Guitar notes are the ultimate introductory topic for beginners. Even those who have advanced beyond the beginner stage can sometimes benefit from a refresher of music's most basic component.
The simplest building block of music, and one that is often overlooked by beginner guitar players, is the single note.
Before you get into scales, chords, melody or songs, guitar notes should be fully understood which, in turn, will allow a guitar student to develop a more complete understanding of the following concepts:
- Fretboard Navigation
- Chord Composition
- Guitar Scales
- Basic Music Theory
In this lesson I'll cover guitar notes in full, which will take us through a basic definition, some applicable music theory and a process for complete fretboard memorization. This will allow you to apply basic music theory when you go on to learn chords and scales.
What you will learn
- What guitar notes are
- How notes correspond to chords
- Naturals, sharps and flats
- Fretboard memorization and application
Let's start with a full guitar notes fretboard chart, then jump into a working definition of a note before getting into more nuanced issues.
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Full Guitar Notes Fretboard Chart
For quick reference, this is a chart of the fretboard with notes at every single position, up to the 12 fret, at which point the pattern repeats. We'll dive deeper into how we get this chart and how to understand it in the following sections.
A guitar note can be defined as a single tone or pitch which, on the guitar, can either be a fretted note or an open string. Playing several notes in a chronological order (either ascending or descending) is how you get melody and scales, while multiple notes sounding in unison creates a chord.
- A guitar note is a single pitch sounding from either an open or fretted string
- Multiple single notes, played in succession (ascending or descending), combine toß create melody and/or guitar scales
- Groups of notes played in unison create chords
These notes are assigned a letter value that's used to indicate pitch. That letter will always be one of the following:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G
These are called natural notes, meaning they don't have any sharps or flats associated with them (more on sharps and flats later).
Here are a couple examples of how you might see notes identified in a tab or guitar chord chart:
How to Read Guitar Notes in a Chord Diagram
And for a line of single notes (melody) in a guitar tab:
How to Read Guitar Notes in a Tab
Now that we've established a basic definition, we can look at guitar notes in different contexts and learn how to actually use them. We'll start with the notes for open strings in a standard tuning.
Guitar Notes for Each Open Guitar String in a Standard Tuning
In a standard tuning, each string has an "open" note value, which is the letter of the note when it's played without pressing down any frets. This pattern goes from the lowest (thickest) string, to the highest, as follows: E - A - D - G - B - E
Here's how it sounds, from low to high:
Here's how the notes would look in a guitar tab and formal music sheet:
For those who are familiar with the term, guitar notes for the drop D tuning should also be covered.
Notes for Each Guitar String in Drop D
In the drop D tuning, which is commonly used in modern rock, the low E string is tuned down to a D note (one whole step), which then gives you the following note arrangement for your open strings:
In the audio sample, you can hear that the two D notes now sound the same:
The tabs and sheet music:
While there are acronyms you can use to memorize the open notes for the guitar, I always thought they seemed kind of childish and I personally don't like using them. Besides, it's only six notes, which doesn't take long to remember, even if you go at it head on without an aid or acronym.
You'll also notice that tuning the guitar requires you getting really familiar with these six notes, which can alone help with memorization.
I'd recommend using Fender's online tuner to tune up and get familiar with the open notes.
Notes and Chords: How they Relate
As we've already seen, notes are a letter value of a single pitch on the guitar, which can either be an open string or a fretted note. Those single pitches can be grouped into multiple notes sounding in unison, which give us chords.
For example, the open C major chord is made up of four notes: C - E - G - C (octave)
Here's how those notes look in a chord chart:
If we pulled these notes out of the chord and played them one at a time (this is called an arpeggio), the notes would show up in a guitar tab like this:
You can checkout the following resources if you need help reading the chord or tab charts:
Now that we've covered some basics about reading notes and interpreting them in both a tab and chart, let's look at the differences between natural notes, sharps and flats.
Understanding Natural Notes
As I've already mentioned, natural notes are those that do not have either a sharp or flat attached to them. This means that all natural notes will be one of the following:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G
If we go back to our acoustic guitar graphic, we can use the fretboard dots to easily identify natural notes. I highly recommend you take the time to memorize these notes first, at least for the low E string.
Start with the notes on the low E string at each fret marked by a dot, plus F, C and D (located at frets that traditionally don't have dots), up to the 12th fret:
Here's how it would look on a tab sheet:
And the audio:
Memorizing the position of the natural notes on the fretboard for the sixth string is an important first step, because it helps you utilize the fretboard dots and gets you familiar with many of the root notes for common chords. At that point, the fretboard dots can serve as a quick reference point for finding natural notes.
Once you've gotten familiar with the concept of natural notes, we can then place sharps and flats in relation to each natural note.
Understanding Sharps and Flats
In order to understand sharps and flats, it's helpful to first cover a quick definition of a half step and whole step:
- Half Step: A change in pitch equaling one semitone (one fret)
- Whole Step: A change in pitch equaling one whole tone (two frets)
Changes in pitch are measured in half and whole step increments. Thus, you can understand sharps and flats as the following:
- Sharp: Change in pitch one half step higher
- Flat: Change in pitch one half step lower
Again, this occurs in relation to natural notes. For example, if you start with F and raise the pitch one half step, you get F♯. Likewise if you're looking at B, and you lower the pitch by one half step, you get B♭.
One question that might come up is why we wouldn't call these notes A♯ or G♭. The reason is that it's not theoretically correct to say that G♭ and F♯ are the same notes. They are actually different notes.
It's a small, very nuanced difference that has to do with what direction you tune from.
However, on the guitar, the sharps and flats are set in stone based on fret position, meaning you've simply got to memorize it the way it is. Here's a full chart of the notes on the sixth string, including naturals, sharps and flats:
Now that we've covered the difference between natural notes, sharps and flats, we can look at charts and methods for note memorization of the entire fretboard. It's easier and quicker than you might think.
String by String Memorization
When it comes to guitar fretboard memorization, you need to take one string at a time and consider the notes at each fret up to the 12th fret, at which point the pattern repeats itself over again. Keep in mind, the pattern is the same on each string, but it starts at a different note (per our section on open string notes).
In other words, the sixth string starts with E and ascends through a pattern, while the fifth string starts at A, ascending through the same pattern.
We already covered the E string notes, so let's start this section with a chart for the A string notes:
Memorizing the A String
In the above chart it's assumed that the open string rings an A note, followed by B♭, B, C and so on, up to the 12th fret where the pattern repeats.
Memorizing the D String
We repeat the chart for the G string:
Memorizing the G String
And the B string:
Memorizing the B String
We don't need another chart for the high E string (the thinnest string) because it matches the pattern of the low E string. The two start at the same note, therefore the note-by-note increment is identical.
This covers all the basics of guitar notes, including the necessary music theory involved to understand them beyond basic memorization. If you take the time to understand notes, it will be far easier to then understand chord composition, guitar scales and melody, which will make you a better guitarist and more complete musician.
Moreover, one you've memorized the fretboard notes, particularly on the low sixth and fifth strings, you'll be able to quickly recognize chord roots and bass notes.
This will help you with the following:
- Playing in a particular key
- Finding chord progressions
- Changing chords quickly
This is why I advise against beginners starting with chords and scales, which (unfortunately) many guitar lessons will instruct. Learn notes first, the building blocks of chords and scales, before moving into those topics.
It'll make the entire process much easier.
Download the Teacher's PDF Version of this Lesson and the Charts
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