A great fundamental place to start learning to play guitar is to identify the strings and the notes they are tuned to. Then you can learn how the guitar notes change as you traverse the frets.
Sure, many guitarists jump into playing chords first and there is no set way to go about it, but learning the notes of your guitar can help you identify and find chords without tablature and make you a better all-around musician.
The notes of the guitar are its alphabet, its language and in a band-situation knowing where your nearest Eb is when the bassist or pianist asks you to play one is never a bad tool to have.
For cross-instrument communication, it is invaluable, and sooner or later, no matter how many chords you have under your belt, you should learn.
There is no need to get bogged down learning every single fret. By learning to identify the patterns of a chromatic scale on a guitar and memorizing a few key fret positions you will get a good enough idea eventually.
Unlike the piano, the natural notes, sharps, and flats are not distinctively marked. So you do need to get your head around a little music theory to understand where you are and what is going on. But we promise to go easy!
Guitar Notes for Standard Tuning
A traditional guitar whether acoustic, classical, or electric has 6 strings. As you look from above down at your guitar, you need to swap the idea of top and bottom in your head. The strings are counted from the bottom up, starting with the thinnest.
In a seated position, the string closest to your lap is referred to as your top string or first string because it is pitched the highest. The string closest to your chest at the top of the guitar is your bottom string, numbered as your 6th string.
Both strings are tuned to the same note in different octaves. Your bottom string produces a low E and your top string (thinnest) produces a high E.
They are generally tuned with standard tuning unless you want to use alternate tuning for a specific genre or timbre in a song.
The standard tuning for your open guitar strings from the lowest as follows:
- 1st = E
- 2nd = A
- 3rd = D
- 4th = G
- 5th = B
- 6th = E
To keep it easy to remember, most people use a mnemonic of some form, assigning a word to each letter and making it memorable.
Many are floating about to choose from such as; Eat Apples Daily Grow Big Ears or Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie.
I like Every Average Dedicated Guitarist Becomes Excellent because it fits the subject of learning guitar. You can invent your own, it can be anything, so long as you remember it correctly.
They are the guitar notes you should be familiar with as a guitarist. You have to tune your instrument regularly. Some will no doubt be able to pitch these 6 notes naturally and tune by ear because they are so accustomed to them!
What Notes Are on a Guitar?
The notes of a guitar are the same as any western-tuned instrument, there are 12 notes in each octave. A guitar covers a span of 4 octaves, so you have 4 differently pitched versions of each note.
Some pitched instances are present multiple times across different strings and frets which is why they are important to learn.
The 12 notes in an octave are a mixture of natural notes and sharps/flats. A natural note has a letter to name it and a sharp is given a hashtag ‘#’ while a flat gets a little ‘b’.
If you are familiar with a piano layout then your natural notes are the white keys and the sharps and flats would be the black keys in between.
If you play each of the 12 consecutively then each note goes up in pitch by an interval that we call one semi-tone (half a tone). If you play only the natural notes, the interval between differs, which we will explore when we look at scales a little further down.
The sharps and flats are not present between every natural note. Which we will go into for those who don’t know later, but first let’s give the natural notes some names.
The natural notes are named with the first 7 letters of the alphabet like they are on any western-tuned instrument.
They then restart on A and continue.
Which Notes Have Sharps and Flats?
A sharp note is slightly higher than the note before it and a flattened note refers to a note slightly lower. By slightly, we mean one semi-tone which is sometimes called a halftone.
To make things easy, your guitar has measured fret spaces and each one is one semitone higher than the last.
It is easier to remember which guitar notes don’t have a sharp or a flat. Because there are more natural notes with a sharp or flat than there are without.
B doesn’t have a sharp, there is no note between B and C they are consecutive. Therefore C doesn’t have a flat.
So, no B# and no Cb.
E doesn’t have a sharp and so F has no flat. That is to say, if you flatten F by one semitone it becomes E.
So, no E# no Fb.
All the other guitar notes do, you can refer to a note between as either a sharp or flat. Technically, how you refer to it is dictated by the key signature you are in, but don’t worry about that as we are getting way too ahead of ourselves.
For now, the names are interchangeable. A# is the same as Bb, it is a note one semitone too high to be A, but not high enough to be a B, it is in fact exactly one semitone too flat to be A. Hopefully, that is super clear. So;
- A# = Bb
- C# = Db
- D# = Eb
- F# = Gb
- G# = Ab
What you call it is easier to think about in terms of walking up or down your fretboard.
It is easy to think in terms of if you are going up in pitch (sharps) and flats if you are traveling down in pitch.
But here are all 12 notes in one octave. It is important to try and get to grips with this;
Which can also be looked at like this
Transferring the Knowledge to Your Fretboard
The frets of your guitar are marked with little sunken bars all the way along the neck of your guitar. Each guitar fret denotes one semi-tone/half-tone interval.
The spaces get closer together as you venture further up the neck of your guitar because less tension is required to change the string pitch intervals the higher you get.
With the notes presented as they are above, let’s start in the easiest place, your 5th string which should be tuned to A already. Therefore if you place your finger in the first fret of your 5th string and hold it, you have taken the open string A note up to A#.
If you continue fret by fret, the notes match the sequence we already gave, but here it is again;
You should hear the note gets sharper and sharper.
Now to apply it to other strings, using your E (1st or 6th string), you are jumping straight to F because as we said, E has no sharp note.
In terms of what you learned above, you are here
So as you move up each fret on your E string, you are playing the following notes.
