With the number of notes there are on a guitar and such a large amount of scales to play them in, it might be intimidating to consider playing with all of them (and making it sound good.) But don't fret; we've got good news.
Even beginners can quickly become familiar with the neck of their instrument as long as they commit a bit of practice and patience! Starting with the basics is the best way to begin your journey, and we've got you covered.
As you progress, you can dive deeper into understanding how chords are constructed and how specific scales fit together. Understanding the fretboard is a solid foundation for playing your favorite songs, writing your own killer tunes, and improvising like a pro. Rocksmith+ explains more.
Where Is Each Note Located on a Guitar?
Learning the notes of the guitar fretboard is essential when you're working on mastering the instrument because it will help you play better by ear and improvisation and can make your overall playing experience more enjoyable.
The simplest way to begin learning where the notes are on the guitar is to practice the standard scale, from your low E string to your high E string. Each note, ascending from E-F-G-A-B-C-D and back to E, has its own place on the fretboard and up the strings. The notes E and F, as well as B and C, are right next to each other.
Otherwise, you have one space between them, which are called sharps or flats depending on the adjacent note (one fret up from G, for example, would be G Sharp.)
Including open strings, which we'll identify as "0", here's a quick tablature walkthrough of the ascending notes by fret on a guitar:
|Low E:||0, 1, 3||E, F, G|
|A:||0, 2, 3||A, B, C|
|D:||0, 2, 3||D, E, F|
|G:||0, 2||G, A|
|B:||0, 1, 3||B, C, D|
|High E:||0, 1, 3||E, F, G|
Familiarizing yourself with the individual notes is just the beginning --- each string also has these notes ascending toward the body of the guitar, and you can play different scales at different points on the neck depending on what key or mode you're playing in, which can affect the emotional power of the music.
What Are Chords and Scales?
Familiarizing yourself with the individual notes of your fretboard is crucial because it gives you a foundation for learning chords and scales. These basic music theory elements are the bedrock of every musical work; learning how they're constructed and fit together means you can apply them effectively to your playing.
Chords are when you play three or more notes together simultaneously, and they can consist of the same note repeated multiple times or different notes. One immediate example of this is what's known as power chords, which have a root note, a 5th note, and an octave. Sometimes the octave is left out --- however, adding it in boosts the power and size of the chord when played.
A scale is a series of notes played in a specific order based on a pattern of intervals between the notes. The most common scales used in Western music are the major, natural minor, and pentatonic scales.
Depending on how you define a "scale" (some might argue you could have a single-note scale, a two-note scale, and so on), there are potentially thousands of different scales, each with its own emotional strength and popular genre, from classical to jazz, rock, and pop.
How Do You Know What Key You're in?
The key refers to the set of notes or pitches that a piece of music is rooted around. This determines the overall tonality or feeling of the music, as well as the relationship between the different notes and chords used in the piece.
The key is usually determined by the first note, known as the tonic, as well as the scale used within the piece. Sometimes musicians will counter one scale on top of a different key for a unique blend, but this is rare.
For example, a piece in the key of C major would be based on the C major scale, while a piece in the key of A minor would follow the A minor scale. Some say the different keys have different emotional strengths, particularly between major and minor keys.
What Are Chord Progressions?
Chord progressions are a sequence of two or more chords that flow from one to the other. Chord progressions often make use of the "chord scale" of a song's key. A chord scale is made by building a chord on each scale note.
If, for example, you were playing a song in the key of A major, the A major scale includes the notes A B C# D E F# G#, and the A major chord scale includes the following chords: A major, B minor, C# minor, D major, E major, F# minor, and G# diminished. A chord progression made using these chords will sound like a perfect fit for the key of A major.
Investing the time and energy in learning your chords and scales will help you play all kinds of songs. You'll also be better equipped to create meaningful music when you improvise or compose your own pieces.
How Do Octaves Help You Navigate the Fretboard?
Octaves are a simple but powerful way to step up your chords or even play as a single note harmony, as you might've regularly heard in a lot of songs by the ever-talented Jack White, such as throughout the track "Taking Me Back" (though sometimes he uses an octave pedal to achieve this effect instead of actually playing the notes.)
An octave is just a set of two of the same notes that are eight notes apart in pitch, meaning 12 piano keys or guitar frets separate them. So, you would be playing an E, jumping over the next eight notes, and playing the E above it to make an octave.
Learning octaves is helpful when practicing your scales because they can be used as reference points through the fretboard --- if you know where each A note is, then you can use those as points along the steps of your scale to help navigate your fretboard. Eventually, this will become second nature as you get familiar with octaves and notes with a lot of practicing and growing comfortable with your instrument.
What Is Improvisation?
Improvising is the act of playing music, either solo or alongside other musicians and existing music, but you are playing something that's never been heard or written down before. Or, at least, nothing that you've intentionally planned on playing. Improvisation is a skill all guitar players should strive to master; it brings your music to life and distinguishes you from other musicians.
First, you'll need to understand and master the notes on the fretboard before you can unlock the creative potential of your instrument.
Think of the notes on your fretboard as your story-telling tool. You might be surprised how much this little trick inspires you to play better by ear and improvise more freely! Understanding the different scales, how they move along the frets, and how each one sounds, whether it's happy, sad, or a more complex emotion, will provide you with the tools you need to improvise and properly tell the story you want to tell.
What Are Some Tips for Mastering the Fretboard?
Now that we've covered some foundational knowledge, here are some tips and tricks to help you master the fretboard.
1. Practice Songs You Know
As you progress in learning new concepts, try playing along with songs or tracks you know well so you can internalize the knowledge while allowing room for creativity.
The more time you invest in learning different elements of music theory and exploring different sounds, textures, and rhythms on your instrument, the more confident you'll be when it comes to performing live or in the studio.
2. Take Your Time and Be Consistent
Learning the guitar fretboard requires a lot of repetition and consistency to build muscle memory and develop finger strength and dexterity. Rushing through practice sessions can lead to mistakes, frustration, and slow progress. Beginners need to take their time and focus on mastering each skill or concept before moving on to the next.
Consistent practice will help them build confidence and gradually improve their playing abilities, leading to a more rewarding and enjoyable experience.
3. Start Small and Expand
It's important to start with basic scales, such as the major or minor scales, and practice them regularly until they become second nature. Once the basic scales are mastered, beginners can gradually expand their knowledge and skills by learning more advanced scales, such as the pentatonic or harmonic minor scales.
By starting small and gradually building up, beginners can avoid feeling overwhelmed or frustrated and see progress more easily. This approach also helps to ensure that the fundamentals of playing guitar scales are fully understood, leading to better overall playing ability in the long run.
Understanding the notes on the neck of a guitar is an essential skill for anyone wanting to master the instrument. Getting familiar with octaves and learning how to play scales and chords across multiple strings will teach you where each note is located and how it relates to every other note.
It's through this process of becoming comfortable with your fretboard that you'll be able to expand your knowledge further when playing and improvising to songs from different genres. Before long, you'll be making beautiful music, no matter your genre or style.
Remember to try Rocksmith+ if you're ready to learn new songs and techniques. You might be surprised how quickly you learn your way around your fretboard.
The Science of Music - