Learning the how and why to play individual notes can be difficult for beginners. For playing a melody, a riff, improvising a solo, or learning how to construct chords, it is an essential step in learning the guitar fretboard. The notes are literally the ABC's of music, and once you can see how the notes lay on the guitar and put a few simple melodies and chords together, you are well on your way to improving as a player.
Guitar Note Chart
The following chart depicts the notes in the C major scale on every string on the first 12 frets on the guitar as if you were looking at the guitar. These notes are the same notes as the white keys on a piano. The "in between" notes are the sharps and flats, or the black keys on the piano. For example, the sixth string is the C major scale from E to E, the fifth string is the C major scale from A to A and so on across the guitar.
Open String Notes
The six open strings of the guitar from low to high are E - A - D - G - B - E. A mnemonic device for memorizing the open strings is Everyone Always Does Go (to) Bed Eventually, the first letter in the words of the sentence being the open strings. However you memorize this pattern, that is the first important step to learning the notes by the string.
- Begin by playing the notes in the first position. First position is the first three frets. Start with the low E string and only play each individual string until you know the notes on it.
- Once you know all the individual strings, play all six strings in first position. From low to high you will play E, F, G, A, B, C and so on until you get to the G on the first string at the third fret.
- Play this pattern cleanly and evenly up and down while saying the names of the notes out loud.
- Close your eyes and place your finger on any note on the first three frets and see if you know it. If you don't, use the chart and learn it.
- The notes in the C major chord are C, E and G. The first combination of those three notes occurs at the third fret sixth string, third fret fifth string, and second fret fourth string. Play this chord shape, strumming the three notes together.
- See how many other combinations for the C major chord you can find in the first position and play them. You can play the three notes in any order (C E G, E G C or G C E).
Using the Fretboard
The distance between notes is measured in intervals. For example, a half step on the guitar is one fret apart, and a whole step on the guitar is two frets apart. From E to F is a half step, or a minor second interval, and from F to G is a whole step, or the interval of a major second. No matter where you play these steps or intervals on the guitar, they are always the same.
- Using the Guitar Note Chart play every named note on the low E string. When you get to the 12th fret, you've played all the "white keys" from E to E.
- Go back down the string and again say the name of the notes out loud.
- In the first position play G, G, A, G, C, B, the beginning of Happy Birthday.
- Play this melody on different string combinations in the first position.
- Play the same melody using only one string. An extra step in learning your notes is to figure out the rest of the melody by ear.
- Do steps four and five using many other simple melodies. For example E, E, F, G, G, F, E, D is the beginning of Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
Video Lesson on Guitar Notes
The following video is a great visual accompaniment to this lesson and has some pertinent information on how to learn guitar notes, some of the intervals between the notes and strings and how to tune the guitar, a useful skill indeed!
Tips for Learning All the Notes
The notes on the guitar, even just the C major scale, even just in 12 frets, is quite a bit of information. Here are a few tips to help you learn to play notes for any style of music comfortably and at your own pace:
- The best practice for learning anything is to "chunk it down." Take it slowly and one string or concept at a time, then move on to the next idea.
- Once you begin to get comfortable with these exercises, play them in time using a metronome.
- Extend exercise five in Open String Notes above to include more chords. For example play A minor (A C E), F (F A C) and G (G B D) chords in the first position and combine them in a progression.
- Once you've learned these four chords, play each note of the chord individually. This is called an arpeggio. Listen for these combinations of notes and see what melodies or riffs you can hear.
Taking the Next Step
Learning the notes on the strings is a great first step for a beginner looking to improve. One of the great things about music is there are many ways to learn, and everyone can participate. Training your ear enough to figure out songs, learning to read, learning enough chords to accompany another musician, singing along while you play - even if you do it badly, are all ways to build on learning the notes on your instrument. Good luck and get to work!