In this article, I’ll be showing you how I learned all of the notes on the fretboard. This also happens, to be the absolute best way of learning the notes on the fretboard in my opinion. There are two types of guitar players out there. Those who made a good decision and decided to learn and memorise the notes on the fretboard of their instrument, and those who didn’t. If you’re reading this article, you must have decided to join the club of the note knowers. Excellent decision. Let’s get started.
Why it’s important to learn all the notes on the fretboard
I don’t want to make each of these sections longer than they need to be, so I’ll be brief. Learning the notes on the fretboard is important because it makes you a better guitarist and musician. There’s a bunch of reasons why this is the case which I will list below.
Easier barre chords
I’d like to assume that you already know what a barre chord is but to summarise, barre chords allow you to take a shape and play it all over the fretboard to create different chords. Barre chords allow guitar players to open up a whole other universe for their rhythm sections but to navigate that universe, you need a map.
Knowing the shapes and being able to physically perform them is only two thirds of the battle. You also need to know what the chords are that you’re playing if you want anything to sound good on a consistent basis. Learning and memorising the notes on the fretboard will allow you to instantly identify the root notes for barre chords, allowing you to build chord progressions quickly and effortlessly. Not having this knowledge would mean that you’d be relying on the instructions of others to play covers that contain barre chords and what’s more, you would find it extremely difficult to compose with them.
For a significant percentage of guitar players, the way in which they add to their chord vocabulary is by finding guitar chord charts online or new chord shapes in books or even from video lessons or written lessons like the ones here at Eat Sleep Guitar Repeat. The truth is though, you don’t have to rely on third parties.
If you know the notes on the fretboard and also have an understanding of chord formulas, you can fairly easily build chords yourself. For example, if you knew the notes of a G major chord were G, B and D, you’d be able to combine this knowledge with your memorised fretboard notes and build a G major chord anywhere. Here’s an example.
I discovered that chord on my own, very early on in my guitar playing journey. All I had behind me was a basic understanding of how chords were made, and my knowledge of the notes on the fretboard.
The above can also be applied to scales. Guitar players often look up charts and shapes for different scales and memorise them. You can do that right here with a scale library if you wish but again, you don’t have to. If you have the basic music theory knowledge, you can figure the shapes out yourself.
Let’s take an example from a lesson I wrote a little while ago. There’s a scale called the Hungarian Minor scale, which is kind of like the Harmonic Minor scale, but with 1 different note. The lesson I wrote on that scale teaches us how to build the scale and with that knowledge, we’d know that the notes of say, the A Hungarian Minor scale would be A B C D# E F G#.
Combing that knowledge with the memorized fretboard notes would mean that you can build the scale and all of the 6 other modes yourself quickly without having to memorize shapes.
If you haven’t done so already, at some point, you may decide that you want to start improvising with your guitar. In other words, using your guitar playing knowledge and ability to create music on the fly either on your own or to some sort of backing music and the way that most guitar players start out with this is with the scale shapes (usually minor pentatonic) that they’ve previously learned.
These box-like shapes are just that. A box. They leave you stuck in a confined area without the ability of breaking free.
Knowing about the notes (and being able to actually find them) gives you a lot of power and results in better sounding and much more interesting music.
To give you just one small example, I like to add 6th notes into the pentatonic scale for extra flavor. To do this successfully, you need to know where exactly the 6th notes are.
The same applies to the blues scale with the added “blue note”. Knowing what these notes are and where they appear on the fretboard gives you much more control over your instrument and the sounds that come from it. Without the knowledge of the notes, you could end up stuck in the box indefinitely or worse, playing notes that sound terrible.
Better understanding of music
I could keep going on, but this section is getting rather long and we have a lot of stuff to cover. Perhaps the best way to conclude the above is by saying that learning and memorising the notes on the fretboard will give you an infinitely better understanding of music.
Why think of music as shapes, riffs, licks, modes, and patterns when you can simply build an understanding of why and how? I appreciate that a lot of the above links with music theory, but the two go hand in hand and that perhaps gives us one final reason why learning the notes on the fretboard is important.
