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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

Arguing Over Fretboard Diagrams

Sometimes knowledgeable musicians can get into heated and sometimes acrimonious debates over music theory minutia. These arguments are akin to the famous, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" - which was a reductio ad absurdum challenge to the ridiculous bickering among medieval theologians.

In modern usage, the term has lost its theological context and is used as a metaphor for wasting time debating topics of no practical value, or questions whose answers hold no intellectual consequence, while more urgent concerns accumulate.

The following may fall into that category, and if so, I apologize. However, speaking as one of those "knowledgeable musicians," it is sometimes difficult to see where the line should be drawn.

This blog post is triggered by a comment made on a FaceBook thread several months ago that concerned a guitar lesson I was promoting, The 5th-Finger Principle. (The following exchange is paraphrased; I'm going by memory.)

Paraphrasing the comment;

  • "This lesson is very interesting but some of the intervals in the fretboard diagrams (which look very good, by the way) are wrong."

This comment/thread was on one of the FaceBook guitar groups that has hundreds of thousands of members. I post, promote my website and participate in many of these forums.

So this comment that my fretboard diagrams were "wrong" was exposed to a potentially huge audience. Therefore I felt I should respond. Many times a situation like this can be turned into marketing gold - people observe how I respond, their curiosity is piqued and they wind up checking out my website - and sign up!

It was obvious to me that the guy wasn't trolling - he was very knowledgeable; I asked him to explain, exactly, how my fretboard diagrams were "wrong."

He offered to discuss the issue via private messaging but since he had used the word "wrong" publicly, I wanted to defend myself publicly. I also wanted the exchange to be public because of the marketing potential. I suspected that I already knew what his issue was (I was right) but, you never know. I told him in all sincerity I was certainly open to correction if, indeed, I was "wrong."

Here is the diagram we focused on:

He asked, "What are the intervals from the root of a C-7(b5) chord?

I could have answered, "Root, flat-3, flat-5, flat-7" - but I didn't, because I didn't want to give him ammunition for what I assumed his issue was.

I said, "Root, minor 3rd, diminished 5th, minor 7th."

"Right" he said (ignoring or missing the implication in my answer). "Why would you not indicate those intervals in the fretboard diagram?"

In other words, he wanted to see this:

He said, "Those intervals are indicated in the name of the chord - Cmi7(b5) - so why shouldn't they be indicated in the fretboard diagram?"

I said, "Precisely because they are indicated in the name of the chord."

"Furthermore" I said, "we don't speak that way. When I ask, 'What's the 5th of a Cmi7(b5) chord,' the answer is, 'Gb.' The 5 in my fretboard diagram is a Gb. The operative phrase is, of the chord."

The "flat-5" in the above diagram (the diagram my opponent wanted to see) is a flat-5 in relation to a Cmaj7, not in relation to a Cmi7(b5). That is actually a disjunct between the chord name at the top of the diagram and the intervals given in the diagram.

If I put a b5 in the diagram, I'm saying that the note is a flatted 5th of a Cmi7(b5) chord which is G-double-flat, or F. That's wrong. Again, the operative phrase is, OF THE CHORD. The chord is given in the name, Cmi7(b5). The note indicated in the diagram is Gb, which IS the 5th (namely, a diminished 5th) of that chord.

I want my fretboard diagrams to correspond to how we speak.

Further-furthermore: the scale/mode that corresponds to a Cmi7(b5) chord is C Locrian. Here is a C Locrian mode:

Question: What's the 5th degree of the C Locrian mode?

Answer: Gb.

Gb is the 5th of the C Locrian mode...Just like Gb is the 5th of a Cmi7(b5) chord.

That's why I don't put "b5" in the diagram. The Gb is the 5th OF THE CHORD - not the flat 5 OF THE CHORD.

He then argued that a less-musically-educated student might look at my diagram and conclude that Cmi7(b5) had a major 3rd, natural 5 and a major 7 in it because the flatting of those notes was not indicated in the fretboard intervals.

True - I suppose that could happen, in spite of the fact that the chord name is telling the student otherwise. So this less-musically-educated student is ignoring or doesn't understand the chord name.

But if I created the fretboard diagram the way my opponent wanted, it could just as easily happen that a slightly-more-musically-educated student might conclude I was flatting the flat 5 that is indicated by the chord name.

At that point one of the folks "listening in" on the conversation made a snarky comment to the effect that he felt sorry for the folks who took lessons from me.

I pointed out that MY students know what a Cmi7(b5) is; that it has a minor 3rd, a diminished 5th and a minor 7th, just like the name at the top of the fretboard diagram says. And that the intervals given on the fretboard diagram are relative to THAT. In fact, if MY student has advanced to the point where he's dealing with a Cmi7(b5) chord, he doesn't need fretboard diagrams at all - he knows the neck and can spell.

The next argument was "Why then do you indicate "#11" or "b9" in the fretboard diagrams when it is given in the chord name? You're not being consistent."

Good question - in a way it is inconsistent. My reasoning is this;

Notes derived from the 2nd octave - 9ths, 11ths, 13ths - I indicate as altered in the fretboard diagrams because many times the alteration changes; the #11 resolves upward to a 5th or a #9 resolves downward to a b9 for example, but the fundamental chord - the notes derived from the 1st octave - doesn't change.

Very rarely does a chord symbol in a fake sheet change every time an upper extension tone is altered. A lot of times the chord will say "C7" over a bar when in fact there is a #9 and then a b9 in the melody, which suggests adding the corresponding extended alterations to the chord. My fretboard diagrams can accommodate that.

At that point the guy said something like, "Well, I can see that you're not going to change so I'm not going to waste any more of my time - we just disagree."

Ok, no problem; I respect your knowledge and opinion, and thanks for engaging - end of discussion.

A 3rd party then chimed in. He was trying to be a peacemaker, I suspect. His argument was basically an appeal to common usage.

He said that even though my way is just as good, maybe even better than what's in common usage, I should consider changing the way I'm doing things because that's the way everybody else does it. It would make it more relevant and less vulnerable to misinterpretation to a broader demographic.

I've never been too concerned about "common usage." I've created all my content myself, including my own templates for fretboard diagrams, from scratch. I wanted my fretboard diagrams to look distinct - different from anything out there. I did that by not looking at what's out there. Even my opponent in this debate acknowledged that they looked "very good."

Nevertheless, I took this argument under serious consideration.

Since I had never concerned myself with how "everybody else" did it, I googled something like "fretboard chord diagrams." The overwhelming majority of fretboard diagrams I found had no intervals indicated at all - they just had the chord names, fingerings and black dots:

I found a couple of images - out of thousands - that had intervals indicated the way my opponent was suggesting. So "common usage" is what you see above. I consider "common usage" deficient when compared to both my way and my opponent's way. I would take my opponent's way over "common usage" any day. He was knowledgeably attempting to communicate the theory behind chord construction - as am I.

I found no one doing it my way. Touché. However, appeal to social proof is not compelling to me.

The whole debate was completely beside the point of the blog that triggered it;

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?


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Jul 16, 2019

Sounds like a fun debate... I had noticed that in most cases online diagrams will include the alterations on the chord chart or scale pattern, but have never had a hard time understanding that it’s just a different way of conceptualizing things. These discrepancies are always found when different disciplines or methodologies are compared. In some addiction recovery circles, there is no such thing as a “trigger” that causes an addict to use. The argument is that the circumstance doesn’t matter; an addict can be compelled to use under any possible emotional state or circumstance that one can think of. In psychology, the idea of avoiding triggers is actually stressed because the view is that negative states can lead the…

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