Do You Know The Fretboard?

Weekly Newsletter #4

September 2, 2021

Welcome back to the Max Rich Music Weekly Newsletter! 

Do you have trouble learning the notes on the fretboard? I’m sure many of you suffer from this ailment. At some point, every guitarist is faced with a decision; either learn the neck and progress to the next level, or say “nah, its too hard” and make up some excuse why you don’t need it. 

Needless to say, I’m not a big fan of the latter. I think it’s obvious to any honest guitar player why learning the notes on the neck is a huge advantage. After all, if you ever want to break out of playing the same licks and same pentatonic patterns, you’re going to need to be able to see the notes on the neck and instantly recognize their names. 

Today is the day you begin to do exactly that! 

To start with, it means that you must understand the musical alphabet. This alphabet is essentially every note that exists in music, and believe it or not, there are only 12 of them! 

Think of your guitar, the open 6th string is E, but then the 6th string 12th fret is also E. This means that starting on the open string and going fret by fret, you will have played all the notes in the alphabet before landing back on E on the 12th fret, where the cycle would start again. The same is true for a piano keyboard. Start on middle C and play each key (white and black) upward until you hit the next C. Now count them, there are 12 notes. 

To simplify this even more, there are only 7 letter names for all 12 notes: 

A B C D E F G 

After G it will start back over at A. 

“But you just said there are 12 notes, and here you are listing only 7!” Well the interesting part is that there is a note between almost every letter in those 7. For example, there is a note between A and B, and it can be called by two different names: A# or Bb. The reason for the two names is somewhat complicated and better left for another discussion. For now, we will simply stick to using sharps (#), but just recognize that the same note can be called a flat (b) as well. 

The tricky part is that there are two spots in the alphabet that have no note in between. There is no note between B & C and no note between E & F. All the others will have a note in between. If you look at a keyboard you can see this mapped out visually. 

Notice that there is no black key between E & F or B & C. This is very important to remember! 

Now, how do we actually learn the notes on the fretboard? Well the fastest way is to memorize octaves. An octave is simply the distance from one note to that same letter note either up or down 12 notes. On the image above the keyboard starts on C and ends on C, this is an octave between C and C. The earlier example of the open E string and the 12 fret E is another example of an octave. 

On guitar, octaves don’t simply happen on one string as in that example, but they can happen by skipping one or more strings. 

In order to see this, play a C chord. Your ring finger is on the 5th string, 3rd fret, which is the note C. Your index finger is on the 2nd string, 1st fret, which is also the note C but one octave higher. If you let go of your middle finger and leave only your ring and index finger you are left with one shape of an octave. 

Now, this is where it all comes together. Anywhere you move that shape up and down the neck, staying on those two strings, with a fret in between your fingers you will be playing an octave. That means that if the 5th string, 7th fret is an E, then the 2nd string, 5th fret is also an E. 

In order to learn the notes on the fretboard, learning your octaves is the fastest way to commit them to memory. There are several octave shapes, but they often repeat themselves on different strings. This makes learning these shapes incredibly quick, which in turn makes learning the notes on the neck also very quick and easy. 

Here is a video detailing all of the octave shapes and an easy exercise to practice them.

If you can memorize your octaves then all you need to do is simply learn the notes on one string. Most people can easily learn the notes on the 6th string because that is often the bass note used for bar chords. From there you simply find the octave for that note and you can easily find notes all over the neck! 

There are a few more intricate ways of developing familiarity with the fretboard: memorizing reference points (all the notes on the 5th and 7th frets), relating notes to the nearest note you have memorized (open 6th string is E, therefore 6th string 2nd fret must be F#) and learning the notes of a particular lick you like and then playing that lick in all the octaves you find on the neck. 

Starting with memorizing the musical alphabet and then the octave shapes will get you most of the way to learning the fretboard. If you have any trouble and can’t quite seem to get it, feel free to reach out to me and I will help walk you through it. 

Thanks for reading and I hope you can share the newsletter with any fellow guitarists you think would benefit. 

Keep on shredding! 

Max Rich