In the first article of a series on learning guitar music theory we’re going to explore the notes found on each guitar fret and how this relates to scales and chords.
Learning the notes of the guitar’s fretboard
Basic music theory
Learning the notes of your guitar’s fretboard isn’t difficult if you understand the order the notes are assembled on your guitar’s fretboard.
For example, if we know that the F always comes directly after the E we know that anywhere we find an E on the fretboard, 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 can learn the order the notes are assembled on the guitar’s fretboard, we can then work out the notes of the fretboard.
To do this, requires a very basic understanding of music theory. And while, the concept of music theory tends to send many guitarists running for the hills, it really doesn’t need to be complicated at all and will help you, not only as a guitarist but also as a musician.
The first step in learning the notes of the guitar fretboard is learning ‘the chromatic scale’, a simple scale, anyone can quickly learn consisting of all of the notes found 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.The notes in the chromatic scale are assembled in alphabetical order, making it simple for us to remember.
Western instruments such as the acoustic guitar, along with all orchestral instruments are tuned to twelve-tone equal temperament, meaning the octave is divided into 12 parts.
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 after the 12th fret.
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 is an E note when played as an open string. The first fret is an F note as it is one note higher.
The first note of any scale is known as the ‘tonic’, but is also commonly referred to as the root note and the scale takes its name from this note. For example the scale below is the A chromatic scale.
If the scale began on the B note it would be known as the B chromatic scale, as shown below.
It can be helpful to consider scales as circular, with the root 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 G chromatic scale, likewise with the F.
When we reach the final note of the scale, the scale repeats.
In the G chromatic scale example above the scale starts on the G and goes through all notes of the chromatic scale until it reaches the F#/Gb note which is the 12th note of the scale. This would also be the 12th fret of the guitar on the G string (3rd string). From here it repeats the G note again at exactly double the pitch of the starting G note. This is known as an octave.
Semitones (Half and Full steps) & Intervals
When we move up in pitch 1 note e.g. F to F# we are raising the pitch of the note by one half step or semitone. The distance between any two notes is known as an interval.
On the guitar’s fretboard a semitone is the 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.
Intervals, like scales and chords have specific names that represent the ‘musical distance’ between the two 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 a harmonic intervals.
|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, 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.
Sharps and Flats
As you can see in the example scale shown above, the first scale includes notes marked with a # (sharp). As you may have guessed a sharp is exactly one semitone (or fret on the guitar) higher in pitch.
The scale above includes notes marked with a b (flat) where the sharps where found on the previous example.
In actual fact, sharps and flats are the pitch, they are the same note. E.g. A# is equal to Bb in much the same way that 6 is the same as half a dozen.
Sharp and flat notes are known as ‘accidentals’, all other notes e.g. A, B, C, D, E, F, and G are known as ‘natural notes’.
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 by one semitone, giving us either an A# or Bb note. (A# is one semitone higher A, Bb is one semitone lower than B).
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 online 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 are 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. In any case, using a pattern 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. 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 verbalising something you are trying to commit to memory greatly enhances the ability for 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
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.
Hack no. 5: Learn your open chords
If you already know the 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 from the root note of the major scale (this also applies for minor chords and the minor scale). This can be a handy hack and it also helps you better understand harmonic intervals and identify different chord voicings.
Hack no. 6: Learn the notes one fret position at a time
If you focus on all of the notes available at the first fret, there’s obviously just the 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’s 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 utilise different chord voicings.
But secondly, and perhaps the most important aspect is ‘musical communication’.
Put simply, if you want to communicate effectively with the people you play music with, learning the language is a must.
Secondly, if you understand the guitar and how the fretboard is laid out, it becomes much easier to work out sections of songs or 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.