Notes on the Fretboard Explained

For many new players, the idea of learning the fretboard can be quite scary. There are a lot of notes there to learn. It may seem like a huge task that could have no end in sight, but it doesn’t have to be as hard as you imagine.

Before you get too concerned about memorizing all these different notes, let’s think about the musical alphabet and what that entails:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#

The musical alphabet runs from A to G. There are 12 notes in total that make up an octave. Each note has a “sharp” that sits between it and the next note. This means all notes are a whole tone apart. All except for B and E. These two notes do not have sharps.

B goes a semitone straight to C and E goes a semitone straight to F.

Once we understand what goes into this alphabet, we can then start to apply that to our guitar. We already know our strings are tuned EADGBE and that the guitar raises in semitones.
Let’s take the low E string and apply these notes to it:

Notes on the Low E String

You can see we have skipped some notes. We are moving whole tones from F to G, G to A, C to D and D to E. You can also see the semitone increases between E and F, and B and C.

If you focus on learning just these notes, it is easier to then go back later on and back fill the sharps in between notes you are already comfortable with.

By a process of elimination, if you know the notes on the Low E string in this way, then the sharps logically have to fit into the gaps.

If the first fret is F and the third fret is G, then the second fret HAS to be F#.

Sharp Notes on the Low E String

Because the high E string is also tuned to E, the same rule of mapping notes applies.

Notes on the High E String

If we take this down to the A string, we are applying the same concept with the musical alphabet but starting from an A note.

Notes on the A String

This is something you can apply to every string. You just start working through the 12 note system from the note that the string starts from.

Another way you can start to map out notes across various strings is using octave shapes. If you know the notes on the Low E string, this will make things faster.

An octave is when the note you start with is repeated the equivalent of 12 frets higher, but instead of working up 12 frets, we’re going to find the same pitch by crossing the strings.

If your first note is rooted on the Low E string, the octave note will be 2 strings down and 2 frets up from that position.

Octaves on the Fretboard

This is true of any note on the Low E string. If you start from a G, A, B or C, this formula applies. It works all the way along the low E string and the A string.

Octaves across the Fretboard

This changes when the root of the octave lands on the D or G strings. From this point, you need to go down 2 strings and up 3 frets to reach your octave note. This is because the G and B strings are tuned a minor third apart, not a fourth like the rest of the guitar.

Octaves on the D and B String
Octaves on the G String

Another way you can start mapping the fretboard is to pick a single note from the 12 and learn the position of it across the guitar. Once you can confidently play this in each position it appears, you can then apply the 12-note pattern from that point.

E Notes Across the Fretboard

So, as you can see, there are a bunch of ways to start working through the fretboard. Pick an approach that suits your learning style and remember to break it down into manageable chunks. Do not feel like you have to learn it all in one go. There are a lot of notes here, so don’t panic.

Once you start to get a good grasp of where each note is on the fretboard you can begin to work out riffs and chords more easily. Click below to get started with learning 5 Easy and Essential Chords that you can use to play through some songs.

This PMT College lesson was brought to you in partnership with, and written by experienced guitar teacher Leigh Fuge. Leigh works as part of a community of guitar teachers based across the UK. Click here to find a teacher near you.