Memorizing the fretboard

Patty, I came to the uke with good music notation sight reading skills (from years of piano and harp playing). When I decided I wanted to play more than just chords on my ukulele, I decided to learn where the notes were located on the fretboard. Two things helped me with that process - (a) understanding that every fret represented a half-step or semi-tone, and (b) playing scales. I knew that the open 3rd string was C, so if I fretted the C string at the first fret, I now had C# (or Db). The second fret on the C string would be D, on so on. Using that knowledge, I was able to find and play each note of the C scale. Rather than playing the scale up and down the C string (which would be less efficient when playing a tune, and would also reduce the sustain for each note), I took advantage of the open strings. When I got to the E note, I moved from the C string to the E string. When I came to the A note, I moved to the A string. Over and over, I practiced the C scale an octave up and then back down. I then tried playing simple melodies that only used notes in that octave. After that, I figured out the notes I needed to play the C scale two octaves up and down. And then worked on tunes that included notes in both octaves. Then it was rinse and repeat for the G and D scales, and playing tunes in those keys, so that I could become familiar with the F# and C# locations. Continuing to practice the scales over and over really helped. Some people find that saying the name of the note out loud while playing it also helps to reinforce the knowledge.

Early on, I realized there was more than one location on the fretboard for many of the notes. But I waited quite a while before attempting to figure out where those alternate locations were up the neck. Once I was ready, I starting looking for them, and then began incorporating them into my scale practice. As I became more familiar with various small groupings of notes higher up the neck, I tried using some of those notes when playing a tune, especially when it was physically more efficient to do so. Over time, using those higher up notes became more natural.

It’s a process, for sure. But one that is well worth the effort. I do play from tablature as well, but the majority of the fingerstyle music in my uke repertoire is in standard notation. A lot of the melodies came from my piano, harp, and hammered dulcimer music collections - which don’t exist in ukulele tablature. My musical world would be much, much smaller if I didn’t read music. :)

Wishing you the best of luck on your own journey, Patty!
Jan, thank you so much for this! It makes perfect sense and will help me a lot. I'm going to think of those flat/sharp frets as the black keys on the piano (which I played for many years). I wonder if anyone has ever thought of making a fretboard with black and white frets? (Just kidding--what a monstrosity that would be.)

I'm printing out your message so I can keep it nearby as I practice. I may even cheat a bit and put tiny bits of Post-It notes (the sticky parts) on the flat/sharp frets as a reminder. You're brilliant!

Edit: Jan, I see that the "Unlock Your Fingerboard" video EDW sent recommends much the same approach that you advised. You apparently found it for yourself!
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This may help

This is excellent, EDW! Thank you. His approach is much like the one Jan D advises elsewhere in this thread--you simply practice the C scale on each string (A minor in the case of the A string), eliminating the accidental notes, the flat/sharp frets. I think this approach will penetrate my bone-head!
So if you write out the G C E and A chromatic scales in rows, you have made a fretboard map for your ukulele.

No matter what the tuning, many stringed instruments have a chromatic scale along the 12 frets of the string. Thats why there are 12 frets.
This may sound bizarre, but I never before realized WHY THERE ARE 12 FRETS! Duh! Thank you, Bill 1. Excellent advice. There are so many geniuses on this forum! Such riches!
I have a lot of tricks for learning the fretboard quickly (and well), but if I tried to explain them in print, your eyes would just glaze over. If you want me to show you, we could set up a videochat session. (Start a private conversation with me if interested.)

First, I advise concentrating on just the natural notes; this way, you can at least "see" some patterns on a fretboard that is otherwise fairly undifferentiated.

Second, the biggest mistake I think people make is to think and practice vertically (up and down the neck) rather than horizontally, across the neck. When you need a note, you generally need to find it in a particular region of the neck—which string it's on is not your starting point, but rather one of the things you have to "find out". It's also a mistake to follow the alphabetic or chromatic sequence, because not only are such sequences too familiar, inviting your brain's attention to lapse, but you're having your brain concentrate on a lot of notes that are NOT the one you're after. Following an all-too-familiar serial sequence is the worst way to learn note positions individually.

Mnemonics have a similar drawback: they're handy when the note you want is one of the notes in the mnemonic (though you may still have to walk through the mnemonic to find the right string), but what if it's not? Then you have to figure out which note in the mnemonic is nearest the one you're after, and in which direction, and all this takes time and mental effort.

Third, there are two movable fretboard patterns that can help you quickly find the notes you want and alternative positions for them when your fretboard "knowledge" lapses. (For this purpose, you'd leverage off of your knowledge of the fretboard in first position, which I'm assuming you already know pretty well.) I also use these patterns for adapting to other fleas tunings, where I don't have desire to learn an entirely new fretboard. They're also invaluable for other common needs, such as remembering and following chord progressions and shifting chords up and down the fretboard.

The patterns are not substitutes for knowing all the fretboard positions directly, they just simplify finding the notes initially as you're learning or on those occasions when you temporarily lapse. There is no substitute for drilling yourself a few minutes each day until fretboard locations just seem second nature—and if you do this (and drill the right way), you'll get the fretboard down pat in a relatively short time.