Music theory knowledge is useless if you don’t learn the notes on the fretboard
What good would all that knowledge be if you can’t apply it to your own instrument? Let’s face it, if you want to be anything more than a very casual guitarist, you simply must learn the notes on the fretboard. But, do you HAVE to?
Do you have to learn all the notes on the fretboard?
I always like to strike a balance wherever possible with my writing. There will be some out there, just like with the question of do you need to learn music theory that say that all of this is unnecessary. They’ll say that you don’t have to bother with learning the notes on the fretboard. Let’s address some of the reasons why one may choose to skip this task.
The shapes work
I don’t think the above 3-word statement can really be argued with. The shapes really do work. I’ve learned them, I use them and, I’ve taught them. They’re effective and they’re a great way to play music quickly.
I started learning music theory concepts in my second ever guitar lesson. In other words, learning music theory and the notes on the fretboard was something I did from the very beginning. I also learned via shapes from the beginning also and I will still use shapes now. I can’t honestly say there would ever be a situation where using a “shape” of some description would be incorrect.
I then built on the shapes with my note and theory knowledge. I learned what the notes were in the shapes and what impact they had on the music. I learned how to build on them and alter them for my benefit. This wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t know where the notes were.
How the hell would I be able to add a minor 6th note to my A minor pentatonic scale if I didn’t even know where the F notes were?
Learning all the notes on the fretboard is a boring task
This one is hard to dispute. If you were to sit down for a period of time every day and try to memorise where notes are, you’d be bored very fast. Some guitar exercises are on the dull side as it is without adding mindless non practical memorising into the mix. Speaking of adding things to the mix, what about the time it takes?
Learning the notes on the fretboard reduces practice time
Again, hard to dispute. If you were to sit down and spend time memorising notes, that is likely time that could have been spent actually playing the guitar, right? Yes and no. I have a counter point to this and also the previous point which I’ll get to after I directly answer the question of do you have to learn the notes on the fretboard.
So, do you HAVE to learn the notes on the fretboard?
Technically speaking, the short answer to this question must be no, you don’t HAVE to learn the notes on the fretboard. If you want to forget about this and plod along and get by with shapes and charts and instructions, then I will not stop you.
With that said, I hope that the above has convinced you that despite the perceived difficulty of the task, you should actually go ahead with learning the fretboard notes and if you’ve gotten this far, I have some great news.
To learn the notes on the fretboard, you don’t have to actually learn them in the traditional sense.
Do not formally learn the notes
I’m sure that many guitar players out there who are reading this will have some kind of idea in their heads that they’ll need to sit down and learn the notes text book style, memorising them like one learned how to count or learned the days of the week when they were young. Good news. This isn’t the case. I’m going to show you what I believe is the best way of learning the notes on the fretboard and it involves very little formal study or memorisation. You’ll be back playing guitar in no time at all.
How I learned the notes on the fretboard
My learning of the fretboard was a much larger struggle than it is about to be for you, my good friend. I, like many, tried to sit down and memorise the notes “fret 1 is F, fret 2 is F#/Gb” and so on. I soon found this to be both boring as hell and time consuming but most importantly, I found it rather ineffective.
I soon moved on from this and searched the internet (Google and YouTube) for different solutions. I tried a few of the methods and tricks, but they didn’t work for me. I even tried specially designed software which also proved ineffective.
At this stage, I was getting frustrated with the process of learning the notes on the fretboard. But then I realised something. I already kind of knew where the notes were.
I’d completely subconsciously developed my own way of memorising the notes on the fretboard and I’d been using it all along and the best part is, it was working.
I remember learning a song that had an intro which used a bunch of 6 string major and minor barre chords and I found myself automatically heading toward the correct frets while following the instructions. It was at this point that I decided to throw out all the other methods and to simply continue with what I was doing.
The results weren’t instant, or even that fast at all for that matter. But they were real, and I got there in the end. But how?
