"I struggle to find guitar notes fast."

chromatic scale

Not knowing guitar notes... you know, on the fretboard. Knowing where they are but not finding them fast enough, when it matters most. Such a common complaint. Even though there's only 12 in all.

In classical spheres, guitar players —classical guitarists— are mocked as the worst sight-readers of all. Once they've memorized a piece, they don't know what notes or structures they're using, beyond 'fingers here:'

"I've been playing for a long time and understand very basic theory and have even advanced techniques down pat but I've realized that my main obstacle is that I don't have all of the notes memorized everywhere on the fretboard."


middle c fretboard chart

These 5 places are all the same note. Middle C. Now check out the same thing but on piano:

middle c on piano

At least 500% harder if you approach it this way. At least. And this is without even going into the weeds with intervals, inversions, and the many ways to play them. But in classical music piano is king and so people end up clinging to the same old views:

"It seems clear that guitarists have trouble in learning to locate notes on the fretboard. However, in theory this shouldn't be that difficult. If we talk only about the 'white' notes on the frets between 1 and 12, there are only 5 places where, for example, A can be found, ignoring the open string. So the task of learning where to locate all the white notes is not that great and once that is known, the sharps and flats easily fall into place."

So many assumptions going on. What's going on in theory isn't what's really going on. At all. It's like trying to speak Chinese by pretending it's English... Whoa!

But it's worse than that. Frankly, it's insulting. The insinuation is:

"The fretboard is quite simple, so if you don't get it, you're stupid."

So much condescension here. Fretboard skills are just common sense and actually not that skillful at all. Obviously. Zero respect for people who are honestly trying to crack the fretboard. But surely that's just the pomposity of classical guitarists, right?

drop 3 chord inversions

Jazz guitar players have another approach to the fretboard. They use predefined rote-learned fingering patterns like these 'Drop 3s'. But just you ask what notes, scale degrees or intervals they're using. Blank stare. Lemme see... jeez, it's a fifth! In the end, they're no better off than their classically trained pals:

"I think of playing the guitar in shapes and movements, not notes or intervals. I made the terrible mistake of focusing entirely on technique for years and nothing on theory or understanding what is going on on the fretboard. I've tried memorizing the notes string by string, fret by fret but that just doesn't stick with me as hard as I try."

Different approach, same dead end. They try to patch the hole with technique. Doesn't work. They try to patch it up with with shapes and patterns. Doesn't work. Then they try to patch it up with memory: they repeat themselves endlessly and end up loathing it all. NONE OF IT WORKS.

All the while the fretboard's structure... forgotten. The problem never goes away with any of these "workarounds." What matters, music on the fretboard, never gets addressed.

These are the 'educated ones', folks! Smart, school trained, disciplined people who put up with the rigors of a 'serious' musical education for years. But they just don't get it. They don't get the fretboard. But not one of them admits to it.

Guitar players of all genres are stuck with 'fingers here' approaches that give no musically relevant information, on the fretboard:

"I can play all of Cliffs of Dover almost flawlessly but if at any point you asked me what note I was playing it would take me a few seconds to figure it out. It's actually quite embarrassing at this point."

But you can't really blame them. Seriously. Every teacher of every school, whether Classical, Rock or Jazz, repeats what they were taught, which, in terms of using the fretboard, in a real musical sense, is only what's so obvious to you and me already.

Where does this leave you?

In a really good place! You've got nothing to lose. While they go on and on, defending and explaining their dead-end approaches, you'll zoom past them all by simply doing what it takes:

Guitar notes along the guitar fretboard

Does the guitar fretboard puzzle you?

Guitar notes on the fretboard will make a lot more sense after understanding the following points.

This article is an excerpt from Fretboard Essentials.

The first question that need answering are:

How are guitar notes organized along the fretboard?

Notes on the guitar fretboard are preset. The guitar is a tempered instrument, meaning that the notes we have as choices to play are set beforehand. The violin, the trombone, and the human voice are all examples of non-tempered instruments. On these, the player (or singer) has an infinite choice of possible tones and notes to play (or sing).

The piano and the guitar, however, follow the standard 12 tone equal-tempered system. This means that we have 12 tones to choose from. Those tones may repeat an octave higher, or lower, giving us a different note, but those 12 tones are all we have.

The only way to play a tone outside of this 12 tone system is by bending a string, using a trem bar, or detuning your guitar.

On a guitar, each fret is one step in that 12 step system. If you play two contiguous frets on the same string, one after the other, you'll hear the interval of a semitone (or minor second).
If you skip one fret, the interval is one whole tone (major second).

guitar fingering
Guitar Notes Image 1: a Semitone and a Whole Tone


If you play any 12 tones next to one another —12 consecutive frets— what you get is a chromatic scale.
We will call the nut "fret 0", as it also counts. This means that if you start on any open string, and go up fret by fret, you'll get all the tones of the chromatic scale by fret 11 . Remember, the open string also counts, so 1 + 11 = 12.
The cycle starts again beginning at the 12th fret, an octave higher.

chromatic scale
Guitar Notes Image 2: the full Chromatic Scale


What about the guitar's "height", relative to other instruments?

This is key, whether we play alone or with others. It is especially important whenever we play with other musicians, whether singers or instrumentalists.

treble clef Most guitar sheet music shows a treble clef. For this reason, guitarists in general think that they have a very high pitched instrument. But a violin is higher pitched than a guitar! And violin music is also written in the treble clef!?!?

tenor clef What most editions of guitar sheet music don't say, is that guitar music is not written in treble clef, but in tenor clef. It looks exactly the same as the treble clef, except that it has a little "8" underneath, meaning that all notes on the guitar fretboard are an octave lower:

guitar notes
Guitar Notes Image 3: Piano Notes and Guitar Notes compared

This means that middle C on the guitar is located on the first fret of the second string, NOT the third fret of the 5th string! This simple fact shocks even professional guitarists who have been playing for years. I've met some stubborn enough to deny it altogether (virtuosos, too!). If in doubt, simply go to a piano and see for yourself!

Still unclear? The following diagram shows the open strings of the guitar as written in guitar notation, and standard, non-transposing notation:

guitar notes

Guitar Notes Image 4: The open strings of a guitar, as written in
guitar sheet music and piano sheet music


If, say, you're playing with a keyboard player and you want to communicate with him, you'll want to be able to tell him what your open strings are on his instrument. Or if you want to write an arrangement, you'll need to get all your instruments' parts properly distributed by note range.


GTiD Tip:
Mick Goodrick, who was Pat Metheny's teacher at Berklee, suggests taking each string as an individual instrument: playing scales and improvising melody up and down each individual string: this is a great idea!

How are major and minor scales laid out along the strings?

You now know the "height" of the guitar's open strings, and what happens if you play fret by fret up or down a string. The next point to master guitar notes up and down the fretboard is: how do I play major and minor scales along the strings?

fretboard essentials

Guitar Fretboard Series:

1. Guitar Fretboard in Depth: section overview

2.Guitar Notes: A view along the Fretboard, and other important points

3. Fretboard Diagram, string by string: still looking at notes along the fretboard —scales and modes

4. Guitar Tuning and the Fretboard: a view at guitar notes across the fretboard

5. The Guitar Fretboard Chart explained afresh —also for Bass players

6. Fretboard Map: connect the dots!

7. 24 Frets: The full diagram

Fretboard Essentials






























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