When it comes to understanding the fretboard the first thing to focus on is the pitches of the open strings. Open string means playing the string without pressing the string to the fretboard. Each string takes it’s name from the open pitch. You’ll encounter players referring to the D-String, the B-string, the Low E-String, etc.
A handy mnemonic for memorizing the open string pitches goes like this:
Elephants And Donkeys have Great Big Ears
Once you have the open strings down we can use that knowledge to unravel the note locations over the rest of the fretboard. Remember our old friend the octave? The notes at the 12th fret are octaves of the open strings, so they get the same note names:
Go back and take a look at the previous diagrams with all the notes filled in. Notice that everything on the first fret repeats at the 13th fret. Everything on the 2nd fret repeats at the 14th fret, etc. If you were to learn all the natural notes on frets 1 through 5, you’d also know the notes on frets 13 through 17. That’s pretty handy.
Another way the 12th fret helps you is by giving you a second point of reference. Say you want to know what note is at the 3rd fret of the A-string. Simply start with the open string pitch and work your way, one-note-at-time, up to the third fret:
A — A♯ — B — C
But what if the note is at the 9th fret instead? It would be easier to work your way down from the 12th fret:
A — A♭ — G — G♭
The notes on both E-strings are Identical. The high sounding string (closest to the floor when holding the guitar and the top string in the diagrams) is called the high E-string and the other is called the low E-string:
Now take a look at the notes across the 5th fret:
The pitch at the 5th fret of the low E-string (A) is the same pitch as the open A-String. The pitch at the 5th fret of the A-string (D) is the same pitch as the open D-string. The pitch at the 5th fret of the D-string (G) is the same pitch as the open G-string. But on the G-string it’s the pitch at the 4th fret that matches the open B-string. This is very important. It has a significant impact on how certain note relationships line up on the highest two strings compared with the lower 4 strings. This will become clear once we look at octaves.
On the B-string, once again, you’ll find the pitch at the 5th fret matches the pitch of the open high E-string.
This is valuable not only for understanding how the guitar strings are tuned relative to one and another but it gives us our first look at how the notes repeat moving across the strings.
For any note on the E A D or B-String, the same note can be found one string higher and five frets lower.
For any note on the G string, the same note can be found one string higher and four frets lower.
Once again, let’s return to our old friend the octave:
Take a look at the open low E-string. Notice that you have the same pitch at the 2nd fret two strings over. Remember this pattern – two strings over and two frets up.
In a previous diagram we leaned that all the notes repeat at the 12th fret. Notice that the octave of the E at the 12th fret once again sits two strings over and two frets up (14th fret on the D-string).
If you look at the E at the 7th fret on the A-string you’ll see that it’s octave is also two strings over and two frets up.
Now, take a look at the E note at the 2nd fret of the D-string. It’s octave is going to be two strings over and three frets up. Remember how the open B string didn’t match the other strings and the notes at the 5th fret? That discrepancy makes the B string one fret lower in pitch than the bottom four strings. This also makes the high E-string one fret lower in pitch. If everything matched at the 5th fret the two highest strings would be tuned to C and F instead of B and E. This standard tuning makes it easier to play chords, but a little more difficult to know where the notes are sitting. The thing to keep in mind is that when you’re looking for the octave on the top two strings, it’s going to be one fret higher than normal – two strings over and three frets up.
What we’ve learned about octaves on the guitar:
- For any note the octave can be found 12 frets higher (or lower) on the same string
- For any note on the low E-string and the A-string the octave can be found two strings over and two frets up
- For any note on the D-string and G-string the octave can be found two strings over and three frets up.
Another thing to look at is how the notes line up on adjacent strings:
Find every E note in the above diagram. Notice how for every E note an A note sits at the same fret one string higher except for the E at the 9th fret of the G string. The A note on the B-string is one fret higher just like with octaves. Anytime you’re dealing with the B-string and high E-string the notes are going to be one fret higher.
Notice how for every E note there is a B note sitting at the same fret one string lower except for the E at the 5th fret of the B-string. Once again you have to account for the tuning difference between those two strings. You’ll see the same thing at the 17th fret of the B-string.
Go back to the diagram with every note on the fretboard. Pick any note at random and pay attention to the notes on the strings above and below that note. Find that same note at any location on the fretboard and you’ll find the neighboring notes sitting there too.
E A D G B E
Let’s take this adjacent string relationship one step further. Remember the open strings — E A D G B E. This sequence of notes repeats itself many times across the strings. If you locate any E note on the fretboard, the notes on each higher string will always repeat the sequence — E A D G B. After B comes E, again, and the sequence repeats in a loop. So, no matter which note of the sequence you start with, the sequence repeats across the strings. You only have to account for that pesky B string and the B note itself. As we have discovered already, any note that lands on the B string will be one fret higher than normal. As you’ll see in the diagrams below, except for the open strings and 12th fret, the B note, itself, will always be one fret lower than the adjacent G note:
As you work with the notes on the fretboard use the octaves and adjacent string relationships to help you find your way around. In time, you’ll start seeing these locations without having to think about it or stop and figure it out..