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Learning the Notes on Guitar

So you’ve been learning to play the guitar for a while, you’ve learned your open chords, maybe some scale shapes, maybe some songs from TAB.

You’ve had amazing progress at first, but then it stalled. Learning new songs from TAB and chords takes forever, the guitar fretboard is still a mystery. Sounds familiar? Read on.

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One of the best things you can do to ensure you can keep progressing and enjoying guitar for a very long time, is to improve your understanding of what you’re playing.

One of the most important steps to that goal is learning the notes all over the guitar fretboard.

For many people, it seems like a daunting task - that’s why it’s best to break it down and take it step by step.

In this article, I'll give you an overview of these steps. Before you go on, if you're serious about getting better at guitar - check out Grokit Guitar - our iOS app that enables you to learn your notes (and also technique, theory, rhythm and more) at your own speed.

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Understanding The Note Cycle

Guitar is an overwhelming instrument when it comes to understanding how the notes work.

So we are tempted to skip this altogether, and just work with chords and scale shapes.

However, this approach quickly runs out of steam as we’re overwhelmed with all the shapes that we need to remember and struggle to make sense of them.

So instead, let's start by taking a look at a keyboard.

Piano keyboard | Grokit Guitar

All of the notes are laid out linearly: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and back to C.

After we get to C, it repeats again in a cycle. When you play these notes in order, you'll hear a stepwise increase in pitch.

Notes Along The Strings

Having learned the notes and their order, you can learn to play them along a single string. 

This is an extremely important step that many guitarists skip.

When you’re just playing along a single string, the notes are laid out linearly, like on a keyboard - making it easier to understand their logic.

Take a look:

Piano keyboard to Guitar keyboard | Grokit Guitar

I've marked out the portion of the keyboard that corresponds to the 1st 12 frets of the thin E string.

You can see, that:

  • As on a keyboard, the notes all go in order: C, D, E, F, G, A, B -> C and so on.

  • the first note is E, the same as in the string name.

  • most notes have 2 frets (a full step) between them, except E-F, and B-C, which have 1 fret (a half step) - these are the notes that don’t have a black key between them on a keyboard.

This is the most important thing to learn when playing along a string: when to move 2 frets, and when to move 1 fret.

You can start practicing by playing all the natural notes along the 1st string:

As you can see, it's just about shifting 1 fret or 2 frets up, depending on which note is next.

Once you’re comfortable with it, take a look at the rest of the strings one by one.

The same logic works for all of them, you just need to start on the note that's in the string name.

Here's a diagram to remember the pattern:

Guitar notes pattern | Grokit Guitar
  • On the B string, start on B, then move 1 fret up to C, then 2 frets to D, etc.

  • On the G string, start on G, then move 2 frets up to A, 2 frets up to B, etc.

  • And so on

When you're comfortable going forward and backward along the strings, you can start playing melodies and improvising this way - this is a great way of playing that`s used by pro musicians all the time!

Of course, it is all about practice. Nothing will become second nature by reading an article and playing through it once. And practice needs to be fun.

That’s why in Grokit Guitar, every little step comes with interactive exercises where you’ll play your guitar and get immediate feedback. So make sure to try our iOS App for free.

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Understanding Positions

After understanding how notes are laid out linearly on every string, playing in position makes much more sense.

A position is built to play a lot of notes without moving your fretting hand along the neck of the guitar.

It’s like reading a page - when you run out of space on one line, you move to the next.

A good place to start is the open position.

We'll assign every finger to a specific fret, starting on the 1st.

One finger per fret | Grokit Guitar

While we have fingers available to play on the current string, we continue along.

When we run out of fingers, we’ll switch to the next string:

Building the open position | Grokit Guitar

We play E, F, G on the 6th string, but to play A, we'd have to move our hand. So we switch to the 5th string.

The next note in the cycle is A, and it’s on the open 5th string - so we play it there. Then we can continue along the 5th string. If we keep going, we'll arrive at the full open position:

The open position | Grokit Guitar

You'll notice that if you're going through the notes from left to right from the thickest string to the thinnest, you'll see all of the notes in order. Playing the position and keeping the note names that you're playing in mind will be a big step in understanding the guitar logic.

Later Steps

There are more techniques for remembering notes and mastering the fretboard, but as in anything, it doesn’t make sense to learn them until you’ve mastered the previous steps.

Mastering the fretboard takes time, and it’s important to take every step in order and work on it, and use it musically, before going on to the next.

Otherwise you risk being overwhelmed and confused by the overabundance of information.

In later articles, we'll be covering other ways to remember notes - such as using intervals (octaves, 4ths, and 5ths) to find your way across the strings quickly, using mnemonics for the middle frets, and more.

Alternatively, if you haven’t yet, check out our iOS app which covers all of this, step by step and with a lot of fun and practical exercises.

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