Fourth, there are several visual patterns that the natural notes form on the fretboard that can be a great aid to memory. These patterns just shift for other tunings, so if you want to adapt to, say, Bb or bari G tuning, seeing where this patterns lie on those fretboards simplifies the transition.

For effective practice, it helps to have a random or pseudo-random source of note names. For instance, you can use a note name randomizing tool—several are available online, such as this one:
Or you can just use melodies in standard sheet music.

Pick a region of the fretboard and focus on finding those notes in just that chosen region. Any three-fret region contains eleven of the twelve chromatic notes, and the twelfth is just outside that region, below it on the 2nd string or above it on the 3rd—I call these the "outliers". Start with the lowest region you're unsure of and move progressively to higher regions, bumping up two or three frets at a time until you hit the 12th fret (where every thing you know on the lower fretboard begins to repeat, so you should essentially already know the fretboard from there up). To keep the natural notes in a three-fret region (without one mapping to the outliers), try these base frets: 3, 5, 7, 10—just like normal fret markers! Once you have "learned" the entire fretboard, at least in terms of the natural notes, then choose three-fret regions more randomly and practice finding all twelve pitches (by the full set of 21 names), For sharps and flats, this may force you to think of natural notes that neighbor but fall just outside of your chosen region, building a more cohesive vertical view of the fretboard even if the focus remains lateral/positional.

One consequence of limiting yourself to a three-fret region is that you won't short-change practice on the 3rd or 4th strings. When playing melodies in particular, there is a tendency to play everything on just the 1st and 2nd strings, shifting position (often unnecessarily) to keep the melody there.

Once you can find the natural notes almost immediately in any region of the fretboard, you can switch to playing the melodies with all notes in the proper octaves (if they don't fall outside the range of your instrument; if they do, you have little recourse but to octave-shift or otherwise "cheat"). When doing so, I advise that you change position only when absolutely necessary to get a note in the right octave. This will force you to play more across the fretboard, even if there may be better ways to shift or finger each passage (particularly once you start adding chords).

Unfortunately, in re-entrant tuning this approach won't force you to use the 4th string, because the 4th duplicates notes already available in the same position on the 1st and 2nd strings, so you'll have to intentionally distribute pitches to the 4th string. One way to force greater usage of the 4th string is to attempt to play successive notes on different strings as much as possible (a sort of pseudo-campanella style). Remember that this is just a game, for a particular practice objective, not a general recommendation on how to play melodies.
Wow, Ubulele! I’m staggered at the trouble you took to do this. It will help me tremendously, and any others who are following the thread. thank you!

I’ll take your advice, which a few others have also suggested—of starting with the natural notes and letting the others (like the black keys on a piano) get filled in later. Thanks for the offer to explain face-to-face, but I think I’ve got it.
In that case, look particularly at the naturals in the middle of the fretboard, with two solid frets and an empty fret in the middle. The lower fret is CFAD (sea[side] fad) and the upper is DGBE (DoG BonE—the same as "baritone" G tuning, and as the upper four strings of standard guitar tuning). Note also the little "squares" formed by half-steps B-C and E-F (Phil mentioned the half-steps in his video, but did not draw explicit attention to the squares). The square on the 4th and 3rd strings, 4th and 5th frets, is repeated three frets higher on the 2nd and 1st strings at the 7th and 8th frets. Note how the middle fretboard bars-and-squares cluster is rotationaly symmetric to itself in appearance. In fact, the entire natural note layout on the fretboard is rotationally symmetric around the centers of both the 6th and 12th frets.

Then note how the remaining natural notes form the same shapes on the upper and lower fretboards, rotationally symmetric to each other (i.e., if you rotate one cluster by 180 degress, you get the shape of the other cluster). In particular, you have a diamond of notes with a little "extension" to the other side (I think of this as a very short-staffed scepter), with one other position tucked into one corner—and thus by the law of half-steps Phil mentioned, the tucked-in note and its immediate neighbor on the same string map to B-C on the lower fretboard and E-F on the upper fretboard. The lower scepter is centered on the 2nd fret (and also repeats an octave higher, on the 14th fret), while its rotational counterpart is centered on the 10th fret—that is, two frets above and below the 12th fret (one of the rotational pivot points), where this rotational symmetry is easier to observe.

My mnemonic for the lower scepter is "ads fib" (A D sharp-F B), and for the upper one, "fudge" FuDG(e). F# falls between F and G, and it is thus the center of the natural-note diamond. The "u" in "FuDG" stands in for Bb, between A and B, and is the center of that natural-note diamond; the E of "fudge" is unused, despite being a valid pitch name—hey, works for me. Note that in the mnemonics for the solid and almost-solid bars, the note on the 1st string is the letter after the note on the 4th string:
nut: G C E A (Go CrEAm!—the dairymen's rally cry)
2: A D (F#) B (Ads fib)
5: C F A D (sea fad)
7: D G B E (DoG BonE)
10: F (Bb) D G (FuDG(e))

Anyway, this clustering and the relations between the clusters may help you visualize the fretboard better, and give your brain a bit more to latch onto as you associate specific names with specific fretboard locations.

I won't describe here the two movable patterns I referred to. Phil described essentially half of one pattern, but didn't pursue that line of thought fully: to identifying all four relations and how to chain them together, so you could start from any note on the fretboard and quickly jump to every other note of the same name.
You are truly amazing. Thank you.