Whatever your level of guitar playing, one of the key ingredients to improving your skills as a guitar player is knowing where all of the notes are on your guitar between the first and twelfth fret, regardless of the string.
A few years ago, I took a an eight week-long course at Alcorn Music in Ottawa, Canada, called the Guitar Bootcamp. Alcorn is a great musical school, here in Ottawa, the city that’s been home to me for over twenty years. That sesssion was led by Tim Bedner – a fantastic guitar player with an incredible amount of knowledge about the instrument. He has a Master’s degree in jazz guitar performance so you know he’s an expert in the field.
The thing that I remember the most of that bootcamp – aside from how little I knew going in – is that guitarists typically take the same path (I know, because what he described was exactly my situation at the time). They learn a bit of stuff up at the top of the fretboard, in the first three frets. Then learn a bit of stuff in the middle of the fretboard. And then they learn a bit of stuff at the end of the fretboard. The rest of the fretboard is like a black hole.
That was revelation for me. An awakening of my guitar-playing reverie. And Mr. Bedner showed us an easy technique out of this quagmire. Learn each of the notes up and down the fretboard. We went on to very meticulously and monotonously learn each of the notes up and down the fretboard. It’s true. It’s a great way to learn your guitar and to get to know it. There are hundreds of printed charts out there to help you in your quest. But there is an easier way. Let me explain.
First, start with the names of the strings. We know the first string (that’s the one furthest away from you when looking down at the guitar) is the high E. The second is B; the third is G; the fourth is D; the fifth is A; and the sixth is low E.
Also keep in mind: the twelfth fret notes are the same as the open notes so consider this as being back at the start. What I mean is, first string on the twelfth fret is E; second string on the twelfth fret is B; third string on the twelfth fret is G and so on up to the sixth string, which is E on the twelfth fret and E as an open string. Each note on the twelfth fret equals the same note as if you were to pluck each string as an open note.
The first and the sixth string are mirror images of one another. The notes at the top of the guitar are the same as the bottom of the guitar. Just remember that there is always only a half-step (that’s one fret) between E and F. I don’t know why; that’s just the way it is. So we go open E then F on the first fret for both the first string and the sixth string. Next, keep in mind that there is a whole step between F and G (that’s two frets). So F on the sixth string is on the first fret and G is on the third fret. The same holds true for the first string. They are mirror images of one another. G and A are a whole step away from one another so you will find A on the fifth fret of the first string and on the fifth fret of the sixth string. A and B are a whole step from another so you will find B on the seventh fret of the sixth and the first string. So it goes all the way down the fretboard.
B and C are a half-step away from one another, just like E and F. Again, I don’t know why. That’s just the way it is and we learn to accept it. This means that C is on the eighth fret of the sixth string and on the eighth fret of the first string. C and D are a whole step away from one another, so D is on the tenth fret of the sixth and the first. D and E are whole step away from one another so the E is on the twelfth fret for the sixth string as well as for the first string. The twelfth fret notes are the same as the open notes so consider this as being back at the start.
We’ve nearly covered two of the strings to help us recognize any note up and down the fretboard between the first and twelfth frets. We’re missing a few. Just remember, on a guitar, when two notes are a whole step distance from one another, the space in between is called a sharp or a flat. Let me explain.
Remember, the distance between F and G is a whole step, or two frets. Well, the fret in between can be called either F sharp or G flat. To keep things simple, we usually just stick to sharp notation. The distance between G and A is a whole step so the fret in between can be called either G sharp or A flat but typically we just refer to it as G sharp. Same as between A and B; the fret in between is usually referred to as A sharp. There is no fret between B and C. The fret between C and D is usually referred to as C sharp and the fret between D and E is usually referred to as D sharp. There! We’ve covered the first and sixth string without having to refer to a chart.
