Understanding the guitar fretboard | Part 1

Fretboard memorization and geometry step-by-step guide

In this series of articles I'm going to explain thoroughly how the guitar fretboard works. I decided to write these articles because learning the fretboard is crucial and too many guitar players don't take time to understand the neck layout. So have a seat, grab a cup of coffee and prepare to be amazed on how the fretboard geometry is so well conceived. Also, be sure to download the free guitar notes map pdf reference

guitar fretboard natural notes

Once Andres Segovia, the famous virtuoso Spanish classical guitarist, said "The guitar is the easiest instrument to play, and the hardest to play well". True story. Even if you're a complete beginner, you could memorize a pair of chord shapes, strum the strings a bit, and you can tell yourself that you're "playing the guitar". But you can't say anything about the notes that compose the chords you're playing, or how to introduce variations in what you're playing. In this series of articles on how the fretboard works, you'll learn all these things.

Learning the fretboard opens up a new world of possibilities

I make you a promise: if you want to really understand how the fretboard works, and you are ready to commit yourself in studying and learning a bit of music theory and its relationship with the neck geometry, you'll be rewarded with the ability to play your guitar better and better. During your solos, you'll find automatically the notes that your mind and your heart suggest, without being trapped in rigid scale shapes. Long story made short, you'll play music, not guitar (if you ever felt yourself like prisoner of patterns, boxes and shapes, you know what I mean).

Ok, now you have understood that, in order to become a complete musician, you need to learn the fretboard, but why it seems so difficult at first? Well, the main problem with your guitar neck is that, unlike the piano keyboard in which the frets are disposed horizontally one after the other, on the guitar there are different places in which to find the same note.

piano C major scale

Piano keyboard layout: there is only 1 path, 1 option for playing the C major scale from C lowest to C one octave (7 white frets) higher

For example, suppose you want to play a C major scale that starts from the 3rd frets of the fifth string (A string). We all know (at least we should) that the C major scale is composed of C, D, E, F, G, A, B notes. Have a look at the image below: clearly you have different paths. You could skip string soon after the C and play the D note on the fourth string (D), or you could stay on the fifth string, playing the D on the fifth string.

c major scale on fretboard Guitar fretboard layout: there exist different paths for playing the same scale
(option 1: yellow path, option 2: red path)

From a beginner perspective, having too many options makes things complicated. On the other hand, for those who master the fretboard, the nature of the guitar layout enhances the expressive and musical possibilities. But don't worry, you'll see some strategies useful to tame the fretboard complexity.

Seeing the fretboard strings as 6 piano keyboards

One good mental trick useful to understand the fretboard, is to consider every string like a distinct piano keyboard, that starts from the respective note. The standard tuning of the guitar, starting from the thickest string to the thinner, is E A D G B E (if you need a mnemonic device to remember strings names, memorize these sentences: "Every Adult Dog Growls Barks Eats" or "Eddie Ate Dynamite Good Bye Eddie")

  • The sixth string (and its related piano keyboard) starts with the E note
  • The fifth string (and its related piano keyboard) starts with the A note
  • The fourth string (and its related piano keyboard) starts with the D note
  • The third string (and its related piano keyboard) starts with the G note
  • The second string (and its related piano keyboard) starts with the B note
  • The first string (and its related piano keyboard) starts with the E note (2 octaves, 14 white keys higher than the lowest E string)

Fretboard strings relationship and guitar standard tuning

Given the piano keyboard - strings analogy, it's easier to explain the standard guitar tuning. First of all, we need to have at least the E lowest string tuned with the aid of a tuner device. This give us a standard reference coherent with other musicians. Then we can tune the other strings using the previous string as a reference.

We said that the fifth string has to be an A note.
So we play the A note on the sixth string, that is located at the 5th fret, and we tune the fifth open string until it sounds like the 5th fret of the sixth fret.
We do the same with the other strings (see the diagram below).
The fourth open string has to have the same pitch of the 5th fret of the fifth string,
the third open string has to have the same pitch of the 5th fret of the fourth string, and so forth.
Just notice the small difference at the third string (G string), on which you must play the 4th fret (instead of the 5th) to tune the first string. We'll see why later.
In this past article you'll find a video that explains how to tune your guitar, skip the video at 9:30 minutes.

