Hello and welcome! In this article, I’m going to teach you how to find all the notes on a guitar fingerboard, and how to figure them out for yourself when you’re off practicing on your own.
Many people that learn guitar can play chord shapes or licks that they’ve been taught, but they don’t really know which notes are under their fingers for each chord or scale. This is fine in the beginning and is one of the reasons that the guitar is a pretty easy instrument to get started on. But knowing where the notes are on the guitar opens up many more possibilities, makes new songs easier to learn, helps you figure out different fingerings for chords, and a lot more. And the more stuff you can do with the guitar, the more fun it is to play.
In this lesson, we’ll look at the notes on the guitar in a few different stages:
- The notes on the open strings of the guitar.
- The pattern of the chromatic scale.
- Moving the chromatic scale up one string.
- Moving the chromatic scale across strings.
This may seem like a lot but it’s actually really straightforward and you should have no problem if you take it step by step.
1. The Open Strings
The first step in learning the notes on a guitar is to learn the notes on all the open strings. Grab your axe and let’s do this!
Here’s a diagram of the guitar fingerboard, as if the guitar were lying in your lap and you were looking down at it. Moving bottom to top, the strings go from thick to thin. The notes of the open strings are: E – A – D – G – B – E.
Here’s a mnemonic to help memorize the open strings: Even Average Dogs Get Bones Eventually. And I’ll bet you can probably come up with something even better than that.
Notice that, even though we usually refer to the strings in the order E – A – D – G – B – E, the string numbers go the other way. In other words, the thick E string is the 6th string, A is the 5th string, D is the 4th string, etc.
So that’s all there is to the open strings. Easy as pie. Next we move on to the chromatic scale.
2. The Chromatic Scale
Here we need to take a very brief detour into music theory…
The chromatic scale is a musical scale made up of 12 notes where each note is one semitone apart.
“What is this semitone of which you speak?”
Well, a semitone is the smallest distance between two notes. And when you have two semitones, we call that a whole tone (or just a tone). So, one whole tone = two semitones.
Here is a chromatic scale starting on C:
C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B – C
Note that, in this case, I used a sharp (♯) to name the notes (e.g., C#) in between the “natural” notes like C or D. A sharp raises the pitch of a note by one semitone. The same scale can be represented using flats as shown below. A flat (♭) lowers a note by one semitone. On the web, it’s easier to use ‘#’ and ‘b’ instead of ♯ and ♭, so that’s what we’ll do going forward.
C – Db – D – Eb – E – F – Gb – G – Ab – A – Bb – B – C
So here you see the same exact scale (the chromatic scale) represented in two different ways. C# is the same note as Db. And G# is the same note as Ab. And so on. You can start the chromatic scale on any note; we just happen to be starting it on C in this example.
Hi there! If you want to know more about the musical sharp symbol (#) or flat symbol (b), this Wikipedia article has a more in-depth explanation.
As you can probably tell, the chromatic scale is basically the major scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do, or C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) with a few extra notes added in. For most of the notes, when you go one semitone higher, you get the “sharp” version of that note. So, for example, if you start with F and go one semitone higher, you get F#. But there are two important exceptions:
There is no E# (or Fb). One semitone higher than E is F.
There is no B# (or Cb). One semitone higher than B is C.
To keep this post on topic, I’m not going to explain this any further. In music notation, notes named E# and B# actually are used in certain situations, and some notes are even notated with double sharps (##) or double flats (bb), but that’s a complication we don’t need to get into at this point. All you have to do for now is remember the chromatic scale as noted above, and keep those two exceptions in mind.
If you’ve ever noodled around with a piano, a simple way to think of it is that each key on a piano is one semitone apart. So if you play a piano key and then you play the key right next to it—whether it’s a black key or a white key—you’ve just played a semitone.
The distance between C and C# is a semitone because the keys are right next to each other. The distance between C and D is a whole tone because D is two keys higher than C (there is a black key in between C and D).
3. Moving the Chromatic Scale Up One String
And now we can bring this back to the guitar. The key point is this:
On the guitar, each fret is one semitone away from the fret next to it.
So that means, starting with the open string E, the first fret is one semitone away, which is…you guessed it…F. (Because, remember, there is no E#.) And then one fret higher than that is F#. And the next fret is G. Then G# and then A. Like this:
And the notes continue up the string in the chromatic scale pattern shown earlier, like this:
And here’s the chromatic scale on the A string:
You probably get the idea now, but just for completeness, this diagram shows all the notes on the guitar, up to the 12th fret. (The diagram uses sharps but could just as easily use flats instead.) The note names repeat after the 12th fret, as described above.
Notice in some of the diagrams above (and on your guitar) that there are dots on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, and 12th frets. These are called, not surprisingly, “marker dots” and they are like landmarks that help you quickly orient yourself on the fingerboard. (Most nylon-string guitars used for classical music don’t have marker dots, and it can be a little trickier to know where you are on the fingerboard.) These frets can be used as fixed reference points to help you find your way around. It’s worth learning these notes, especially on the low E string and A string, before you start learning some of the others because these are the root notes of chords you will play often.
This diagram also illustrates one more incredibly useful fact: The 12th fret represents the exact middle point of the string and is therefore the same pitch as the open string, but one octave higher. This is why it gets two dots (fret markers). The notes on frets 12, 13, 14, etc., are the same as the notes on the open string, fret 1, fret 2, etc.—just one octave higher. Like so:
This is true for all the strings, but I’m only showing the notes on two strings here to keep the diagram from being cluttered
4. Moving From String to String
Here’s the last bit you need to know (and you actually already know it from the diagrams above): in addition to ascending or descending the chromatic scale (or any scale) along one string, you can do the same thing across strings—that is, from one string to the next.
Remember how the fifth fret on the E string is the note A, which is also the pitch of the fifth string:
This is true for the other strings as well—if you look at a pair of adjacent strings on the guitar, the note on the thinner string is the same as a note five frets higher on the thicker string right next to it. In other words the 2nd fret on the D string is the same note as the the 7th fret on the A string, like so:
The exception to this rule occurs on the B and G strings, whose notes are spaced four frets away rather than five. This is shown in the following diagram which also happens to be extremely useful when it comes to tuning your guitar. Because if you can get just one string in tune, you can find the right pitch for all the other strings by playing the notes on the corresponding (either 4th or 5th) frets. But I won’t digress into tuning now—there’s a whole separate lesson devoted to that.
What the above means is that, in addition to continuing the chromatic (or any other) scale up and down one string, you can also continue it across different strings. This means that you can continue up the scale in two different ways:
- Keep going up the E string, on the 6th, 7th, 8th frets, etc.
- Start going up the A string, on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd frets, etc.
They’re the same notes, regardless of where you play them. Check out these diagrams, which show the chromatic scale starting on E, played in two different ways:
E chromatic scale on one string:
E chromatic scale on multiple strings:
It’s the same exact scale, just played in two different places on the fretboard. Easy!
So that’s all there is to it. Now you know all the notes on the guitar and, more importantly, you don’t need to just memorize each one—you can start with an open string, or a note you already know, and then use the chromatic scale to figure out nearby notes.
Until you start really knowing your way around the fingerboard, you should take a few minutes whenever you pick up your guitar to test yourself. Just play a random note anywhere on the fingerboard. Then, using your knowledge of the open strings, frets with marker dots, and the chromatic scale, try to figure out what note you’re playing. Try it without looking at the diagrams in this article first, and then check yourself to see if you were right. Before long, you’ll be able to quickly zero in on any note on the fingerboard. Hooray! You rock.