The fretboard is the part of the guitar where all the action happens.
So how do you go about learning it? Well, the problem is there are wildly different approaches to how to do it. And it has to be said, most approaches are way too complicated.
In this guide, we spell out the process that’s perfect for the beginner.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Guitar Fretboard Notes
In case you needed reminding, the six strings of the guitar are tuned to the key of E, A, D, G, B and E (a useful mnemonic to remember them is Eddie Ate Dynamite Good Bye Eddie)
Here’s a fact you might not know: All notes in music can be played on the first twelve frets of the guitar. Yes, all of them. The thirteenth fret just repeats.
So how do you learn to memorize them? Unless you have a photographic memory, you can’t just learn them all by rote – you need a system to identify them.
How to Memorize It
The first step on mastering the fretboard is to take a look at it and observe the dots.
They’re easy to overlook, and some guitars don’t even have them (or confusingly have them in a different order) whereas others have mother of pearl inlays or Pearloid. Whichever you have, these little fellas help you navigate around the fingerboard. Typically they appear on frets 3, 5, 7, 9 at intervals of a tone (2 frets).
The 12th fret typically has two dots because, as we already discussed, its sort of special. They’re also a tone and a semi-tone (3 frets) from the 9th.
1. Memorize the E String
First, we’re going to learn the natural notes on the bottom E string (the thickest). Natural refers to the fact they’re not sharps of flats. For now, just learn these seven: F – G – A – B – C – D – E. They’re all separated by 2 frets, except from B to C, where there’s what we call a semi-tone (1 fret).
A good way to remember them is that the first four are all odd numbers (frets 1-3-5-7), and the rest are even numbers (frets 8-10-12).
Memorized it yet? Cool. I have some good news for you – this also works on the high E string.
2. Memorize the A String
Now onto the next of the thickest strings, the A. These seven notes are a slightly different pattern. Your first is pushed to the second (B). So you naturals fall on 2-3-5-7, then 8-10-12.
Now you have these two patterns, here’s where the real magic happens. You now know all you need to find any note on the neck. To do this, just learn the following three octave patterns.
3. Get to Grips with Octave Shapes
Take the first F note on the E string. Move across by two, and up by two. You’ve just found the identical note.
This works all the way up the fingerboard in all positions, as you see in the following chart.
Octaves on E
The second shape is identical to the previous, but starts on the A string rather than the E. The shape is the same though, 2 across and 2 up.
Similarly, this works up the neck of the guitar
Octaves on A
The final shape is a bit different. This time. you go 3 across and 2 down (towards the nut). It’s like the C chord, without the middle note.
Octaves on A (C Shape)
And yes, you guess it. It works all the way up and down the neck.
Finding sharp and flats now becomes very easy, either going or down depending on whether you want to sharpen or flatten a note.
So, now you can now find any note. It takes a bit of practice, but keep at it, it’s worth it.
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 and G on the E). You can memorize which notes are above/underneath each other on the E and A string quite quickly, and learn the fretboard that way.
Practice 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 practice.
A mnemonic is a tool to help remember facts, a large amount of information, or in this case, the location of notes.
- You can remember things like ‘GAB’ (just think of someone that talks all the time and just won’t shut up), 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.
- If you want a clever mnemonic that covers the entire fingerboard, Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father is useful to spell out the circle of fourths which the guitar is tuned to (in standard tuning at least).
Ascending / Descending Routines
One String Major Scales
Going all the way up the neck to play a one-string major scale can help you to memorize the note names, as well as learn some key signatures. If you follow this pattern: Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone, you’ll be playing the major scales of E, A, D, G, and B.
Major Chords Rooted on 5th and 6th String
One of the most important reasons to master the fretboard 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, then make an E chord shape with your other 3 fingers.
You can use the same method to learn your notes on the A too, just barre from the A down, starting on the root of the chord name.
If you’ve persevered in reading this article, you probably already knew the importance of this knowledge, but we hope that this has made it a little easier to digest.
It will not only make you a more competent musician, but a more confident one. 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!
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.