Guitar Fretboard Notes | Complete Tutorial
All you need to learn the fretboard: strings, frets, notes and geometry (+ pdf and app)
We guitar players are one of a kind musicians. Often, we never bother to learn the notes of the guitar fretboard, but we keep relying on fixed chord shapes and scales patterns. Saxophonists, pianists and other musicians usually do they homework and perfectly know where the notes are on the instrument. This makes them able to apply music theory, sight reading , and being more complete musicians. And why we guitarists should not do the same? In this page, you're going to learn how and why to learn all fretboard notes. It will be easy and fun, and, above all, rewarding.
Guitar fretboard map shown from the same point of view of the guitar player. Click to zoom
The picture above shows you the notes of the fretboard. At first sight, it seems just a big mess: many frets, sharps, flats. If you need help deciphering this map, for now just know that in the diagram the thickest string (E) is at the bottom of the image, and the guitar headstock is on the left. Basically, the diagram is created with the same point of view of a guitar player playing his/her axe. Now we're going to learn some strategies that simplify all this stuff
There are some rules that we can exploit in order to simplify the learning of the fretboard. We'll take this with baby-steps, so feel you free to jump to the sections ahead if you already familiar.
In the beginning, you should memorize at least 6 notes: the names of the open strings! You should memorize the name and the order of the strings. This will be useful for learning other things. Indeed, often in tutorials and videos, you'll encounter instructions like "place your finger on the 2nd fret of the 6th string". So, the names of the open strings are the following :
- 1st string - E (the thinnest, highest pitch)
- 2nd string - B
- 3rd string - G
- 4th string - D
- 5th string - A
- 6th string - E (the thickest, lowest pitch)
We can use a mnemonic trick to help us memorize open strings names. By using a phrase in which the first letter of each word corresponds to the name of a string, our life will be easier. In the examples below, the names of the strings are ordered from the thickest to the thinnest (E A D G B E):
- Eat All Day Get Big Easy
- Every Amateur Does Get Better Eventually
- Eddie Ate Dynamite Good Bye Eddie
- Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears
It's perfectly fine to create phrases in the opposite order: from the thinnest string (1st) to the thickest (6th), E B G D A E. Choose what works better for you!
- Easter Bunny Gets Drunk After Easter
- Every Boy Gets Dizzy Around Elle
For a more effective memorization, you should create your own phrases; here's one of my phrases, with italian words: Emozionanti Avventure Dove Grandi Barche Esplodono. If you come up with something cool, please share it in the comments below!
Probably you already noticed that actually there are 2 strings with note E: the lowest (6th) and the highest (1st). These strings, also called external strings (because they are at the upper and lower border of the fretboard) have different pitches, but their note names are the same. So actually we just have to memorize the notes of 5 strings!
The notes on the 6th (thickest) string are the same of the 1st (thinnest) string! Click to zoom
So far we've considered open strings only. Now it's time to think horizontally and put our attention on frets. Here are some facts about the frets of the guitar neck:
On chord diagrams, tabs and other kind of guitar music notation, if you find a fret numbered with 0, that means that you should play the string open, without pressing any fret
Here's the reason: in music, there are in total 12 notes, the natural notes: C D E F G A B and the sharp/flats notes (we'll get to this later in this article) C#/Db D#/Eb F#/Gb G#/Ab A#/Bb
So, if you start from C and go up one note after the other, after 12 steps will get again to the C:
C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab. A A#/Bb B C
The same happens with guitar frets, if you start from any fret, after 12 steps (or frets) you'll get to the same note.
Let's take as a example the E lowest string, shown in the picture below. The notes of the first 11 frets (0-11) are the same of the 12-22 frets:
The notes of the frets from 0 to 11 are the same of the frets from 12 to 22 (depending on the model, a guitar can have 20-24 frets) Click to zoom
To help you grasp better this concept, here's a different angle: a guitar has 2 equal fingerboards of 12 frets each, one placed next to the other.
