Symbols, Signs & Jazz Guitar

Mentally projecting visual patterns onto the guitar fretboard is a common theme when jazz guitarists begin describing their skill to others.

In his 1982 thesis, J.M. McLaughlin quotes a variety of guitarists (drawn from magazine and personal interviews) illustrating how they perceived the fretboard in patterns while improvising, offering evidence for his visual theory of guitar improvisation.

Tal Farlow: ‘boxes‘ (Guitar Player, 1975)

Joe Negri: ‘chord shapes‘ (Personal Interview)

Vic Juris: graphs‘ (Guitar Player, 1981)

Howard Roberts: ‘sonic shapes‘ (Guitar Player, 1975)

Quoted in a 2002 interview, Canadian jazz guitarist Sonny Greenwich also spoke in similar phrases, saying: “I see the fretboard in diagrams …”, in reference to the graphic artwork of Paul Klee (Scott, 2003). More recently, guitarist Vernon Reid described seeing the fretboard as ‘a grid‘ in a 2012 interview with Guitar Player (Demasi, 2012).

This visual approach to navigating the fretboard isn’t necessarily surprising when you consider that diagrams have been used to teach jazz guitar skill since the days of Eddie Lang. Spatio-motor skills have also been noted in other types of stringed instrument performance such as folk-blues guitar (Baily, 1992), jazz guitar (Dean, 2015) and Afghan music (Baily, 1977). However, if visual diagrams are assumed to work well in transmitting jazz guitar skill, why do numerous graduate guitar students rewrite jazz guitar pedagogy as inadequate? (ie. Matone, 2005; Berard, 1998; Balistreri, 1995; Tedesco, 1998). As guitarist Derek Bailey noted succinctly in 1980: “… Although a large number of books and courses offering instruction and advice on how to improvise are available it seems impossible to find a musician who has actually learned to improvise from them …” (Bailey, 1980)

It could be that there is a fundamental disconnect between what we are trying to teach (improvisatory jazz guitar skill), and what we are using to represent it to students (diagrams). Cognitive scientist Jiajie Zhang wrote (regarding diagrammatical representations) that “… the form of a representation determines what information can be perceived, what processes can be activated, and what structures can be discovered from the specific representation.” (Zhang, 1997, p.179). In thinking of diagrams in this way, it can be argued that visual jazz guitar diagrams do not offer sufficient information to effectively teach jazz guitar skill. What they miss in particular is kinaesthetic information (Matone, 2005). For example: which finger, how to hold the fingers, how to pluck the strings, which fingers pluck the strings, how to hold the pick, how it feels to play etc. Most visual diagrams for teaching jazz guitar skill are focused exclusively on fretboard mapping – the mental projections of notes on the fretboard.

patmartino_linearexpressionsGraphic: Pat Martino. Linear Expressions. p.7

An experienced player can look at a chord chart or scale pattern and play it easily – why? Because they are not playing the chart –  they are responding to an internal representation – an embodied motor pattern, honed over years, of what the chart represents. But to a novice, who has not developed this embodiment – the visual diagram offers little in the way of motor or kinaesthetic information. This information may be provided by a teacher during a lesson, but if the teacher does not offer it – or if the student is learning alone from a method book (as is common – Degner & Lehmann, 2003; Berard, 1998) – then a student may become frustrated.

What is interesting is that classical guitar pedagogy is quite the opposite in this regard – much less information about fretboard patterns (McFadden, 2010) and a great deal more motor information, demonstrated by the consistent left and right-hand information provided in classical guitar notation.


Graphic: Excerpt of Aguado – ‘Andantino’ from a beginner classical text.

William Leavitt‘s The Berklee Method is a good example of this type of classical technique being incorporated into a jazz text.


Excerpt: ‘A Modern Method for Guitar’ Book 2: William Leavitt

However, as guitarists are not always considered good readers of notation, there is also an apparant disconnect here: between what we want to teach (improvisation) and the visual representations we are using to teach it.

Main graphic:  Pat Martino. Linear Expressions. p.7


Bailey D.  Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. Ashbourne: Moorland, 1980.

Baily, J., & Driver, P. (1992). Spatio-motor thinking in playing folk blues guitar. The world of music, 34(3), 57-71.

Baily, J. (1977). Movement patterns in playing the Herati dutar. The anthropology of the body, 15, 275-330.

Balistreri, D. A. (1995). Intuition and fretboard intimacy: approaching improvisation on the guitar.

Berard, M. (1998). Production and evaluation of a self-instructional method for teaching jazz guitar (Doctoral dissertation, Concordia University).

Dean, J. (2014). Pat Metheny’s Finger Routes: the role of muscle memory in guitar Improvisation. Jazz Perspectives, 8(1), 45-71.

Degner, S., Lehmann, A. C., & Gruber, H. (2003). Expert learning in the domain of jazz guitar music. In Proceedings of the 5th Triennial ESCOM Conference (pp. 384-388).

Demasi, V. (2012). Vernon Reid’s Abstract Fretboard Logic. Guitar Player, 46 (8): 102

Leavitt, William. A Modern Method for Guitar 2. Berklee Press,  – 

Martino, Pat. (1989). Linear Expressions. REH Books.

Matone, R. (2005). An integral concept for jazz guitar improvisation. (Unpublished M. Mus. thesis). Rutgers College, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

McFadden, J. J. (2010). Fretboard Harmony for University Study: Method and Historical Context (Doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto).

McLaughlin, J. M. (1982). A visual process for deriving single note patterns from melody chord forms on the guitar. (Unpublished M.Mus. thesis). Dusquene University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Scott, A. (2003). ” I See the Fretboard in Diagrams”: An Examination of the Improvisatory Style of Herbert Lawrence” Sonny” Greenwich1. Intersections, 24(1), 62.

Tedesco, T. L. (1998). A jazz guitar manual for intermediate level. (Unpublished M.Mus. thesis). California State University, California.

Zhang, J. (1997). The nature of external representations in problem solving. Cognitive science, 21(2), 179-217.

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