Let’s look at the second string. Just remember the second string is the B string. Remember also from earlier in this article, that there is only a half step between B and C so automatically that means, the C falls on the first fret, second string. We already know that the space between C and D is a whole step, which means the second fret on the second string is C sharp (or technically, D flat but as I mentioned, we usually just stick to sharp notation). This means that the third fret is a D. Two frets further will be an E, which means the E on the second string falls on the fifth fret. We already know that there is only one half-step or one fret between E and F, which means the F of the second string falls on the sixth fret. And G will fall on the eighth of the second string because the space between F and G is a whole step, or two frets. G and A are two frets away from one another so you can guess already, the A for the second string falls on the tenth fret. Since the twelfth fret is the same as the open strings, we know right away the B falls on the twelfth fret for the second string. Just as I mentioned above, the frets in between the notes that are a whole step from one another are sharps. This means that the second fret is a C sharp; fourth fret, second string is a D sharp; the seventh fret, second string is an F sharp; the ninth fret is G sharp; and eleventh fret is A sharp.
We’ve taken care of half the strings already.
Next we jump to the fifth string. “Why?” you may ask. There is a reason why I’m explaining it this way, give me a couple of minutes.
As I was saying, the fifth string is the A string. There is a whole step between A and B, which means that the B note for the fifth string falls on the second fret (which makes the first fret an A sharp). There is only half a step between B and C (again, don’t ask me why) so the C falls on the third fret of the fifth string. The distance between C and D is a whole step so D falls on the fifth fret and the fret in between is typically referred to as C sharp. The distance between D and E is a whole step so E falls on the seventh fret and the one in between is D sharp. E and F are only a half-step from one another so F falls on the eighth fret. F and G are a whole step from one another so G is on the tenth fret and the ninth fret is usually called F sharp. I bet you can guess the rest. Eleventh fret is G sharp and twelfth is A.
That just leaves us the fourth and third. Let’s look at the fourth. With your guitar in hand, place your index finger (number one finger) on the first fret, sixth string. That makes an F note. Now take your number three finger (your ring finger) and place it on the fourth string, third fret. That also makes an F note – it’s an octave away from the first F you made. If you slide all the way down the fret board using the same pattern, you will have the exact same relationship, meaning that if you make a G on the third fret, sixth string, the G on the fourth string will be two frets to the left, and so on. Bass players love playing the octaves and the fifths – I know because I am also a bass player.
There is an identical relationship between the fifth and third string. With your guitar in hand, place you number one (index) finger on the B note of the fifth string. In case you don’t remember, that is on second fret. Now take your number three (ring) finger and place it on the fourth fret, third string (two strings down, two frets away). That also makes a B note, an octave higher than the B note you are making with your number 1 finger. Now keep that same pattern and slide down to the third fret, fifth string and at the same time, fifth fret third string. Those two notes are C separated by an octave. Slide down to the fifth fret, fifth string and simultaneously, seventh fret, third string and you are making a D note on both strings, separated by an octave. The fret in between is a C sharp. If you slide all the way down the fretboard, the same pattern emerges.
Now here is the kicker: from the example above, place your number one finger on the fifth string, fifth fret and your number three finger on the seventh fret of the third string. We already know that makes a D note on both strings. Now with your number one finger on the third string, seventh fret and number 4 finger (pinky) on the tenth fret, first string: that also makes a D on two different strings. It’s the same pattern up and down the fretboard.
The same thing happens if you place your number one finger on the third fret, sixth string and number three finger on the fifth fret, fourth string. As we know from earlier in the article, this makes a G on two different strings. Now place your number one (index) finger on the fourth string, fifth fret and your number four finger on the eighth fret, second string. You’ve made a G note on three different strings, all separated by an octave from one another. It’s the same pattern up and down the fretboard.
I know it may seem a little confusing and overwhelming at first but keep practicing and referring back to this article and you will get the hang of it before you know it. This is a quick way to reference which note you are playing anywhere between the first a twelfth frets. Also check the video link below. I show this in action.
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