In this first article of a series on learning guitar music theory today, we’re going to learn the notes found on the guitar’s fretboard and how this relates to scales and chords.
Learning the notes of the guitar’s fretboard
Basic guitar music theory
Learning the notes of your guitar’s fretboard isn’t difficult if you understand the order that the notes are assembled in.
For example, if we know that the F always comes directly after the E on the fretboard then we know that anywhere we find an E, the next fret higher will be an F regardless of the string or position we are playing on the neck.
This is exactly the same if the two notes were A and A♯ or B and C.
If we learn the order the notes are assembled on the guitar’s fretboard, we can then work out the notes of the fretboard. The first step is learning ‘the chromatic scale’, a simple scale that anyone can quickly learn containing all the notes used in western music.
The Chromatic Scale
Western music consists of 12 individual notes. When the notes are assembled in order from lowest to highest they form the chromatic scale or 12-tone scale.
Western instruments such as the acoustic guitar, along with all orchestral instruments are tuned to twelve-tone equal temperament. The guitar’s fretboard for example is laid out as a 12 tone scale consisting of 12 frets, before the scale repeats. This is why most guitar fretboard charts only show 12 frets, as the notes repeat at the 12th fret, as the first note is the open string.
The only difference between the notes found on each string of the guitar is the starting position of the chromatic scale e.g. the low E string, as the name implies, produces an E when played as an open string. The first fret, therefore, is an F note as it is one note higher, followed by F♯ and so on.
For example, the scale below is a chromatic scale starting on note A.
If the scale began on the B the order of notes would be as follows.
The chromatic scale is important. As it contains all notes used in western music it means all scales are derived from the chromatic scale and because of this it can help to think of it as the master scale.
It can be helpful to consider the order of notes as circular, with the starting note being found at 12 o’clock. In the example below if we rotate the first circle clockwise so that the G is at 12 o’clock we now have a chromatic scale starting on G, likewise with the F.
While the chromatic scale is technically a scale it is unlike other scales. For example, in all other scales the first note of the scale is the tonic of the scale, sometimes referred to as root note which defines the key, although this is more technically correct when discussing chords. However, as the chromatic scale includes all notes found in western music it isn’t in a particular key.
Sharps and Flats
Remembering the order of notes from A through to G is a relatively simple task. However as there are 12 notes in the chromatic scale and we only have 7 letters from A through to G, there must be additional notes. These are known as accidentals and are named as either sharp (♯) or flat (b).
Remembering which notes are separated by accidentals and which are not is key to learning the notes of the fretboard. All other notes e.g. A, B, C, D, E, F, and G are known as ‘natural notes’.
As you can see in the example scale shown above, the first scale includes notes marked with a ♯ (sharp). The scale below however includes notes marked with a b (flat) where the sharps were found on the previous example. Sharps and flats are known as enharmonic notes, meaning they can be either sharp or flat and are musically equivalent but are named differently.
E.g. A♯ is equal to B♭ in much the same way that 6 is the same as half a dozen.
So to recap.
If we raise the pitch of the A note in our example chromatic scale by one fret on the guitar we would raise the pitch of the A note to either an A♯ or B♭ note as both are of equal value, however generally when ascending up a scale we use sharps and when descending we use flats.
As we now know, when we reach the final note of the scale, the scale repeats.
On the guitar’s fretboard, this means the open string (1st string E in the example below) is the same note as the 12th fret (E). The distance between the two notes is an octave.
Semitones (Half and Full steps)
When we move up in pitch 1 note e.g. F to F♯ we are raising the pitch of the note by a half step or semitone. Both names represent the same musical distance between notes with falf and whole steps being used predominantly in American English and tones and semitones being more often used in British English.
The distance between notes is referred to as an interval, which we’ll discuss in more detail shortly as they are a very important component of music. On the guitar’s fretboard, a semitone is an interval between two adjacent frets.
On a piano, it would simply be the interval between two keys.
Moving up two notes e.g. A – A♯ (B♭) is known as a full step or a whole tone.
We’ve already discussed octaves and whole and halftones, which are intervals and represent the ‘musical distance’ between two notes. There are intervals to represent the distance between every possible combination of notes, which I have listed below.
*There is also an interval name given to notes of the same value ‘unison’, because two notes can be played in different positions on the guitar neck, for example, a 5th fret 6th string A and the open A 5th string below it.
|Distance Between Frets/Notes||Interval|
Keep in mind while we are referencing the ‘musical distance’ between frets in the chart above for simplicity, intervals actually refer to the ‘musical distance’ between notes. With this in mind, a minor second for example can either be 1 fret apart on the guitar fretboard or 13 apart as after 12 frets, as the chromatic scale repeats.
Intervals can be useful in developing an understanding of the guitar fretboard and the relationship between notes in scales and chords. They also help develop your ear training with regard to identifying chords and notes. When the notes are played separately they are known as melodic intervals. If played at the same time e.g. as part of a chord, they are known as harmonic intervals.
While learning the correct order of notes is key to learning the guitar fretboard, there are some useful hacks I’ve either been shown or discovered over the years that will help you develop those reference points for notes we discussed earlier in this article.
