The Guitar Fretboard Explained

Many guitarists get by for a while without really understanding why they are playing the notes they are playing. Indeed, without really understanding which notes it is that they're playing.

This is OK; you can get the right sounds out and be musical without knowing your note names. You can learn songs by TAB, and you can improvise using learned shapes.

However, an understanding of the guitar fretboard gives you:

  • Independence and opens many doors, especially when it comes to improvisation and interpretation. When you know the notes on the fretboard, you really start to feel as though you have a mastery of your instrument.
  • If you know where the notes are on your E and A string, that gives you the place to go to for your barre chords, immediately. No longer are you limited by your chord vocabulary: they're all there once you know your root notes. Sharps, flats, it doesn't matter. You know where to go.
  • As well as being useful for rhythm / chord playing, knowing your notes is invaluable when you're a lead guitarist.
  • It enables you to knowledgeably and thoughtfully play with chord progressions, and it also gives you extra options in terms of transcribing what you have played.
  • Learning the fretboard also makes it easier for other, non-guitarist instrumentalists to play with you. And for you to play with them! Most keyboard players won't respond well to, “A string 6th fret!,” but if you tell them “E flat,” they'll be with you right away.

OK, let's get started...

Here's the fretboard in it's entirety. Know all these notes and you've mastered the fretboard. 

Thankfully there are some shortcuts to learning it that we'll cover in this article. 


The complete guitar fretboard

Complete Fretboard

How To Make Sense Of The Fretboard

Ok let's break it down. The first logical place to start when you're trying to decipher the fretboard is to understand the string numbers and names.

String Numbers and Names

People often remember the names of the strings in the order from thickest to thinnest – lowest to highest – with mnemonics like: “Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears.”

This is effective, and can quickly turn into instant recognition of which string's which. One thing which might cause occasional confusion, however, is that viewing the strings in this order is viewing them from the sixth string to the first string. String 1 is your high E, string 2 is your B.

In standard tuning, you get this:

String 1: High E

String 2: B

String 3: G

String 4: D

String 5: A

String 6: E

So, you might prefer to make a mnemonic that goes this way round! A popular one is, “Easter Bunny Gets Drunk At Easter.”

easter bunny gets drunk at easter

Easter Bunny Gets Drunk At Easter!


Fret Numbers and Names

So, now you know your strings, it's time to get started on the frets. There's no mystery to the fretboard: the notes progress in an entirely logical order.

So if your open strings go:

E
A
D
G
B
E

Then, fret 1 on each string will go:

E --> F
A --> A#
D --> D#
G --> G#
B --> C
E --> F

But why? I hear you cry. Why does E turn straight into F, whilst A becomes A#?

Well, there's one simple, small thing to remember. B and E have no sharps.

There is no such thing as B sharp, or E sharp.

This means that one fret above B will turn straight to C. One fret above E will turn straight to F. 

Take for example the notes on the D string. Notice how the E --> F and B --> C is always a half step (or a semi-tone)

TONES SEMITONES

Flats

So, the notes you've seen written as sharps: A#, D# and G#, could just as well be called Bb, Eb or Ab. Which one you refer to it to generally depends on the context of the rest of the song.

The songs you play usually consist of notes and chords which belong together in the same 'family', which in musical terms is called a 'key'.

Some keys have sharps (#) in them, some keys have flats (b). If you know which key your song is in, you'll know whether it has sharps or flats in it, and which ones they are.

A quick and easy way to find out the key of the song is to look at the first chord. This is a pretty reliable indicator of your key. Then, you can refer to the circle of fifths, and check out which sharps or flats it has!

So, if your song starts on an F major chord, you can be pretty certain that the Bs will be flat!

Another thing to remember, if you're not sure whether something is an X sharp or a Y flat, is that there is only one of each note in each key. This means that, if you've just played an A in your major scale, and your next note is a semitone higher, it's a B flat. Sure, it's exactly the same note as A sharp, but you've already had an A! We need to keep the Bs!

Where are the Bb's on a Fretboard?

flats

Sharps

Because of how we play the guitar, and how we think 'upwards' on the frets, it's more natural to think of notes as sharps than it is flats. When you're going up the fretboard, working out the notes, you can say:

E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B... and successfully find the note(s) you're looking for.

Where are the C#'s on a Fretboard?

sharps

Enharmonics

As we've just discovered, F# is the same as Gb. A# is the same as Bb. Any sharp is the same as the note above it's flat!

Having two names for each of these notes is called having 'enharmonic equivalents'.

Sometimes, you might call another instrumentalist's G# your Ab. That's an enharmonic. They're fine, and it’s handy to be aware of them.

Half Step Intervals

As you move along the fretboard, you do so in half steps. Every fret is half a step, so it will take you a semitone higher than the note before it.

As you move from a natural note to half a step higher, you land on its sharp. Unless, of course, you're on a B or an E in the first place.

On B and E, half a step takes you to C and F, as we discovered earlier. The fact that it's natural to natural does not make it a whole step in these instances.

Whole Step Intervals

Whole step intervals will take you from natural to natural in most cases. Unless, as we keep drilling, you're on a B or an E.

To move a whole step on a guitar, you move two frets. This is really handy to know when learning your notes.

As we know, fret 1 on E is F, so a whole step – two frets – will take us to the next note: G, on fret 3. Another whole step – two frets – and we're back at the start of the musical alphabet, landing on A, on fret 5.