If that makes sense, then it should be easy to figure out the rest of your strings in semitone movements. But here they are for you anyway.
- 1st string = E (open)-F-F#-G-G#-A-A#-B-C-C#-D-D#-E
- 2nd string = B (open)-B-C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#-A-A#-B
- 3rd string = G (open)-G#-A-A#-B-C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G
- 4th string = D (open)-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#-A-A#-B-C-C#-D
- 5th string = A (open)-A#-B-C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#-A
- 6th string = E (open)-F-F#-G-G#-A-A#-B-C-C#-D-D#-E
Some of your frets are marked with an inlay or a dot to help you keep track of which fret you are positioned in. You will see this on the side of the neck that you look down on when you play.
Usually, this is the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, and 12th frets. Some models skip the 3rd fret. They are not special notes of any kind but rather a tool to help you know where you are and where you’re headed.
That said, you may notice that the 5th fret of most strings is the same as the string beneath it when you go from your 6th to first string (except for your 3rd string).
Guitarists use this as an after check when they have tuned their strings.
Knowing what you now know about the flats and sharps present, you can work out that there are five semitones between open standard tuning notes of your guitar except for between the G and B strings (3rd and 2nd) which have 4 semitones between them.
A western major scale is a type of diatonic scale made up of 7 notes and a repeated octave making 8 notes in total. In guitar, it is often referred to as Ionian mode.
The words above may make a few of you feel like skim-reading but to give it some grounding and keep it easy to digest…
You are already very familiar with the Ionian mode or major diatonic scale. If you have ever had the sound of music stuck in your head then; Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do probably rings a bell.
‘Do’ otherwise known as C is the starting note for a C major scale.
To help you visualize it; If you were to sit at a piano and play every single white note consecutively without touching a sharp or flat. You would play Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do or C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.
Do you notice that there are no sharps or flats in a C Major scale?
Knowing what you now know about semitones, whole tones, and which of those natural notes has no sharp or flat, you can look at the pattern of the scale. In whole tones (T) and semitones/half-tones (S).
Some people prefer the terms whole-tone and halftone in which case you might prefer it laid out like this, but both present an identical concept;
Learning that pattern allows you to play your major scale notes on your guitar with any note as a starter note. You simply move from the starter note and travel 2 frets for a whole tone or one for a semitone.
That said, you will travel a long way up the neck and you will have learned by now the note may be in easy-reach proximity on a different string nearby.
But that is the principle of the theory and maybe it is a little less complex than you thought.
Of course, as we mentioned previously, many people begin with learning some basic chords on the guitar, scales typically come later and some never bother to learn any at all.
Whether you learn guitar notes or chords first, it is good to learn about the notes and some rudimentary music theory to understand what is going on behind them.
So what is a chord? Well, if we continue with our earlier analogy with the notes as the letters of the alphabet of your guitar, then the chords are the words the letters make.
A basic major chord uses the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a major scale. Also called the root note, major third, and perfect fifth. When you combine these 3 notes you are playing a major chord also known as a major triad.
So using our previous explanation of major scale intervals in the key of C major, you are looking at the following notes;
C, E, and G; these three notes together make a C major chord.
If you put the intervals between the c major scale notes below you can see there are 4 frets between the root and major third and 3 frets between the major third and perfect fifth.
However, as with learning your scales, you won’t play the intervals on the same string. Playing a chord incorporates more than one string with various fret positions to achieve the three notes (or more) that are required for it.
Most basic chords only span 3 or 4 frets at once because it is a big stretch for your fingers otherwise. Especially at the low end of your fretboard where the fret markings are further apart.
Fortunately, from what you have read here, you will know that you only need to travel up a string to reach your fifth fret marker note anyway.
As there are 6 strings and not just 3, you need to make sure you aren’t playing any notes that aren’t in the major chord/triad that you are trying to play.
The most basic chords to start learning are open chords, they are named that because they are played near to your guitar nut and some of the notes are open strings.
Some open chords require you to mute some of the open strings so you don’t add a bum note to the chord.
The C major chord we looked at above uses the notes C, E, and G but they aren’t the easiest notes to cover in a beginner-friendly chord position. So instead as we did in our basic guitar chords article we are going to give you E major as an example.
E is an easy open chord because 2 of your strings are already tuned to E which is the root note of an E major chord.
Using our T-T-S-T-T-T-S pattern for a major scale we can take our musical alphabet and start at E.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
One tone from E is F#, one tone from there is G#, one semitone more is A. One tone from A is B, a tone further is C#, one tone higher than that is D#, and one last semitone completes the octave bringing you back to E.
But for the E major chord, we only need notes 1, 3, and 5 of the scale E, G#, and B.
E G# B
Your 1st string is already E which is in E major, your 2nd string is already B, again in E major. Your 3rd string is a G which needs to be sharpened therefore you need to take it up one fret.
The 4th string is D which is one whole tone below E, it needs to be raised 2 frets as does your 5th string which is tuned to A, but needs to be changed to a B. Your 6th string is E and stays open.
To play it, you use your middle finger (called finger number 2) on the A string in the second fret. Your ring finger (or 3rd finger) sits on the (D) string in the same fret and your index finger (or first finger) holds the G string in the first fret raising the note to G#.
Final Thoughts on Guitar Notes
Hopefully, we have give you an understanding of guitar notes as simplistically as possible, but thrown in enough theory without scaring you off completely.
Don’t worry if you didn’t follow everything if you are a complete beginner, latch onto the ideas that you can grasp, a little theory goes a long way, and eventually, the penny will drop!
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