Hack no. 1: Learn your Open Strings
The first place to start when it comes to learning all notes on the guitar is the open strings. From the lowest to the highest the notes are E, A, D, G, B, E.
Students often use naming conventions to learn musical notes e.g. the notes found on the lines of a standard musical staff are E, B, G, D, A, E which can be used as follows:
If applying this logic to the guitar strings we have the following:
You may prefer to come up with something more memorable for your own requirements e.g. The Easter Bunny Gets Drunk at Easter, or Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie. In any case, using an acronym in this way can be a good way to quickly retain the notes of the guitar neck.
Hack no. 2: Learn your Natural Notes
Focusing on the natural notes found on the fretboard can be a good starting point as it is obvious that any missing notes are flats or sharps of the adjacent note, with the exception of the B and C and E and F.
Trying to learn 72 notes is difficult, but limiting this to 48 notes reduces the notes to learn significantly. It can also help to say the notes you are playing as you play them. Studies demonstrate that writing or verbalizing something you are trying to commit to memory greatly enhances the ability of the human brain to retain information.
Hack no. 3: Learn to locate the same notes on different strings
Whatever note you are playing, the same note is available on the next highest string 5 frets lower down the neck than your current position. With the exception of the B string which is 4 frets lower due to being tuned differently to make chord and scale transitions more convenient. In the example above we are using the E as an example, but obviously this theory holds true for all notes of the chromatic scale.
Hack no. 4: Learn the Low E String first
We guitarists tend to be in a rush when it comes to learning new things. If you can build a foundation by focusing on just the notes of the low E string first, you can then apply the same logic to the high E string as the notes on both the high and low E string are exactly the same. Learning the notes of the low E string first is also very useful when learning barre chords as these will be the root note of the chord being played.
From there you can use the notes as reference notes. For example, moving to the note two frets higher and two strings down from the reference note is equal to the same note on all strings with the exception of the B string which is tuned to a different interval than the remaining 5 strings.
Hack no. 5: The Octave Triangle
Once you are familiar with the concept of octaves and have learned the notes of your low E string you can begin to employ the ‘octave triangle‘ as a method of locating the same notes in different positions on the fretboard.
For example, as we learned above, the fifth fret of the low E string is A. And, as we have also covered, moving up the neck two frets and playing the D string results in the same note, just an octave higher. As the high E string is the same as the low E string you should now have three of the same notes available within a convenient triangle shape.
Hack no. 6: Learn your open chords
If you already know your open position major chords (chords played in the first four frets) you may not be aware that major chords consist of the first, third, and fifth note (scale degrees) from the root note of the major scale.
This can be a handy hack with regard to learning the notes of the fretboard, and it also helps you better understand harmonic intervals and identify different chord voicings.
While a full explanation of scales is beyond the scope of this article, once you have learned the notes of the fretboard, learning how scales are constructed and how this then relates to the construction of chords can also be particularly useful. It’s simpler than most people realize and I’ve written a complete guide here taking into account the scales most relevant to guitarists and how these apply to chords.
Hack no. 7: Learn the notes one fret position at a time
If you focus on all of the notes available at the first fret, there are obviously just 6 notes to learn. Focusing on 1 fret per day, for example, is a good way of breaking the larger task of learning the notes of your fretboard into more manageable tasks.
It’s also the case that if you are learning guitar, focusing on the first fret and then following up with the second, third, etc. will allow you to focus on the sections of the neck where you will mostly be playing. For example, if new to guitar, you are more than likely starting with your open position major chords. if you are also focusing on learning the notes of the first 1-4 frets, for example, practicing your chords will also help you familiarise yourself with the notes found on just these frets and help commit the notes of the first four frets to memory.
There are clearly many different ways to approach learning the notes of the fretboard, the five listed above are just examples that I have found useful over the years. The idea behind the 5 hacks listed above is to prevent you from counting the frets when trying to establish the note you are playing.
For example, after learning the chromatic scale and the fundamentals of the guitar neck e.g. how it is laid out it can become difficult to break out of the rut of counting your frets. While this is effective and will allow you to, albeit slowly work out where you are on the neck at all times, knowing the notes from memory will allow you to work much faster on the guitar.
Summary – Why Learn the Notes of your Fretboard?
Learning the notes on your guitar’s fretboard, while not an essential skill for learning guitar will aid you greatly in your progress as a guitarist. Put simply, if you know where everything is, you are going to find it considerably easier to work out scales, build chords and utilize different chord voicings.
But secondly, and perhaps the most important aspect is ‘musical communication’.
Put simply, if you want to communicate effectively with other musicians learning the language is a must. If you understand the guitar and how the fretboard is laid out, it becomes much easier to work out sections of songs, or anticipate sections of songs and understand which notes, scales and chords work well together and which do not.
And the good news is, while it sounds complicated, the essential basics really aren’t all that complex. Knowing the notes on your guitar’s fretboard, understanding the purpose of scales, and how chords are built will provide you a solid foundation in music theory without learning how to sight-read music or understand the more technical aspects. In our next article of this series, we’ll be taking a closer look at scales. Stay tuned.