My method of learning the notes on the fretboard is a simple 3 step process that you’ll learn today, and then never look at again. Let’s take a look at step 1.
The best way to learn all the notes on the fretboard part 1 – knowing the order of the notes
My method of learning the notes on the fretboard revolves around 1 simple piece of knowledge. This is something that you will learn once and never forget and it’s something that we’ll learn right now. That piece of knowledge is this. Notes follow a simple pattern.
There are 12 musical notes on your guitar and nothing more apart from the same notes in different octaves (the same note either higher or lower in pitch).
Those 12 notes always follow the same pattern and that pattern looks like this.
A / A# Bb / B / C / C# Db / D / D# Eb / E / F / F# Gb / G / G# Ab
1 note is applied to each fret on each string and this pattern is never broken. We’ve started the pattern with A. Here’s what happens if we apply this to the A string on the guitar.
Pattern of the notes applied to the fretboard
I don’t want to go music theory heavy here because this isn’t a music theory lesson, but some may have a question regarding some of the notes. Some of the notes that we’ve seen appear to have 2 names e.g. A# Bb (A sharp or B flat). These notes are known as enharmonics. We saw these examples when I first outlined the order of the notes.
All you need to know is that some notes have more than one name. There are reasons for this, but the note pitch is the same, regardless of the name that’s being used and the situation you’re in determines the name that you’d select. For today, I’m identifying all notes in the examples as sharps but keep enharmonics in mind.
A# is equal to B flat, C sharp is equal to D flat, D sharp is equal to E flat, F sharp is equal to G flat, and G sharp is equal to A flat.
The sharp/flat notes get their names from the notes which surround them. The sharp takes its name from the note that comes before it, and the flat name takes from the note that follows. You can see this in the pattern.
Learning the pattern
Spend some time getting your head around this note pattern, you’ll need it. Remember the following.
- The letters are always in alphabetical order
- There are no sharp/flat notes between B/C or E/F
Memorise the pattern of the notes before trying to apply it to your guitar. You must instantly know without thinking about it that C follows B. That E comes before F and that G sharp comes after G and before A and can also be referred to as A flat.
Be sure to grasp this concept firmly because it is the master key. You’ll need to know that note pattern inside out in order for the rest to work. The good news is, once you learn this, there’s very little work that doesn’t involve playing the guitar.
Just 1 final point on the note pattern. This will be a question that some will require the answer to, so here goes.
What happens at the end of the pattern?
The answer is simple. The pattern loops. You’ll notice from our example above that the note pattern only took us to the 11th fret of the fretboard. Here’s what happens when we fill up the rest of the string.
Notes on the fretboard – complete A string with looping note pattern
As you see, the pattern started all over again. This looping pattern is the reason that all the notes at the 12th fret match the names of their strings. The notes at the 12th fret on every string are therefore, E A D G B E, just like the open strings.
Notes on the fretboard – adding notes on the 12th fret and open strings
The best way to learn all the notes on the fretboard part 2 – Applying the order of the notes to the strings
In order to apply this pattern to the whole fretboard, we simply must apply it to each of the remaining strings on the guitar. You don’t need to learn anything new in order to do this. You simply start the pattern from the relevant note and apply it to the guitar as we did before.
For example, if you want to apply the pattern of the notes to both the E strings, simply start the pattern at E.
Applying the pattern to the E strings
Now, all we need to do is simply repeat this process for each of the remaining strings and we end up with a complete fretboard map.
Notes on the fretboard complete fretboard map
There you have it. We now know every note on the fretboard thanks to 1 simple 12 note pattern. If you can remember a telephone number, you can remember this.
Here’s the thing though. You now know how the notes are applied and you have an idea of where the notes will be. But how does one digest that large fretboard map and memorise it?
The answer is simple. You don’t. There’s no point in even saving this map. You’re never going to need it and you’re probably never going to use it.
What we’re going to do is simply keep the order of the notes in our mind and continue to play the guitar as we were before.
