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. There are 7 natural notes in music:
Along with the natural notes are sharps(#) and flats(♭), making 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.
Finding the Notes on the Guitar Fretboard
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)
Let’s run through the notes on the 6th string (E) to see how the notes are laid out. Note that the 1st string is also an E. The notes on both the 1st string E and 6th string E are exactly the same.
You’ll notice that when you move up each fret, the pitch increases by 1 semitone, from open E to F to F#. You’ll also notice that when you reach G#, the next pitch starts over at A. When you reach the 12th fret, notice the notes start over again at E. This is the octave note, which is the same note at a higher pitch. This is true for all notes at the 12th fret. They all are an octave higher than the open string note.
Ok, let’s learn the 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: 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 week (or even each day!) for note review and you’ll master the notes on the fretboard.