pinky finger on the higher note to give it a good workout.
Start off playing without a metronome and focus on memorising the octave positions and hitting them cleanly. Don't stay in this comfort zone for longer than you need to - in other words, get that metronome on sooner rather than later.
Start on a slow tempo, and gradually increase the speed making sure to jot down the speeds on a practice planner or notepad as you go.
Fig 1.1 - A minor pentatonic scale 'E' CAGED shape 1 showing fingerings. The root note is highlighted in red.
Fig 1.2 - A minor pentatonic scale played using octave shapes
Once you get used to playing the exercise in the key of A, practice it in different keys such as G and B as illustrated in the tablature below in Fig 1.3.
Say the notes out loud as you play each shape otherwise it won’t be as effective and you’ll end up memorising the position only instead of the positions and the notes which is the aim of this killer exercise. (This is known as acoustic encoding and is a clever way to memorise newly learned information.)
Further Reading: Arpeggio octave shape exercise.
Pro Tip: Always use a metronome to make sure you're playing in time and to track your improvement. Start slow and gradually increase the speed. Focus on getting clean and smooth changes and memorising the notes.
Fig 1.3 - B and G minor pentatonic scales played using octave shapes
This first backing track is a funky A minor vamp for you to practice the A minor pentatonic octave shapes over. The tempo is 100bpm. (Hear examples of how to play the octave shape exercise in the 3rd backing track below).
Record yourself playing along to the backing track to hear if your playing is smooth and in time. Depending on your playing ability, this could take a while to perfect. Come back and practice with the track everyday for 5-10 minutes to see how you're progressing.
This second backing track in the key of A minor features a vibey picking pattern over the Am, G5, Csus2/F and Em chords. Practice the A minor pentatonic octave shape exercise shown in Fig 1.2. The tempo is 100bpm.
Follow the same exercise tips laid out for the first backing track - record yourself jamming with the track to critique your playing.
On this 3rd backing track you can hear examples of different rhythms and variations to play the Am pentatonic octave shapes in. The octave shapes are first played in a staccato style then with slides, with the last two examples showing you how changing the rhythm and timing can transform the feel of a piece of music.