The guitar is a formidable instrument and many people can get a nice sound out of it, no doubt about it. However, when you can see the notes on the fretboard your guitar skills and awareness will sky rocket. If you can’t find notes quickly and you’d like to then I invite you to read on.
I’ll say this from the very beginning, this post will not be much help to you unless you know about the Chromatic scale. If you want to learn about that or need a refresher check out my post Music’s DNA: The Chromatic Scale. At the end of this post I’ll give some tips to learn the fretboard quickly.
Let’s dive straight into this one.
Have a quick look at the C Chromatic scale below.
We’ll call the notes in the circles the natural notes.
Between the natural notes are the in-between notes.
Each in-between note can have two names, even though it is the same sound and is in the same location on the guitar. Note: There is no in-between note between B and C and E and F, more on that shortly.
The distance between any two neighbouring notes of the chromatic scale is called a semitone. This is the smallest distance between any two notes in music. So, there is a semitone between C#(C sharp) and D, or F and Gb(G flat).
But what’s really important is that you recognise that there’s a naturally occurring semitone between E and F, and also B and C. This is one of those things that’s weird about music.
As we go further down the road you’ll find there are exceptions…but for now, try and just accept that between the notes E and F and B and C there’s one semitone.
One Fret Equals One Semitone
On the guitar, moving from one fret to the very next fret is the distance of one semitone.
If you move from an open string, which means a string without any fingers on the fretboard and then move to the first fret, you have also moved the distance of one semitone.
Just to be clear: If you move from an open string to the first fret or from any fret to a neighbouring fret on either side, you have moved the distance of one semitone.
So, all you need to know is the names of the individual strings and then you can work from there. Once you’ve got that and know the order of the notes in the chromatic scale you’ll have the tools you need to find any note.
Putting It To Work
From the thickest to thinnest the strings are named as follows:
E A D G B E
A common saying to help remember this is Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears.
Let’s start with the open E (thickest) string. If we pluck this string it will create the sound that we call E.
If we now play the first fret on that same string we’ll have moved up the chromatic scale by one semitone. Therefore the note in the 1st fret of the E string is F, because there is a naturally occurring semitone between these two notes.
What if we went up one more fret? What note would that be? All you need to do is ask yourself what is the note a semitone higher than F? The answer is F# or Gb. As mentioned some notes can have two different names.
As you can probably tell, knowing the Chromatic scale really well puts you in a good position to work out the notes on the fretboard.
Let’s try this another way. Let’s use the B string. What note would be in the 1st fret of that string? Answer: C, because C is a semitone above B.
What would be the name of the note in the 2nd fret on the D string?
Answer: E, because we have traveled from the open D, then past the 1st fret which is D# or Eb and landed in the 2nd fret, being E. (By the way, this is the distance of a “tone”, which is the equivalent of two semitones. This means a tone is the distance of 2 frets on the guitar.)
So, to make this clearer, let’s look at all the notes on a single string. Let’s use the A String. When you see it like this, you should be able to see that every note from the open A string right up to the 12th fret is exactly like the A Chromatic scale. From the 12th fret, the sequence begins again…
Take a Deep Breath
Ok, I hope you’re ready for this. Here is the fretboard with all the notes labelled up to the 15th fret.
Wow… that looks pretty crazy! Notice that at the 12th fret, all the string names start again? That is because the Chromatic is a repeating pattern. From the 12th fret the sequence begins again. Also, notice that between every E and F, and B and C there is no sharp or flat?
Strategies For Mastering This…
To learn this quickly I would suggest you start out by trying to locate the natural notes. By that I mean any note that is not sharp or flat. These will become beacons for you. Once you know these, it’s heaps easier to work out the notes in between.
Another thing you can do is select a random note from the Chromatic scale and try and find it once or twice on every string. Let’s try this with the note…G.
By doing this, it’s now pretty clear where you could find all the G#’s / Ab’s and Gb’s / F#’s – because they’re in the frets either side of all the G notes.
To really drill this home you could either use this free website to practice this. Check out: http://www.musictheory.net/exercises/fretboard
Or if you want to do this with an app, I would highly recommend Tenuto, it’s not free, but it’s not expensive and it’s really good for this and trains so many different concepts. With it, you could be mastering the fretboard while you’re taking the train to work or waiting in line at the supermarket, or on a lunch break.
I realise that written down, this can look a bit like some sort of algebra lesson, but the ability to name every note on the fretboard is a very important! It might take a while to be able to name them instinctively, but if you can at least work them out slowly, you are definitely moving forward as a guitarist!
If you found this post helpful, I’d really appreciate it if you could share it with other like minded souls who seek to become more than just a guitarist (or pianist, or Drummer…).
How well do you know the guitar fretboard? Can you name any given note on the fretboard quickly? I’d love to hear from you. Please comment below!