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How I remember the notes on the fretboard

A lot of guitarists I speak with, particularly those starting out, often mention they can’t remember the notes on the fretboard. This is something which I struggled with for a while. I would spend my time looking at charts and diagrams like the one to the right but none of it seemed to have sunk in.

Learning the notes of a guitar off by heart is important for several reasons, for example, it helps us form and understand chords and scales and it’s great for when you’re playing with other musicians to have a language you can both understand.

For me, it is a case of bandwidth. I can’t yet focus on playing well in terms of technique and think about what notes I’m playing at the same time and when I try it usually results in me playing poorly.

I, therefore, commit a large portion of my knowledge of chords and scales to, what I would describe, as muscle memory. By this, I mean that when I play a C chord, I’m not thinking, C, E, G, C, E, because, although I know they’re the notes, to think like that would take me too long and I would miss my cue to play the chord. Instead, I remember the shape of a C chord and where at least one of the notes is played on the fretboard.

Using Shapes is something which a lot of guitarists develop naturally but, evidently, the same can’t be said when learning the notes on a guitar. So, I’ve spent a long time trying to find methods of remembering these notes and I have found some ways that work for me. I wanted to share my thoughts in the hope that it may help someone else.

Method 1

The Chromatic Scale

The first thing that you need to know is the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale is simply playing each note up and down any string on the guitar. It is the only scale, that I’m aware of, that consists only of semitones. A semitone also called a half step or a half tone is the smallest musical interval. They are one fret apart so the notes of the chromatic scale are A-A#-B-C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#. The chromatic scale, in most applications, sounds pretty rubbish.

You’ll notice that in the chromatic scale there is no B# or E#. The technical reason for this is there is not enough room in the frequency spectrum. Another way to remember is to think of a piano. If you’ve ever looked at a piano you may have noticed that the white keys are spaced evenly all the way along. The white keys represent natural notes, that is to say, they are not sharp or flat.

The black keys positioned above the white keys are sharp and flat notes but they are not all spaced evenly. The flat and sharp note sequence on a piano, as shown in the diagram above, is 2 keys – 3 keys – 2 keys – 3 keys, all the way along. The notes that are missing in this sequence are B# and E#.

Method 2

Reference Points

The second thing to establish is reference points. These are areas or frets on the guitar where you know what the notes are without having to engage your brain. My first reference point is the thing that most people learn on the guitar very early on, the open strings.

There are lots of different ways for remembering the open strings on the guitar but most involve using a saying. Some people, for example, start with the thinnest or 1st string, in which case the order would be E-B-G-D-A-E and they might use Easter – Bunnies – Get – Dizzy – At – Easter or Every – Boy – Gets – Dinner – At – Eight.

Others start with the thickest string, or 6th string, in which case the order would be E-A-D-G-B-E and they might use Every – Amateur – Does – Get – Better – Eventually. I, on the other hand, was taught, Elephants – And – Donkeys – Grow – Big – Ears

To this day I don’t play the open strings without saying that in my head. The point is to find one that works for you and stick to it.

My second reference point starts on the 5th fret. The reason I can easily remember these notes is that’s how I was taught to tune my guitar when I didn’t have a tuner to hand. You start by playing the 5th fret of bottom E string and the string below which should both be A notes. If these notes didn’t sound the same, you would tune the A string to the A note (5th fret) on the E. Below is the process for doing this on every string.

  • E 5th fret = A
  • A 5th fret = D
  • D 5th fret = G
  • G 4th fret = B
  • B 5th fret = E

Note that on the G string you use the 4th fret and not the 5th. It turns out the reason for this is rather subjective. Based on my research I have come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter why. This is because, provided you’re using the same pitch reference (more on that here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concert_pitch), then changing the tuning of a guitar will only change the sound of the open strings. Anything else, including scales and chords, would sound the same, you would just have to change which frets you played.

For example, the 4th fret on the G string, in standard tuning, is a B note. If I decided to tune my G string to G# then the 3rd fret would be a B note. In any case, in standard tuning, by learning this tuning method I know that the 5th fret of each string (4th if you’re on the G) is the same as the open note below.

My other fret references are the easiest to remember because at the 12th fret the notes repeat themselves, so the notes on the 12th fret are the same as the open strings – E-A-D-G-B-E and the notes on the 17th fret are the same as the 5th/4th fret – A-D-G-B-E-A and so on.

The purpose of these fret references is to give you starting blocks on the fretboard which you can use to quickly identify the note you’re playing. For example, if I played the 7th fret on the A string, it would be inefficient to count the notes of the chromatic scale from the open string i.e. A – A# all the way up to E. Instead I have a reference point on the 5th fret. I know that thanks to the tuning method the 5th fret on the A string is a D and I am now only two positions away from the note I am playing rather than eight.

The more reference frets you have the more effective this method is. That being said, if you can remember as many as twenty-four, then you’ve learnt the whole fretboard and this article will not be much use to you. If that is not the case, just learning three can really help in your agility in identifying the notes you’re playing on the fly.

Method 3

Octaves

My third and final method of finding the notes on the fretboard is using octaves. An octave is an interval between one musical pitch. This means that an octave is the same note played at a higher or lower pitch. Oct, meaning eight, refers to how many notes in a major scales there are between octaves. Here is an example using the C major scale.
You can see that each note is labelled with a number, the eighth note of the scale is the same as the first or they are octaves of each other. After the eighth note, the scale repeats itself, therefore what was the eighth note now becomes the first in the same scale played at a higher pitch.

Just like the way I remember chords, when I play octaves I don’t think about every note in the scale and the fact that the eighth note is the same as the first. I remember the shapes of octaves.

For example, for any note on the bottom E and A string, the octave is two strings up (that is to say up in pitch) and one tone across. A tone is an interval which, on the guitar, is two frets apart. Below is a diagram showing all the shapes for finding octaves.

Here is an example using the F note and where it is positioned across the entire fretboard. The pattern in the same for every note.
Methods

Summary

By combining the chromatic scale, reference points and octaves, I find I can navigate the fretboard very easily and can quickly determine what notes I am playing. I hope you find some of these methods helpful.

Thanks for reading

Piers