It’s Time To Learn The Notes On The Guitar
Looking down at your fretboard when you start learning to play the guitar can be intimidating. It’s a vast emptiness and you’ve got no idea what it contains. You know you should probably know where the notes are but you just don’t know where to start. All the frets look the same, and having multiple strings isn’t helping either. You’re probably getting by using fret and string numbers.
Knowing where all the notes are can really help you to kick on as a musician (notice I didn’t say “as a guitarist”). The notes we use on the guitar are also found on every instrument, so knowing them enables you to communicate with other musicians. Think of some of the ways that note names are used in music –
- Chord names
I’d like to help you learn the notes on the guitar in the only way I now how – as simply as possible. Follow these steps one at a time and try out the practical exercises. I promise you’ll know all the notes by the end.
1. There Are Only 12 Notes Used In Western Music (And I’m Not Talking About Cowboys)
The first thing you need to know about notes is that there are only 12 of them. It’s amazing to think that out of every song you’ve ever heard there are only 12 notes or less being used. Even though your guitar might have 21 frets and 6 strings (making a total of 126 individual notes on the fretboard) there are only 12 notes that you need to remember.
The 12 notes are: A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#
Once you get to the end, it just starts again. The note names (what’s written/what you see) remain the same, but the pitch (what you hear) gets higher. I like to visualise a spinning wheel with all the note names written on it. A bit like this little GIF image below. Once you get to the last note it just keeps on going – up or down.
2. Learn The Natural Notes First
You’ll have noticed that some of the notes are followed by this symbol: #
They are called sharp notes. We’ve got A# (“A sharp”), C# (“C sharp”), D# (“D sharp”), F# (“F sharp”) and G# (“G sharp”). If we take them away we’re left with A B C D E F G and these are known as natural notes. I’m sure you’ll agree that your chances of remembering the note names have just increased significantly.
Each natural note will have a specific place in relation to another and they’ll be placed in particular places on the fretboard. All you have to do is learn about that relationship.
3. Know The Difference Between A Tone And A Semitone
The notes will always be a specific distance away from each other. We can measure the distance with tones and semitones which, by the way, is universal throughout the world of music.
Unlike players of unfretted instruments, guitarists have it easy when it comes to learning about tones and semitones.
Try this on your guitar just now:
- Play the 5th fret on the thinnest string.
- Now play the 7th fret (2 frets up) on the same string.
You’ve just moved up a tone. Or in other words, the second note was a tone higher than the first. It works the same in the opposite direction too. If you had started on the 5th fret and then played the 3rd fret, you would have gone down a tone.
Now try this.
- Play the 5th fret on the thinnest string.
- Now play the 6th fret (1 fret up) on the same string.
You have just moved up a semitone (or half a tone). The second note was a semitone higher than the first.
4. Learn The Relationship Between Each Natural Note
Think about this sentence for a second:
Each note is a tone apart, except for the notes E and F, and B and C.
What does that mean? How does that translate onto your guitar? Try this practical exercise:
- Start by playing the 5th string (the 2nd thickest one) open. You’re starting there because that is the note A.
- Now play the 2nd fret on the same string. That’s the note B, which is a tone higher than A.
- This time, play the 3rd fret. This gives you the note C and it’s a semitone higher than B (remember that sentence “Each note is a tone apart, except for the notes E and F, and B and C”).
- Play the 5th fret. You’ve got the note D now. D is a tone higher than C (2 frets higher).
- Move up to the 7th fret. That’s the note E and it’s always a tone higher than D.
- Next you’ll play the 8th fret. You’ll get the note F, and that’s a semitone higher than E. (again, remember that sentence)
- Up 2 frets now to the 10th fret for the note G – a tone higher than F.
- And lastly – play the 12th fret. Can you guess what that note is? It’s an A! You’re back to the start of the natural note sequence.
Have you ever wondered why your guitar has two dots on the 12th fret? Now you know the answer. It’s because the 12th fret is always the same note as the open string. It’s just an octave higher.
In the GIF below you can see that when starting on the A string (5th String) the notes follow the same pattern. Every note is a tone apart, except for the notes E and F, and B and C, which are a semitone apart.
