Whenever I ask students what they want to improve on when it comes to their guitar playing, along with rhythm, strumming, chord changes and theory, the one thing that crops up a lot is they want to improve their ability to find and use the notes on the fretboard. Today you will learn how to get started on this.
Many guitar students play for years but have literally no idea what notes they are playing at any given time.
This is very common but pretty strange when you think about. It’s like being able to drive but not knowing what the gear stick is called.
Unless you are a Part-Time Strummer – someone who only wants to strum a couple of simple Beatles songs using the same strum pattern for everything, then I would advise you slowly start to get to grips with the notes on the fretboard.
It is one of the core areas that will help liberate your playing.
Even if you are a part time strummer I would advise you learn the fretboard anyway, as many more worlds and possibilities will open up to you. Learning the notes on the fretboard allows you to get to the point where most guitarists truly want to be – that of being a real musician, and not someone who can play the ‘odd tune’.
Taking Your First Steps in Learning the Fretboard
The first step to learning the notes on the fretboard is the most basic.
You must first know what all the notes in music are.
Many guitarists have no idea of the following…
- They don’t even know there are 12 notes in music
- They have no idea what a ‘sharp’ or a ‘flat’ is
- They are confused by the word ‘natural’
Let’s change and clear all that up so you can start to get a better understanding of what is happening whenever you listen, play or jam music.
A little understanding here will go a long way and will certainly give you the confidence and skills to start calling yourself a proper musician if you don’t already.
At the very least, if you learn what I’m going to show you today it will make you sound like a smarty-pants in front of your musical friends – especially the aforementioned part-time strummers.
“Why should I even learn the notes on the guitar?”
Good question, I’m glad you asked. Here are a few of the benefits of learning the fretboard.
Once you learn it you will:
- Be able to play any chord you know in every position of the fretboard as long as you know the notes in the chord
- Be able to translate anything you learn from one area of the fretboard to another to make it easier to play or give it a different tone
- Be able to sight-read standard notation (an under-appreciated skill)
- Be able to communicate with other musicians e.g. Kerry the keyboardist says, “Hey, Chuck, play us a D# note over this G minor chord, it will rock.”
- Gain more confidence and understanding of music as a whole e.g. you will know that every E note moved up a fret becomes an F – everywhere on the fretboard.
- Apply anything you have learnt from music theory and instantly be able to make it more practical (e.g. many guitarists are taught a C Major chord contains the notes of C, E, and G. You will then play a C Major chord and be able to spot these notes within the chord – making things clearer to you).
12 is the magic number
For today, we need to start off slowly.
The most essential thing to know is that there are 12 notes in music.
Yep, that is it.
These 12 notes cover everything.
Every single chord, scale, riff, melody, solo or song is made up of these 12 notes played in a variety of ways.
- A riff or a melody is just a series of some or all of these notes played one after an another
- A chord is just a bunch of these notes played at the same time
Just remember – 12 is the magic number.
If you are playing a Bach piece, rock riff or listening to some strumming classics then what you will be hearing is these 12 notes and only these 12 notes moulded and shaped into that unique (or not so unique in the case of Ed Sheeran!) song by the composer or performer.
Knowing that little piece of information is quite liberating for most as it makes everything seem just a little less daunting.
Learning the 12 notes
Below are ALL 12 notes that cover the whole of music.
A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#
If you play all of these notes one after the other you would be playing what is called the Chromatic scale. (That’s just a smart-Alec way of saying you have played ALL the notes).
Once you get to G# (pronounced G sharp) you go back to A – there is no H in music but I love making jokes about that!
The above notes might look a bit like jargon so let’s break the 12 notes up into two sections.
A ‘natural’ note is a note that just has a letter and no symbol following it.
For example, the note of A is a natural.
There are 7 natural notes.
A, B, C, D, E, F, G,
Let ‘s use the following as an example. On the fretboard, the 5th fret of the low E string is the note of A.
A non-natural note is a note that has a symbol after it. Depending on the situation these are called:
- Sharps (shown by the symbol #)
- Flats (shown by the symbol b)
A sharp simply means to move a natural note UP in pitch by a semitone (which is one fret on the guitar).
For example, let’s again take the note A on the 5th fret of the low E string.
If we move it up to the 6th fret, we now have the note of A#.
A flat means to move a natural note DOWN in pitch by a semitone.
For example, once again, let’s take the note of A on the 5th fret of the low E string.
If we move it down to the 4th fret, we now have the note of Ab.
A method to avoid confusion
Seasoned old musty smelling music teacher snobs may scoff at this piece of advice but I’m all about you learning in a practical yet proper manner and not doing everything 100% by the book all of the time just for the sake of it. Sometimes, you need to be practical and realistic otherwise everything becomes confusing. This is definitely one of those times.
In so called ‘proper’ music theory you get scolded for not calling the note on the second fret of the E string, F# when in the key of B and Gb when in the key of Gb.
It is essentially the same note, so can you see why this is confusing?
Therefore, I highly recommend when starting out to call all non-natural notes by their sharp name – Eg. A#.
This will help you avoid confusion.
When you are comfortable with knowing what ALL the natural and sharp notes are, where they are on the fretboard, then you can learn the equivalent flat name.
It will be much simpler to do so then too.
There are 5 sharp notes.
These are A#, C#, D#, F#, G#
Something curious about Big Cats Eating Fish?
There are no sharps or flats between the notes of:
- B and C
- E and F
I often use mnemonics (as I went through in my scientifically proven ways to learn guitar faster) post with students to help remember certain things and a good one for this is – Big Cats Eat Fish.
In other words, there are no sharps or flats in between B and C (Big Cats) and E and F (Eat Fish).
If you want to learn more about the notes in music, how to apply them to the guitar and other really useful bits of music theory in an ordered fashion, check out my popular book, Guitarist Get Theory. It has helped 1000’s of others get a real understanding of the above and much more. It’s also a fun read.
I hope you enjoyed that little lesson on what can be a boring subject. Breaking it up into small chunks is definitely the best way to learn the fretboard.
Leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of this post, if you want more like it and what you think of learning the notes on the fretboard.