Even if on certain brands fretboard inlays are fancy and sometimes really beautiful, they are also useful for finding your way on the neck. You can exploit them as landmarks for fretboard navigation. On most of the guitars, these rules apply:
- An inlay is applied at the 3rd fret
- An inlay is applied at the 5th fret
- An inlay is applied at the 7th fret
- An inlay is applied at the 9th fret
- A double inlay (or other symbol) is applied at the 12th fret
- The same pattern is repeated on the frets above the 12th (inlays on frets 15, 17, 19, 21 and double inlays on 24)
Ok, so far we have learned that actually, we need to learn the notes of only 12 * 5 = 60 frets (because the first 12 frets are the same of the next 12, and the 1st and the 6th strings have the same notes). But there are many other things that can help us master the fretboard. We're going to take a look in depth at the geometry of the fretboard in the next sections:
Now things are going to get interesting. 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 the following, we'll learn how the fretboard really works.
I make you a promise: if you want to really understand the guitar fretboard theory, 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 better and better. During your solos, you'll find automatically the notes that your mind and your heart suggest. Long story made short, you'll play music, not guitar.
If you have ever felt yourself like trapped in fixed scale patterns and chord 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 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.
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.
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. As said before, the standard tuning of the guitar, starting from the thickest string to the thinner, is E A D G B E.
- 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)
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 minute.
Guitar standard tuning
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 (or semitone). 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 notice:
- 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 = 1 semitone
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 visualize better the steps and half-steps structure:
C major scale on the second (B) string
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 (b): lowers 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 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
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.
6th string octaves, option 1: 2 strings up (toward the thinnest), 2 frets higher
6th string octaves, option 2: 3 strings up (toward the thinnest), 3 frets lower
6th string octaves, option 3: the 1st string (the thinnest) has the same notes of the 6th (the thickest), 2 octaves up
5th string octaves, option 1: 2 strings up (toward the thinnest), 2 frets higher
5th string octaves, option 2: 3 strings up (toward the thinnest), 2 frets lower
4th string octaves, option 1: 2 strings up (toward the thinnest), 3 frets higher
4th string octaves, option 2: 3 strings up (toward the thinnest), 2 frets lower
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
C note octaves
For the sake of information completeness, it's worth it to show you the frequency of the fretboard notes. Probably in your musical career you'll need this stuff rarely, but it's a good thing to know anyway. A pitch is measured in Hertz, each fret has its own pitch. A well-known frequency is 440 Hertz, that is 2 octaves up the pitch of the A open string, 110 Hertz. The Diapason, also called Tuning Fork, a device for tuning the guitar, oscillates at 440 Hertz.
- 1st open string: E 329.63 Hertz
- 2nd open string: B 246.94 Hertz
- 3rd open string: G 196.00 Hertz
- 4th open string: D 146.83 Hertz
- 5th open string: A 110.00 Hertz
- 6th open string: E 82.41Hertz
Now you should have an idea on how the fretboard works, its geometry and strings relationship. Here at FaChords we have created two more resources to help you master the guitar fretboard, so be sure to check them out as I'm sure they will help you a lot:
This free pdf shows you the fretboard notes maps for the most common tonalities. Instead of overwhelming you with a diagram full of notes without any relationship, it shows you only the notes that belong to a given key. This allows a step-by-step approach that results in a easier learning. Download the free guitar notes pdf chart
We are a little proud of this tool because is used by thousands of guitar players on a daily basis. It's a free browser game that you can use online, without installing anything. It helps you memorize all the fretboard notes quickly while having fun. Launch the fretboard trainer now.
Ok, in this tutorial we have covered a lot of ground. Now you should have a good knowledge of the guitar fretboard. Take your time to internalize these concepts, practice the fretboard trainer game at least 10 minutes a day, and in no time you'll find yourself flying effortlessly up and down the neck. If you have any doubts or question, just ask in the comments below, and please share your feedback.
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