No matter how many strings or frets your guitar has, it has the same 12 repeating notes as every other musical instrument. Just twelve notes separated by a musical interval called a half-step.
But if it’s really that simple, then why is memorizing the fretboard so difficult?
The strings of a guitar are tuned to allow easy access to chords and scales. One of the compromises of this arrangement is that each string is essentially its own instrument.
This might leave you wondering if it’s worth the trouble to memorize the fretboard. The answer is yes.
Everything about the guitar is easier if you know what notes you’re playing. You can mindlessly strum simple chords and scale patterns for many years.
But as soon as you want to understand complex harmony and advanced soloing, you’ll be completely adrift.
- What Are the 12 Notes?
- Finding the Notes on the Fretboard
What Are the 12 Notes?
A piano keyboard lays out these 12 notes in a linear pattern. There are seven natural notes (white keys) and five sharp/flat notes (black keys). The natural notes are represented by the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.
The sharp/flat notes can have different names depending on the key signature of the music you’re playing. For example, the note between C and D can be either a C# or a Db.
Every “C” on the keyboard looks identical. Once you know that every “C” sits to the left of two black keys, all you have to do is learn the other 11 notes in the same fashion.Learning the notes on a piano is much simpler than on guitar.
Notice that the musical alphabet does not have a sharp/flat between E and F or between B and C. This disrupts many of the patterns we might otherwise find on a guitar.
Just like each key on the piano, each fret on a guitar string represents one half-step. Instead of one visual pattern like the piano, the guitar offers five different visual patterns.
Each of the 12 possible notes appear on each string exactly once between the open string and the 11th fret. The pattern starts over at the 12th fret.
Finding the Notes on the Fretboard
Below are five exercises to help you start memorizing the fretboard.
If you’re just starting out, I would recommend practicing this exercise up to the 11th fret. That way each note only appears once on each string.
If you’re playing an acoustic guitar, you may not have access to the higher frets. Electric guitars have between 21 and 24 frets.
Exercise 1: Process of Elimination
One of the simplest—also the slowest—ways to find your way around the fretboard is to use a method we’ll call process of elimination.
If you know the names of the open strings, you also know the notes at the 12th fret. They’re the same notes an octave apart. Easy enough.
We can use these notes as guideposts. For instance, if you want to find A on the G string, you can count up two half-steps (or two frets) from the open string.
Another approach would involve reciting the musical alphabet to yourself and notice where your target note lives in relation to the open-string note.
Let’s say you want to find B note on the D string. The alphabet goes: A, B, C, D. There is a whole step (two frets) between C and D, and a half-step between B and C (one fret). If B is three frets below D, that would place it at the 9th fret.
This method of locating notes gets easier if we add another guidepost. Most guitarists learn to tune the instrument using the notes at the 5th fret, and the 4th fret on the G string, as reference pitches.
If we put those “tuning” notes on the diagram, we can find a particular note faster. For instance, on the low-E string, is the target note above or below E? Is it above or below A?
A few tips for finding the right note:
- The note one fret above B is always C.
- The note one fret above E is always F.
- Every other pair of natural notes has a sharp/flat between them
Exercise 2: Find Your Roots
What if you already know the notes on the fifth and sixth strings? After all, those are used for the root notes of the most common chords.
Learning to visually identify duplicate notes and octaves will make learning the fretboard go a lot faster.
The following diagrams offer three different shapes for visualizing octaves all over the fretboard. For demonstration purposes we will only look at C notes on the fretboard.
These patterns will apply to all of the different notes. While the diagrams stop at the 12th fret, the same patterns can be found in the higher register of the neck.
The first pattern starts on the familiar C at the 3rd fret. You can reach the C an octave higher in two different locations: the 5th fret of the G string and again at the 1st fret of the B string.
Pay close attention to the number of frets and strings between the two notes.
This pattern begins with the C at the 8th fret of the low-E string. Unlike the first pattern, this covers two octaves instead of one. The first octave is found at the 5th fret of the G string. The second is at the 8th fret of the high-E string.
The third pattern covers the same notes as the previous pattern, except the middle note is played in a different location. This may seem repetitive, but it’s incredibly useful when you begin learning scales and arpeggios all over the neck.
Exercise 3: One-Note Drills
This exercise works best with a metronome. Pick any one of the 12 chromatic notes. Set the metronome to something slow like 50 or 60 beats per minute.
Starting on the 6th string (low E), play your chosen note in every location of that string. Play on the beat. Adjust the metronome if it’s too fast or too slow.
Once you’ve played every instance of that note, pick a different note and go through the process again until you have covered all 12.
You can go through the notes chromatically (A, A#, B, C, etc.) or using the Circle of Fifths (covered in more detail below).
Exercise 4: Circle of Fifths
This exercise requires some knowledge of music theory. If you don’t know the circle of fifths, it could make your brains fall out. I’ve taken the liberty of simplifying the circle to only include the necessary information.
Starting on the high-E string, play the notes in the circle starting at C and proceeding counter-clockwise (to the left). This is slightly easier than going clockwise because it spells the word “bead” twice. The first BEAD is all flats. The second BEAD is all natural notes.
In case you’re not used to reading the circle of fifths, the order of notes is the following: C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, D, F#, B, E, A, D, G.
Once you’ve played all 12 notes, start again on the B string. Repeat this process until you have played all six strings.
Exercise 5: Say Your Scales
This last approach is a little more advanced. It assumes you are already practicing scales all over the neck and know how to figure out which notes you’re playing without too much delay.
When you are practicing a scale, make a habit to say the note names as you play them on the guitar.
If you’re working on major scales, start on C major and work through each key in the circle of fifths. Even a technically advanced player who is not used to thinking about note names will find this to be like mental gymnastics.
But if this is too hard, don’t worry about it. Focus on the other exercises in this article and come back to this one when you’re ready.
There is no easy way to learn the notes on the fretboard. You have to put in the work. Once you learn this fundamental skill, the possibilities of the fretboard begin to open up.
You will start seeing connections between chords and melodies. Your ability to figure out parts by ear will improve drastically because you will no longer rely on shapes and patterns.
Above all, you will be on your way to becoming a musician instead of someone who knows how to play a few chords.