There comes a point when every beginning guitar player will come to a crossroads of sorts in regard to developing their playing skills. Sure, it’s easy to learn how to play songs by reading chord charts and guitar tablature. And – truthfully – for some players that’s more than good enough.
Others may want to explore all that playing guitar has to offer and further develop their skills to an advanced level. One of the best ways to kick start that into high gear is to learn all of the notes on the fretboard. Knowing what notes you are playing is a large part of having a greater understanding of overall music theory and moving up to the next phases in your playing career.
What may seem like a daunting task really can be made much easier, thanks to a few tips and tricks.
The Guitar Fretboard
Before we get into what we can do to make learning the notes on the fretboard go a lot more smoothly, we need to take a look at a complete guitar fretboard diagram, as shown below:
One thing to point out are the notes that seem to have two names for them. You’ll notice that each one has a note with a sharp (#) and one with a flat (b). This is because these notes are ‘in between’ notes that are identified with just one letter.
For example, look at the note on the fifth fret of the A string – it’s a D. Go two frets up to the seventh fret and you have an E. So what about the note in the middle? It depends on the context and point of view. If you take the E note and lower it one fret, you have an Eb. At the same time, if you take the D note and raise it one fret you have a D#. Same note, same string, same location. The point is that both names mean the same note.
One thing to notice here is that there are two cases where there isn’t any ‘in between’ note. Looking at the diagram above you’ll see they go right from B to C and from E to F. Why? No clue – it’s just how traditional music theory is laid out.
Tip #1: Consider the Chromatic Scale
The ‘Chromatic Scale’ in traditional Western music theory is simply every one of the 12 available notes. Starting with a C note the scale is spelled out as follows:
C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb – E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab – A – A#/Bb – B – C
The pattern will repeat itself over and over no matter what note you start on and each note is one fret apart.
So how does that translate to helping to learn the fretboard?
Pick a note – any note. Let’s say you play the note on the third fret of the low E string. According to the chart, that’s a G. So what would the note on the sixth fret be? If you know the chromatic scale, you’ll know that three notes up from a G is an A#/Bb. Since each note is one fret apart, it’s simple – the note on the sixth fret on the low E string is A#/Bb. It really is that simple and it’s just a memorization technique!
Tip #2: Know How to Find an Octave
An ‘octave’ is a note that has the same letter name as another note, but the difference is that the pitch is higher (or lower, depending on where you start). For example, play and open D string. Now play the note on the twelfth fret of the D string. Looking at our fretboard diagram, you’ll see that both of them are D notes – it’s just that the one on the twelfth fret has a higher pitch.
How does this help? Let’s say that you know that the note which is four frets up from the open D string is an F#/Gb. The key is that the same pattern is true no matter what D note on the fretboard which you have started from. There also is a D note on the third fret of the B string. Guess what the note is when you play four frets up to the seventh fret? You guessed it – it’s an F#/Gb as well!
Take a look at the charts below – they show exactly where you can find octave notes all across the fretboard:
Tip #3: Don’t Bite Off Too Much
Taking it one small step at a time when memorizing guitar fretboard notes can keep things from getting overwhelming. Don’t put pressure on yourself! What many guitarists will do is focus on memorizing the notes on the low E and A strings to start with.
Why? Because many of the chords that you will play (particularly barre chords) have their root note on one of those two strings. Once you have it firmly in your head that, for example, the note on the eighth fret of the low E string is a C note, you’ll know where to play the right fingering for a C chord. The same is true for the note on the third fret of the A string – that’s a C note too, in case you were wondering!
From there it’s a matter of expanding your pattern knowledge. Here’s an eye opener – once you have the notes memorized on the low E, take a look at the high E. Notice anything? The note names for the corresponding frets are the same – but they are two octaves higher!
Wrapping it all up…
As you can see, much of learning the fretboard involves memorizing some simple patterns. It sounds much more challenging than it really is and with a little time you’ll know your way around like a pro! The best tip we can give overall is to not let yourself get overwhelmed. Take your time, don’t rush things and make sure that you really understand a concept or a particular pattern before you move on to something bigger.
Learning the notes on the fretboard is the key to playing at a higher skill level. Any effort you put into it will be time well-spent and your playing will do nothing but get better and better as your knowledge grows.