Learning the notes on the guitar fretboard can feel like a daunting task, but it’s vitally important. Without knowing the notes, you face a very difficult challenge in further understanding music theory and opening yourself up as a guitar player. It’s not the most fun task, but in this lesson I’ll give you a few different avenues that will help make this process a little smoother.
The Musical Alphabet
Before we can learn the notes on the fretboard, we need to know what the notes are. In music, there are 7 letters for naming notes.
The notes above are known as natural notes because they are in their natural form, or without accidentals (ie. sharps and flats). Accidentals raise (#) or lower (♭) a note by a semitone, or half-step.
With the addition of accidentals, there are 12 total notes:
Between each note is a semitone. Going from A to A#/B♭ constitutes a semitone and going from A to B is two semitones. You’ll notice B and E don’t contain sharps. This is because there is only one semitone between these notes and the next natural. You’ll also hear the term step to describe the distance between two pitches. One whole step is equal to two semitones, whereas a half step is equal to one semitone.
B to C = 1 semitone
E to F = 1 semitone
C to C# = 1 semitone
C to D = 2 semitones
On the fretboard, 1 semitone = 1 fret (half step), 2 semitones = 2 frets (1 whole step).
Let’s take a look at how these notes are applied to the fretboard.
Open notes and the fretboard octave
Now that you know what notes are available in music, let’s apply them to the fretboard. The open string notes in standard tuning are as follows:
1st String = e (thinnest)
2nd String = B
3rd String = G
4th String = D
5th String = A
6th String = E (thickest)
The guitar is set up in two octaves. Since we know there are 12 notes on the guitar, we can count up 12 frets and find the same notes as the open strings, starting the second octave on the guitar.
This means all of the notes that occur between frets 1 and 12 also occur after the 12th fret in the same order.
Guitar notes by string
Let’s run through all of the guitar notes by string to see how the notes on the fretboard are laid out.
The 6th string starts with E. You’ll notice that when you move up each fret, the pitch increases by 1 semitone, from open E to F to F#. Note that anywhere you see a sharp (F# for instance), that note can also be written as the flat of the note just above it (G♭). Likewise, where you see a flat (B♭), that note can be written as the sharp below it (A#).
You’ll also notice that when you reach G#, the next pitch starts over at A.
Once you reach the 12th fret you have the octave note, which is the same note as the open string at a higher pitch.
The natural notes on the 6th string occur on frets 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, and 12.
The notes on the 5th string start with A in the open position. The natural notes occur on frets 2, 3, 5, 7, 10 and 12.
D is the open note on the 4th string and the naturals occur on frets 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 12.
The 3rd string starts with G in the open position. The natural notes are found on frets 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 12.
The 2nd string starts with B in the open position and the natural notes occur on frets 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, and 12.
The notes of the first string are exactly the same as the notes on the 6th string, only 2 octaves higher.
Tuning notes on the guitar
When going through the notes on the guitar string by string, you may have noticed that in all but one instance, the 5th fret on one string has the same note as the open note on the string below it.
This because the guitar is tuned in 4ths, with the exception of the 2nd string (B), which is tuned a 3rd higher than the 4th string. It’s common practice to use these notes to tune the guitar, particularly when a tuner isn’t available.
Exercises to learn the notes on the guitar fretboard
The following exercises will help you learn the notes on the guitar fretboard in a short amount of time. I recommend learning the notes by string, starting with the natural notes.
1: Learn the naturals
Start by learning the natural notes on each string. Naturals are notes like G, A C, D…notes that don’t contain sharps/flats. I’ve found multiple exposures to the notes work better than a single longer duration session, so I recommend the following:
- 3 x 3 minute sessions followed by a 1 minute “rest” interval for each string. Do this 2x per day. Start by learning one string on day 1, the second string on day 2, etc. It doesn’t matter which string you start with, but keep in mind the 1st/6th strings are the same notes. With that said, I’ve read on many occasions that since these strings are the same notes you only have to learn one or the other. Technically this is true, but it comes back to context. If you only learn one or the other you’ll tend to use the one you learned as a frame of reference for figuring out the notes of the other. I recommend learning both. Besides, a little more exposure will never hurt anything.
2: Add the sharps/flats
Once you get the hang of the natural notes, use the same routine to go through only the sharps/flats. Once you have those down, go through all the notes string by string using the same routine.
3: Note Groupings
We find it easier to remember chunks of information as opposed to individual pieces, so an effective method for learning the fretboard notes is taking groups of notes and learning them across the fretboard.
4: Find single notes across all strings
Start with any note, A for instance, and find that note across all strings. Since we’re only working with the first 12 frets, there will be one instance of each note for each string (not including the open notes).
5: Octave shapes
Some people find it helpful to use octave shapes to learn the notes. Octave shapes are common shapes between a note and its octave.
It makes more sense when you see it, so take a look at the diagram below for the common octave shapes used to help learn the notes on the guitar.
To find the octave on the 5th and 6th strings, you count over two strings and up two frets. Because the tuning of the B string is a 3rd and not a 4th like the rest, the octave shape changes on the 3rd and 4th strings. To find the octave notes on those strings, you count over two strings and up three frets.
6: Make it fun with a metronome
Once you’re famliar with all of the notes on the fretboard, you can make this process a little more fun with the use of a metronome. Start off by setting the metronome to a slow tempo, say 70bpm. For each click of the metronome, finger a note on the fretboard and call out its name. To make it more challenging (and beneficial), avoid fingering two notes on the same string consecutively. Once you’re able to perform the exercise at given tempo, increase the metronome by 5bpm.
Becoming fluent with the notes on the guitar fretboard takes time, but the payoff is worth the effort. Be consistent with your practice and keep dedicating a little time each practice session for note review and you’ll master the notes on the fretboard. To keep from getting rusty, I recommend keeping a few minutes in your routine for note review. Knowing the notes on the guitar fretboard can be a little like math, if you don’t use it you just may lose it.