The identity of the notes on your fretboard is a mystery. Whenever someone uses music theory terms, you feel intimidated and extricate yourself as quickly as possible from the conversation.
Invest some time to systematically familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of music. Demystify the fretboard through applying this knowledge and building fluency.
Many guitar players have an unreasonable aversion to anything that even smells like music theory. Misconceptions and excuses abound: It’s too confusing; it’s creatively stifling; it’s just rules, and music is about breaking the rules.
Such beliefs are ultimately self-defeating and unfounded. I can’t name a single accomplished musician who has studied music and regrets it. Great music can certainly be created without knowledge of music theory, but here’s the point: Your brain will conceptualize music in some way. Why not have it be in the way that allows you to communicate most freely with other musicians? It will stifle your creativity only as much as being literate has impeded your ability to express your thoughts, ideas, and feelings in your native language.
I often see musicians suffering creatively and professionally by rejecting music study. The coping mechanisms they concoct require far more effort with less consistent results than simply following what hundreds of years of music education has determined to be the clearest path. Sure, you can create your own language, but how helpful is it for communicating if you’re the only one who speaks it?
In this lesson, you’ll dive into the fundamentals of pitch and apply that understanding to the guitar. If you can count to 12 and know the alphabet up to letter G, you’ll be fine. There will be some terms to learn, but what’s a few new words in your vocabulary, especially if they pertain to something important to you? You won’t find any tablature here, as the goal is to get you comfortable with standard notation. So shed the intimidation and reject the temptation to fall into the proud ignorance that persists in guitar culture. It’s time to get literate in the language you love.
Learn the Theory
First some terminology. Even if this is review for you, brushing up on terms ensures a recent, specific foundation as you move ahead. “Pitch” or “note” refers to the highness/lowness of a sound. There are 12 different pitches in the Western tonal system: A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, and G#/Ab.
Pitches that are represented just with a letter are known as natural notes. Accidentals are symbols that alter a note. A sharp (#) raises a note a half step, and a flat (b) lowers a note a half step. A natural (n) cancels a sharp or flat. More on accidentals in a future lesson, but for now just know that each accidental applies to the same note throughout a measure (as designated by the vertical lines on the staff) or until it is canceled by another accidental in the same measure.
On a piano, as shown in Figure 1 (below), natural notes are the white keys, and the sharp and flat notes are the black keys. The closest distance between notes is a half step (e.g., A–A# or B–C). Two half steps are equivalent to a whole step (e.g., A–B or B–C#). The guitar has a different layout from that of the piano; half steps are between adjacent frets, as demonstrated in Figure 2.
Some notes have two names, such as A#/Bb. These are known as enharmonic equivalents. Context will determine which name applies. More on that in a future lesson, but for now just know that A# is the same note as Bb, C# is equivalent to Db, and so on.
You should also consider the half steps between two sets of natural notes: B–C and E–F. If you see a B# or E# in notation, they are enharmonically C and F, respectively; similarly, Cb and Fb are the same as B and E.
Study the Staff
Pitches are notated on a staff—a system of five lines and four spaces. A clef is a symbol that occurs at the beginning of a staff to indicate which lines and spaces are to be associated with which notes. Guitar is written in treble clef, also known as G clef, as it encircles the line associated with G above middle C. (Note that the guitar is written an octave above sounding pitch.)
It’s commonly taught to memorize the lines (E G B D F) and spaces (F A C E), as shown in Example 1. You can also just locate the G line as designated by the treble clef, and count up or down alphabetically. Ledger lines, depicted in Example 2, extended the staff upward and downward. Example 3 shows the range of a typical steel-string guitar, which has 20 frets, in standard tuning.
Apply the Theory
With an understanding of some basics, apply that knowledge to the fretboard, and boost your fluency with some memorization drills. Example 4 shows the six open strings—low to high, E, A, D, G, B, and E—as they appear on the staff.
The first step toward fretboard demystification is to memorize each open string; the second step is to learn the notes on each individual string. I recommend starting with the low E. You’ll get two for one, as the note names will be the same as on the high E. Here’s how to practice: Set a timer for 10 minutes. Focus on the notes from the open E up to the sixth fret, starting with just the open string and the first fret, and adding notes one at a time. Say them aloud as you play them. Example 5 will get you started. Try to come up with different combinations, or enlist a practice buddy to throw out random notes for you. When the timer goes off, you’re done for the day.
Take a couple of minutes the next day to review, then work in the same way from frets 7 to 12 of the E string. The following day, start with a full review of the E string, and then tackle the first six frets of the A string. Continue in this way until you’ve gone through each string. Spend a few days going between strings, looking at notes in various positions, trying to disorient yourself so you can then reorient and deepen your learning. Apply this type of note identification to lines or licks you know. In about two weeks, and with only about two hours invested, you should have vastly increased your confidence of the notes on the fretboard.
Any path of education means a learning curve, which may feel overwhelming at times. Keep with it. Go slowly and methodically. Review and reread as often as necessary. You’ll start to see the patterns and relationships that make music theory so comprehensible, so beautifully logical. And there are benefits beyond what you might expect. You’ve got this!
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For further reading, refer to the music theory textbook Tonal Harmony by Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne.
This article is excerpted from The Way Music Works, written by Gretchen Menn and published by Acoustic Guitar magazine. Order a copy of the book or download the complete guide here.