This works on any string that you start on. If you started on the E string (string 1 or 6), the next natural note up is F on fret 1 (up a semitone). On the G string, the next natural note up is A, on the 2nd fret (up a tone). The fretboard diagram below shows all of the natural notes placed on each string up to fret 12.
5. Say Them Out Loud
“One thing you can say about studying. It sure is quiet.” – Art Markman PHD.
I love this quote. It’s from Professor Art Markman of the University of Texas. He specialises in cognitive science – proper brain stuff. I read an article written by him about the production effect and it got me thinking about how it would work when we practice on our instruments. The production effect refers to what happens in your brain when you say things aloud. It turns something you’ve read from being ‘just another bit of information’ to being something distinctive and memorable.
Put the production effect to work by saying the note names out loud as you play them. One thing is for sure, it’s bound to help you more than just sitting there, quietly playing the notes one after another.
6. Write Them Down
Another way of remembering anything is to write it down. You’ve already boosted your note recall by saying them out loud, so why not write them down. Use more of your senses. I’ve included a blank fretboard diagram for you to save and print out. Starting with one string, write down all the natural notes, then move on to another string.
7. Challenge Yourself
By this point, you should have a good grasp of the natural notes. You know what they are and where they fall in relation to one another. Now it’s time to challenge your memory by practicing with a note finding drill. All you have to do is ask a friend or a family member to read out the natural notes for you in a random order. To make sure you don’t get carried away, let’s set some rules for this drill:
- Start on one string. I know it’s tempting to try to find ALL the E’s on every string, but start off slowly. Choose one string. I recommend starting on the low E string.
- Reduce the target area down to 12 frets. You can find all the natural notes within 12 frets, so start there. You can always aim for the upper frets later.
- Your friend reads out a note, and you play it.
Your friends and family might be too busy to help you, so I’ve recorded three random note drills for you to use any time. In each clip, I’ll say a note and then you play it. Keep trying it until you can find all the notes perfectly on one string. Repeat for the other strings.
Random Natural Note Drill 1
Random Natural Note Drill 2
Random Natural Note Drill 3
What Happened To The Other Notes?
At the start of this post, I said that there are 12 notes, but our focus has been on only 7 of them. What happened to the other 5?
Sharp Going Up, Flat Coming Down
Remember how there are occasions where there’s a tone gap between some notes? You’re going to fill those gaps with the sharps (#) that I mentioned at the beginning of the post:
A (A#) B C (C#) D (D#) E F (F#) G (G#)
Can you see what I mean? A semitone up from A is A#. You may have learned enough about music by now to know that you can also get flat notes. What are flat notes? When you play a note a semitone lower you have made it flat, and the symbol for that looks like a lower-case b. If we work back from G it would be:
G (Gb) F E (Eb) D (Db) C B (Bb) A (Ab)
Put It All Into Practice And Build The Bigger Picture
Saying all the notes out loud as you play them, writing them down on a blank fretboard diagram and using note drills will help you to remember the 12 notes. But I’d like to leave you with one more way that you can use to really lock them down.
Here are 5 shapes that I use to find notes across the strings:
Start with the first shape. See how the note on the left is on the 5th string? Ok, well pick any fret on the 5th string.
What note is it?
Now play the note on the 2nd string, 2 frets lower than the first note.
What note is it?
You’ll find that you’ve just played the same note twice, only the second note is an octave higher! This is really useful stuff. You can try it with the other 3 shapes. The 3rd shape covers 2 octaves!
What Do You See When You Look At Your Fretboard Now?
Cast your mind back to the opening paragraph of this post (it seems so long ago). Remember what it was like to look at the fretboard and see…well….nothing. I hope that by following these steps you have learned something new. Maybe something that will stick with you throughout your guitar playing days. I would like to add that everything I’ve shown you here can be easily translated to any fretted instrument. Bass, Ukulele, Banjo, Mandolin, LUTE! As long as you know the what each string is tuned to, you can work out what note comes next. Remember that sentence –
Every note is a tone apart. Except for the notes E and F, and B and C.
Thanks for reading!
If you have any cool ways to learn or remember the notes then please let me hear about them in the comments box below. I’m always looking to learn new ways to do things.