C major scale on B string guitar fretboard

Guitar standard tuning

What about the black keys? (half-steps and whole steps)

Not it's time to talk about a bit (just a bit) music theory. In western music, the minimum distance between two notes is called half-step. A distance of 2 half-steps is called whole step. On the piano keyboard, the distance between the keys (white or black) is 1 half-step. If we look again at the piano keyboard, we can see that there is a black key between each pair of white keys, except for the space between the B and C keys, and the E and F keys.
So here's the first important thing to highlight:

  • - Between C and D there is 1 whole-step (2 half-steps)
  • - Between D and E there is 1 whole-step (2 half-steps)
  • - Between E and F there is 1 half-steps
  • - Between F and G there is 1 whole-step (2 half-steps)
  • - Between G and A there is 1 whole-step (2 half-steps)
  • - Between A and B there is 1 whole-step (2 half-steps)
  • - Between B and C there is 1 half-steps

Thus,the structure of the Major Scale is composed of 2 whole steps (C-D-E), 1 half-step (E-F), 3 whole steps (F-G-A-B) and 1 half-step (B-C). On the guitar fretboard, we have not black or white keys, but we have frets.

1 fret = 1 half-step

Let's look at the C Major Scale on the guitar fretboard. As previously said before, we have different options for playing a given scale. This time, for visualization convenience, I've chosen to start from the first fret of the B string, that is a C, and play the scale horizontally on the same string, in order to better visualize the steps and half-steps structure:

C major scale on B string guitar fretboard

C major scale on the second (B) string

Sharps and flats and neck frets

In music theory, there are two symbols that, when applied to a note, change its pitch and its name. They are called sharps and flats:

flat (♭): lower a note by 1 half-step

sharp (♯): raises a note by 1 half-step

For example, a D flat is a D note lowered by 1 half-step, while a C sharp is a C note raised by 1 half-step. D flat and C sharp have different names, but they have the same pitch. On the guitar fretboard, they are placed on the same fret! You'll learn why the same fret can have different names in future lessons, technically this topic is called "enharmonics", but don't worry for now.

Let's now introduce the chromatic scale, a scale composed of 12 half-steps required for going from a note to the same note 1 octave above. The C chromatic scale is the following:

C - C#/Db - D - D#/Eb - E - F - F#/Gb - G - G#/Ab - A - A#/Bb - B - C

C major scale on B string guitar fretboard

C chromatic scale on the second (B) string

Playing the chromatic scale on the guitar fretboard is straightforward because you only have to play one fret after the other. Notice that between the lowest C and the higher C there are 12 frets, or 12 half-steps

Your first reference : fretboard octaves

Beginners guitars players usually memorize only the notes on the sixth and fifth strings, because they have learned bar chords shapes and they need to find the root note of the chords. Starting from this knowledge, it's possible to exploit the fretboard geometry to find notes on the other strings. In the following diagrams I'll show you the so called octave shapes: starting from a given notes, you can find the same note on the higher strings, 1 or 2 octaves above. This is a great visual aid that helps you find your notes quickly.

fretboard octave shapes

6th string octaves, option 1: 2 strings up (toward the thinnest), 2 frets higher

fretboard octave shapes

6th string octaves, option 2: 3 strings up (toward the thinnest), 3 frets lower

fretboard octave shapes

6th string octaves, option 3 2: the 1st string (the thinnest) has the same notes of the 6th (the thickest), 2 octaves up

fretboard octave shapes

5th string octaves, option 1: 2 strings up (toward the thinnest), 2 frets higher

fretboard octave shapes

5th string octaves, option 2: 3 strings up (toward the thinnest), 2 frets lower

fretboard octave shapes

4th string octaves, option 1: 2 strings up (toward the thinnest), 3 frets higher

fretboard octave shapes

4th string octaves, option 2: 3 strings up (toward the thinnest), 2 frets lower

fretboard octave shapes

3rd string octaves, option 1: 2 strings up (toward the thinnest), 3 frets higher

Here is a comprehensive diagram with the octaves linked together. Practice and memorize these geometric relationships, as they are an invaluable tool for navigating the fretboard effortlessly

fretboard octave shapes

C note octaves

End of the first part and useful links

We have seen how the fretboard layout works and the geometric relationships of the octaves, a great helper device for finding the notes very quickly. In the next part we will expand these concepts and we'll study intervals geometry and how to build chords with these intervals. Also check out the following links that will help you practicing your fretboard:

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About the author

fachords ceo Hi there! I'm Gianca, a guitar teacher and a software engineer from Italy. I originally created this site to be a tool for my students, and now it's available, for free, to anyone looking to get better at guitar. If it's your first time here, jump to the welcome page. To stay updated on new articles and lessons click here

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