If you asked me to name the single most common problem among guitar students, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.
After all, I see it every day in my own studio. I also struggled with the same issue myself for a number of years. And if the conversations on the online forums are any indication, it’s the same problem that guitarists seem to have the world over:
Guitar players, as a rule, don’t know the notes on the guitar!
This is virtually unheard of on most other instruments, but there’s a good reason why mastering the fretboard is so frustrating for guitarists: It’s extremely complex.
The complexity lies in the layout. And the number of frets. And the tuning of the strings. And the multiple ways you can accomplish the same thing. And the layout. And the…well, you get the idea.
If you’re having trouble navigating the notes on your guitar – if you look at the neck and see a blur of random frets – you are not alone! As a matter of fact, it’s a rarity when I encounter guitar students who can confidently name any note on sight, even when they have some years of playing behind them.
Here’s the cold, hard truth: you will NEVER reach your full potential as a guitarist without being able to unlock the mysteries of the fretboard. But the good news is, the fretboard holds no real “mysteries”. There are strategies to simplifying it and shortcuts we can use. These strategies must be applied consistently, however, to achieve the desired results. And I’m here to tell you that the desired result – fretboard mastery – is a beautiful and empowering thing indeed.
In Part 1 of this series, we’ll review some fundamental concepts and practice naming the notes along the individual strings. We’ll also address why strings 6 and 5 are the best places to start. Let’s get after it, rock and rollers!
Basic Knowledge – The Musical Alphabet
We’re talking about learning notes here, right? Well, if you’re not completely comfortable reciting the musical alphabet, and the accidentals within it, you’re already at a disadvantage.
1 – The musical alphabet is comprised of the natural notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
2 – The distance between these natural notes is measured in half-steps and whole steps. A half-step distance is equal to one fret, up or down the neck. A whole step distance is equal to two frets.
3 – The note combinations B/C and E/F are always a half-step apart (one fret) on the fretboard. All other note combinations are a whole step apart (two frets).
The following graphic shows the natural notes on string 6:
4 – Any note combination that is a whole step apart (for example, F at fret 1 and G at fret 3) would have a note sitting “in between” their respective positions on the fretboard. This in-between note (at fret 2) is named using an accidental, which is the general term for sharps and flats.
5 – Sharps raise a note by a half-step, while flats lower a note by a half-step.
6 – Since accidentals reside in between the natural notes, all of them can be called either by a sharp name or a flat name. For example, the note in between F and G can be called F# (since it is a half-step higher than F) and it can also be called Gb (since it is a half-step lower than G). The term enharmonic equivalent is used to describe the same note called by two different names.
The natural notes plus sharps:
The natural notes plus flats:
You’ll also need to memorize the names of the open strings. Again, this is super-basic, but lots of guitarists fail to commit to this and still can’t name the strings after months of lessons. Don’t be that cat. Learn the open strings:
6 = E (low)
5 = A
4 = D
3 = G
2 = B
1 = E (high)
A fun and common mnemonic device for remembering the open strings from 6th to 1st is “Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good-Bye Eddie”.
That’s all the theory you need to know to get started on mastering the fretboard, but you absolutely need to know that much. No excuses – just get it done once and for all. If you want some more details, check out The Only Theory Lesson You’ll Ever Need, Part 1.
Six Strings = Six Pianos
The simplest method for learning notes is to learn them along each individual string. Notice I said “simple”, not “easy”. It’s simple because it’s very straightforward. We can just use our knowledge of the musical alphabet to plot out the notes from the open string up to the 12th fret.
For example, open string 5 is called A. Following our musical alphabet concept of natural notes and accidentals, string 5 with sharps would look like this:
We can also view it with natural notes plus flats:
This kind of linear approach is similar to the piano, where all the notes are in a line. So the six guitar strings can be viewed as six pianos, each with its own starting note (the open string). String 4 would, of course, start on D and progress through the notes from there. String 3 would start from G, etc.
Strings 6 and 5 Rule
My strongest recommendation here is to learn strings 6 and 5 first, since these notes will serve as the root notes of your moveable chord shapes – power chords and barre chords – and will also be the starting point for learning octave notes on strings 4, 3, 2 and 1 (which we’ll explore in Part 2 of the series). Stick with the natural notes first; when you have a firm grasp of both strings, you can add in the accidentals:
A helpful hint when learning notes on strings 6 and 5 is that, from fret 3 to fret 12, all the notes lie at the same fret numbers. Take another look at the graphic; you’ve got notes on both strings on the odd numbered frets 3, 5 and 7, and also on the even numbered frets 8, 10 and 12. The junction of frets 7 and 8 is particularly noteworthy, since it is a natural half-step (B/C and E/F) on each string.
The only difference between the two strings lies in the first few frets. String 6 is open E, so the next note must be a half-step higher on fret 1 (F). Contrast that with string 5, open A, which must move a whole step to B on fret 2. After that, all the remaining notes sit at the same fret locations to complete their respective octaves.
Final point: The fret marker locations should be used to help you memorize and visualize the fretboard. That’s why they’re there, so use ‘em! Fret markers traditionally fall at 3, 5 and 7, which nicely matches your natural notes. But after that, you have to make the mental adjustment that your remaining notes fall on either side (frets 8 and 10) of the single marker at fret 9. Finally, the octave of the open string is always found at fret 12, traditionally given a double marker.
Designate one string per week (or per day, if you’re feeling especially frisky and have the practice time available) and own that string. Own it.
1 – Learn all of the natural notes first. Say ‘em as you play ‘em.
2 – Add in the accidentals. Make sure to say them with both sharp and flat names (enharmonic equivalents).
3 – Learn the string ascending and descending. Most folks have more difficulty saying the notes in descending fashion.
4 – Randomly fret a note and say it to yourself.
5 – Randomly say a note and find it on the string.
This practice routine is simple but effective, and, if you really commit to it, will pay huge dividends. In the next installment, we’ll plot out notes all over the fretboard using octave strategies. Things just get more involved from here, folks, so make sure the material presented here in Part 1 is rock solid.
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