Two more frets and we'll have moved another step. Can you work out what fret 7 will be?

WHATSTHENOTE

Intervals On Adjacent Strings

There are some handy shortcuts to remember for guitarists and bassists, like how to jump a fifth interval on the strings next to each other, and how to jump a fourth.

These are really simple. To jump to the fifth of your note, e.g. C – G, you go down one sting, across two frets. This is how we make fifth chords (AKA power chords).

If you want a fourth interval, you jump down one string, staying on the same fret.

This might not mean much to you immediately, but as first / fourth / fifth patterns are extremely common in pop / rock / blues music, it's extremely useful to know this quick trick. Down one string: fourth. Down one string, across two frets: fifth. Simple.

Guitar Fretboard Notes

There are some notes you'll prioritise remembering more than others, on your journey to complete mastery of the fretboard.

I'd recommend getting to know where all of your naturals are, first, as you can work out your sharps and flats pretty quickly from them.

Notes on the E String

On your E strings this is easy: your natural notes are on the odd numbers 1-3-5-7, then your even numbers 8-10-12... Then, as we've reached the octave, that pattern starts again.

naturals on e string

Notes on the A String

On your A string it's also quite easy, but your 1 is replaces with a 2. So you naturals fall on 2-3-5-7, then 8-10-12.

Notes on A string

Notes on the D string

On D, it's almost the same, but as well as 1 becoming 2, 8 becomes 9:

Notes on a D string

Notes on the G string

On G, it's a bit different: even, even, odd, odd, odd, even, even. 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12. You soon get used to this!

notes on a G string

Notes on the B string

Last but not least, your B string you go 1-3-5-6-8-10-12. Odds then evens. Not too tricky to remember.

Notes on a B string

Ways To Memorize The Fretboard

So, as we discovered, you can memorise the fretboard by remembering patterns of odds and evens to find the naturals on each of the strings. Here are a few more tricks:

Use Associations

You might like to remember a chunk at a time. For example, C is underneath G (they're both on fret 3; C on the A string and G on the E string).

You can memorise which notes are above/underneath each other on the E and A string quite quickly, and learn the fretboard that way.

Practise To Remember

Another way is to learn songs via a lead sheet, which tell you just the chord names, and to play these as barre chords. This forces you to work out and eventually remember where each root note is, and it will sink in the more you practise.

Mnemonics

Mnemonics are always a handy learning tool. You can remember things like 'GAB', which is a quick way of remembering frets 3-5-7 on the E string. Similarly, you could make a little story like: 'Cars Drive East' to remember your 3-5-7 on the A string. Whatever works for you! 🙂

What Are Some Good Practice Routines For Memorizing The Fretboard?

Ascending / Descending Exercises

Going all the way up the fretboard to play a one-string major scale on each string can help you to memorise the note names, as well as to learn some key signatures.

If you follow this pattern on each string: Tone Tone Semitone Tone Tone Tone Semitone, you'll be playing the major scales of E, A, D, G and B! Remember, a Tone is 2 frets and a Semitone is 1 fret.

onestringmajors


Say the note names aloud as you play!

Major Chords Rooted On The 6th String

One of the most important reasons to learn your fretboard notes is to be able to find barre chords quickly.

To create a major barre chord rooted on the E string, you just put your first finger across the fret that will be the root note, then make an E chord shape with your other 3 fingers, like this:

e shaped barre

E Shaped Barre Chord


You can do this all up and down the fretboard, and it's great practice at getting to know where you are!

Major Chords Rooted On The 5th String

You can use the same method to learn your notes on the A string. This time, instead of barring all of the strings, barre from the A down, starting on the root note of the chord name. Then, make an A chord shape, like this:

a shaped barre

A Shaped Barre Chord

More Chords

Of course, most songs aren't made up of entirely major chords, they're a mixture of majors, minors, and often embellishments on those.

To turn your major chord with its root on the E string into a minor chord with the same root, simply remove your middle finger, like this:

e minor shaped barre

E Minor Shaped Barre Chord

To turn your major chord with its root note on the A string into a minor chord with the same root, just change your A shape into an A minor shape, like this:

A minor shaped barre

A Minor Shaped Barre Chord

Of course, there are 7th chords, sus chords, diminished chords and more, but that's for another article! To get to know your fretboard, you can jump around barring major and minor chords to play all of the songs you'd previously have played with open major and minor chords. 

Final Thoughts

If you've persevered in reading this article, you probably already knew the importance of fretboard knowledge, but we hope that this has made it a little easier to digest.

Most guitars have 21+ frets, and over 6 strings, that's a lot of notes to learn!

We can't emphasise enough the benefits of learning the notes on your E and A strings first, as you can then find your barre chords, and you can make associations from those to become increasingly familiar with the note names on your other strings.

Having knowledge of this kind will not only make you a more competent musician, but a more confident musician. You'll never need to shy away from those who are talking 'theory', and you'll be able to mingle with the keys players and any other instrumentalists in a way that will help to smash that stereotype about guitarists having no music theory knowledge!

Keep on rocking!

Roz is a music teacher and our go-to person for anything music theory! When she’s not teaching or writing for Zing, Roz writes and plays in alternative/ psyche /art rock band The Roz Bruce Infusion.

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