Whether you want to learn to improvise killer solos, play perfect classical etudes, or anything in between, knowing where the notes fall on the fingerboard of the guitar will be a huge help to you in your musical journey.
In this guide, we’ll show you how to memorize the notes on the guitar, as well as teach you a few shapes and patterns to help you play scales and chords in any major key you want!
A great place to start getting to know the notes on the guitar is by memorizing the notes of each string played open, without holding down any of the frets.
If your guitar is tuned to standard tuning, the notes should be EADGBE, starting from the lowest pitched string and moving up to the highest.
The sentence “Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears” will help you remember the order of the open strings on a guitar in standard tuning.
The guitar, like the piano, is based on a chromatic scale. In chromatic music, there are 12 notes in an octave, each a half step apart. Each fret on the fingerboard of the guitar raises the pitch of the string by one half step. If you were to hold down all strings on the 12th fret, the notes are the same as the strings played open, just an octave higher.
Notes on the E and A Strings
One way to think about finding the notes on a guitar is to think about each open string as the base note of a scale. Take a look at the guitar tab below to see what a scale looks like on the low E string:
Following this tab, you will play the notes E, F, G, A, B, C, D, ending with E an octave higher (hint: for help with guitar tabs, check out this article). These are called “natural” notes. If you were playing the piano, these notes would be the white keys. Sharp and flat notes occur between the natural notes; on the piano, those would be the black keys.
Most natural notes on the guitar are two frets apart, with the exception being the single fret intervals between E and F (open string and the first fret) and between B and C (seventh and eighth frets).
For another example, take a look at the natural notes in an octave on the A string:
As you follow this tab, you will play the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and A. Notice again that there is just one fret between B and C (the second and third frets) and between E and F (the seventh and eighth frets).
For many rhythm guitarists and beginners, the notes on the E and A strings will be the most important notes to memorize, because these notes are the root notes for the most common movable chord shapes.
To memorize these notes, practice playing just the natural notes going up and down the E and A strings. Say the name of each note as you play it. Repeat this a few times at the beginning of your guitar practice each day until you feel confident and comfortable with the notes on the E and A strings.
Notes on the Guitar Fretboard
You can continue learning the natural notes on the guitar one string at a time following along with the diagram above. Note that this diagram shows sharp (ex: F#) notes but not flat (ex: Gb). A sharp note is a half step higher than the natural note. A flat note is a half step lower. Depending on what key you are playing in, the same note may be referred to as F# or Gb.
Here’s the same diagram, this time showing flat notes instead of sharps:
Movable Guitar Scales and Chords
Of course, memorizing each note on the guitar won’t improve your playing very much if you don’t also understand how the notes relate to each other. The layout of notes on the guitar may seem confusing and random, but these simple scale and chord shapes will help you to find and remember notes.
Try this guitar tab below for a scale in G major:
Notice that the scale starts on G, on the third fret of the low E string. For your left hand fingering, we recommend using your index finger for all notes on the second fret, your middle finger for all notes on the third fret, your ring finger on the fourth fret, and your pinkie on the fifth.
Now, try starting on the 4th fret and play this scale pattern again, moving each note up by one fret. Congratulations, you just played a scale in G# major! Even if you weren’t able to name all the notes you just played, knowing the correct intervals ensures you’re playing notes within the correct key.
Using the same fingering playing this pattern, you can play a scale starting with any note on the fretboard. The first note of this scale is the root note and determines the key of the scale. Practice this scale by moving it up and down the fretboard, one fret at a time.
Here’s another movable scale pattern for you to practice, this time starting on the A string. This scale is shown in D major, but it can also be moved all over the fretboard.
You can also learn chord shapes that can be moved around the fretboard. The simplest of these shapes are called power chords.
To play a power chord in F with the root note on the low E string, place your index finger on the first fret of the E string. Next, use your ring finger to hold down the A string at the third fret and use your pinkie to hold the D string at the third fret. Strum just the three strings you are holding down.
Maintaining the same shape with your left hand, move each finger up one fret. Strum only the strings you have fretted. Now you’re playing a power chord in F#.
Now, move each finger down one string, so that now you are holding the second fret on the A string with your index finger and the fourth fret on the D and G strings with your ring and pinkie fingers respectively. Strum these three strings. You are now playing a power chord in B.
You can move this power chord shape up and down the fretboard as long as your root note starts on the low E or A strings. Remember, the root note is the note your index finger is fretting. This note will determine the key of the chord.
Now that you’re more familiar with the notes on a guitar, it’s time to get back to practicing and put all your new knowledge to work!
–Megan L. TakeLessons Staff Member and Blogger