The best way to learn all the notes on the fretboard part 3 – learn as you play
As long as you know the order of the notes and as long as you keep considering the fact that you want to learn the location of the notes, you’ll naturally learn their location as you play over time.
Let’s say you’re playing a 12-bar blues rhythm in the key of A. You’re TAB has told you that you’re starting at the 5th fret on the E string, which is A, our root. Well, because you know the order of the notes, you know that the note 2 frets higher must be a B and the note 1 note lower is A flat or, G sharp. 1 fret higher than the B is a C and 2 frets above that is D. move 1 down from the D and you have a D flat, or C sharp. Once you’ve spent a few seconds on that, move on and carry on with your playing.
That’s all you need to do. Keep the fact that you want to know where the notes live in your head and over time, you’ll start to remember as you learn more stuff.
You can spend very little time indeed on this and see results reasonably fast without losing practice time or running through boring memorisation sessions.
It’s okay to not know the notes on the fretboard as long as you can figure them out FAST!
Over time, you’ll find that you’ve learned the location of some notes, but not others. Everyone always knows the commonly used ones and people tend to know the notes on the thicker strings more than the ones on the thinner strings. That’s okay. As long as you can quickly figure the notes out, you’re good.
Let’s say I asked you what the note at fret 3 on the E string is. It’s a G. Easy. You play a G power chord all the time. But what if I asked you what the note is at fret 3 on the B string. Uhhhh…
Just refer to your pattern. It’s the B string. C always follows B so add 2 to that and you’re at D. Easy again and maybe next time, you’ll remember. What’s the 10th fret on the G string? You don’t know? Well, the 12th fret is G so if we go back 2 spaces on the pattern what do we get? We get F. Easy.
One last example
One more. What note is at fret 7 on the A string? Well, you learned that song the other day with a D barre chord and the D root note was at fret 5 on the A string, so 2 spaces along the pattern gives us an E. Learning that song taught you the D location and also gave you a quick reference to learn the E later.
If you use the pattern in this way, you’ll eventually get to a stage where you need the pattern less and less and then eventually, you won’t need it at all.
The speed of the results depends on you. If everyone reading this applies the above in exactly the same way, those who “get there” faster will be those that play more guitar. The more guitar you play and the more music-based things you learn, the more opportunity you’ll have to think “hey, that’s an A”.
Over to you.
Thanks for reading my article on the best way to learn the notes on the fretboard. I’ve a couple of things that I’d like to tag on the end of this for all those people that like to complain about stuff.
Firstly, this is the best method in my opinion. You might disagree, but frankly, I don’t particularly care. This is the method that worked for me and it’s a method that I’ve seen work for others first-hand.
Secondly, there are ways that we can build on the above relatively effortlessly, but those ways of building require a certain level of music theory knowledge that not everybody reading will necessarily possess. This is something that I’ll cover in a future (shorter) article.
There is a test you can do though.
Learning the notes on the fretboard – test yourself
When I was at the learning stage, I came up with a little test system for my note knowledge. I set my metronome to 60 beats per minute (1 beat a second) and on each click, I would play a different A note. I’d see how many different A notes I could find on the fretboard. Then, I’d choose another note at random, E flat for example, and repeat the process.
This was a great little workout and it put me through my paces. Perhaps you’ll find this challenge works well for you too. If you miss a click, it’s game over. Move on to another note. The aim is to not miss a click at all and find every one of your notes. You’ll get bored of the exercise before you 100 percent it but it works great in the early stages.
If I have to type the phrase “notes on the fretboard” or “note pattern” again today, I’m going to do something not ideal. You must be sick of reading too at this point. So, why not go and learn a song? Or, why not learn some more guitar techniques?
Take a look at the following links. I’m sure there will be something that you find interesting.
Hello. My name is Ryan J Mellor and I play the guitar. I’m also the creator of Eat Sleep Guitar Repeat. I’ve ben a guitarist for many years and my guitar playing has been described as “above average”. My guitar and music knowledge is somewhat impressive but most importantly, I have a passion for creating great guitar and music related content.