How to Memorize the Notes on a Guitar Fretboard

The fretboard is the part of the guitar where all the action happens.

Being able to navigate it (i.e. know where all the notes are) will open up many doors and help you understand music theory concepts and the connection between scales and chord shapes.

Not only that, when it comes to playing scales such as the pentatonic, or modes like the Lydian or Dorian, you’ll be much more comfortable.

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 show you how to memorize notes.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Notes on a Fretboard

Here are the notes on a fretboard, from fret 1 to 12 (from fret 13 the notes just repeat).

12th fret real

How to Memorize Guitar Fretboard Notes

What you’re about to learn works on any guitar, regardless of how many frets it has. Frets are the thin bits of nickel/silver alloy wire protruding from the fretboard.

First, look for the dots, they’re there to help you. Most guitars have these dot inlays (or some other shape) that help you navigate your way around the fingerboard. Typically they appear at frets 3, 5, 7, 9 at intervals of a tone (2 frets), but this can vary.

The 12th fret typically has two dots to symbolize the octave. They’re also a tone and a semi-tone (3 frets) from the 9th.

bare dots

Step 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).

E string notes.

Memorized it yet? Cool. I have some good news for you – this also works on the high E string.

identical notes on E strings

Step 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.

A String notes..

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.

Step 3. Learn Octave Shapes

Octave #1

Take the first F note on the E string. Move across by two, and up by two. You’ve just found the identical note.

E shape octave

This works all the way up the fingerboard in all positions, as you see in the following chart.

Octaves on E

E string octaves

Octave #2

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.

A shape octave

Similarly, this works up the neck of the guitar

Octaves on A

Octave #3

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 from A string (C shape)

Octaves on A (C Shape)

And yes, you guess it. It works all the way up and down the neck.

A octave C shape

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.

Tips for Memorizing Guitar Notes

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 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.

Mnemonics

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.

one string major scales

Major Chords Rooted on the 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.

E and A shaped barre chords

 

Check out our guide to how to play barre chords if you want to learn all the shapes.

Summary

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 Richardson

Ged is editor-in-chief and founder of Zing Instruments. He's a multi-instrumentalist and loves researching, writing, and geeking out about music. He's also got an unhealthy obsession with vintage VW Campervans.

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