In this first article of our series on guitar theory today we’re going to learn the notes of the guitar’s fretboard and explain how this relates to scales and chords.
Guitar Notes and Basic Music Theory
Navigating the notes of your guitar’s fretboard isn’t difficult if you know the order of the notes.
For example, F comes directly after E on the fretboard. With this in mind, anywhere we find 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 navigate the notes of the fretboard, which over time will lead to memorization of the fretboard. The first step to achieving this is to learn ‘the chromatic scale’, a simple scale that anyone can quickly learn containing all the notes used in Western music.
The Chromatic Scale
The frequency (e.g. pitch) of a note is measured in Hertz (Hz). Hertz indicates the number of vibrations or completed soundwaves per second. Simply put the higher the frequency the higher the pitch.
The human ear can hear sound anywhere between 20 and 20,000Hz. This is broken down into 10 octaves, with each octave consisting of the notes found in the chromatic scale above. Interestingly, the human ear recognizes the same notes in higher or lower octaves as they are harmonically related. This is how the brain interprets sound.
Western music consists of 12 individual notes within an octave. What this really means is our musical system is built on the basis that an octave is divided into 12 specific pitches. This is referred to as 12-tone equal temperament and is the musical system used in the Western world.
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. The scale then repeats, as indicated by the inclusion of two fret markers at the 12th fret on most guitars. This is why guitar fretboard charts usually only show 12 frets.
The scale below is a chromatic scale starting on note A.
If the scale began on B the order of notes would be as follows.
It can be helpful to consider the order of notes as circular, with the starting note being found at 12 o’clock.
While the chromatic scale is technically a scale it is unlike other scales as it contains all available notes, and isn’t particularly useful for composing music.
How Many Notes on A Guitar?
It depends on how many frets the guitar has. Many acoustic guitars feature 20 frets, so 20 X 6 (strings) = 120 notes, meaning each note of the Chromatic scale is repeated ten times across the neck. As many electric guitars feature 21+ frets the number is greater.
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 only 7 letters from A through to G, there must be additional notes. These are known as accidentals aka sharps (♯) or flats (♭).
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 ‘natural notes’.
As you can see in the example scale above, the first scale includes notes marked with a ♯ (sharp). The scale below however includes notes marked with a b (flat) in the same place the sharps were found in the previous example.
Sharps and flats are known as enharmonic notes, meaning they can be either sharp or flat yet are musically equivalent.
E.g. A♯ is equal to B.
So to recap.
If we raise the pitch of the A in our example chromatic scale by one fret on the guitar we would raise the pitch to either an A♯ or B♭ as both are of equal value, however generally when ascending up a scale we use sharps and when descending we use flats.
Why are there only five sharps/flats?
The best way to explain why there are no sharps or flats between B and C or E and F is due to the development of our current musical system and how it has evolved over time. Scales were first created from the 7 natural notes: a, b, c, d, e, f, g. Because, over time a 12-tone system was developed, a 7-note scale is unable to be distributed evenly within this system. Essentially if all the natural notes had an accidental between them this would result in 14 notes.
For the record, almost all musical systems work much the same way, but how the octave is divided is the main point of difference between different cultures with regard to music. While our system isn’t perfect if you consider a piano keyboard and the way the keys are laid out. If there was a black key for every white key it would be difficult for the pianist to orientate with where they are on the keyboard.
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.
How many octaves are on the guitar?
Guitars with 24 frets (mostly electric guitars) span four octaves. Alternatively, acoustic guitars usually have 20 frets, so span 3 octaves, and 8 notes from the next highest octave. Classical guitars have 19 frets, so the fretboard covers 3 octaves and 7 notes from the next highest octave.
You can test this yourself by plucking the lowest note on your guitar, the open 6th string E, and then finding E in the next highest octave, and so on until you run out of frets.
Scientific Pitch Notation
As there are 10 octaves within the range of human hearing (20Hz – 1200Hz) it can be confusing when referring to notes within a specific octave.
Scientific pitch notation uses numbers to identify the different octaves. For example, the 6th string low E on your guitar is actually named E2, meaning it is within the 2nd octave.
Likewise, the middle C on the piano is referred to as C4.
Where is Middle C on the guitar?
Middle C serves as somewhat of a “home base” for learning the piano, as such it’s an important reference note.
On the guitar, C4 can be found 5 times across a guitar’s fretboard, with the exception of a 19-fret classical guitar. The diagram below shows three C4 (middle C) notes within the first 12 frets of the guitar, compared to a standard piano keyboard.
Notice, that despite the piano having 7 octaves, compared to 4 the guitar fretboard has more multiple instances of C4 while the piano does not.
*Keep in mind, that the 6th string of your guitar is tuned to E2.
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 half 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, much like an octave 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. F – G is known as a full step or a whole tone.
We’ve already discussed octaves and whole and halftones, which are intervals that represent the ‘musical distance’ between two notes. However, there are intervals to represent the distance between every possible note combination, 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 as this article is specific to the guitar, 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 are useful for developing an understanding of the guitar fretboard and the relationship between notes in scales and chords especially. They also help develop your ear with regard to identifying chords and notes.
When notes are played sequentially this interval is known as a melodic interval. If played at the same time e.g. as part of a chord, it is known as a harmonic interval.
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.
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, and 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, G, B, D, and F 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.
Learn the Notes of the 6th string (E)
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 (the thickest 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 (root 6).
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.
Learn the Notes of the 5th String (A)
Just as learning the notes of the 6th string will help you find the root notes of chords anchored on the 6th string, knowing the notes of the 5th string will help identify root 5 barre chords (chords where the root note is found on the 5th string).
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 (the first 12 frets) 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.
Unison notes – 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.
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, referred to as an octave pattern. 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.
Learn your open chords
If you already know your open position major chords (guitar chords played within 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 handy 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 basic chords e.g. triads can also be particularly useful.
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.
Learn your first position guitar notes
Learning your first position guitar notes e.g. the notes of the first four frets of the guitar is useful for navigating the fretboard along with becoming more familiar with the notes that make up chords, as we touched on earlier. This will become even more useful as you advance and begin playing 7th and extended 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 ideas listed above are just examples that I have found useful over the years. The idea behind the 5 ideas 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 the fretboard 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.
Which notes are the most important to learn first?
In most cases, the notes of the low E and A string, as most moveable chord shapes will be rooted to either the 5th or 6th strings. If you know the notes found on these two strings, you can quickly identify chords.
What is standard tuning?
Standard tuning refers to how a guitar is normally tuned (E, A, D, G, B, and E). There are however other ways to tune a guitar known as alternate tunings. The most common are open tunings when the individual strings are tuned to a chord. For example, when tuning to open A all strings are tuned to either A, C#, or E the notes that make up an A Major chord.
What’s the best way to memorize the Chromatic Scale?
One useful method of memorizing the Chromatic scale is by remembering there are no accidentals (sharps or flats) between B and C and E and F. All remaining notes have accidentals between them.
Guitar Notes Summary
Why Learn the Fretboard?
Learning the notes on your guitar’s fretboard, while not essential 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 far easier to locate scales, build chords and utilize alternative chord voicings.
But secondly, and perhaps the most important aspect is ‘musical communication’.
Put simply, if you want to communicate effectively with other musicians fretboard knowledge and understanding the language of music is a must. If you understand the guitar and how the fretboard is laid out, it becomes much easier to work out songs or anticipate and appreciate which notes, scales and chords work well together and which do not.
The good news is, while music theory sounds complicated, the 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 requiring you to learn 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.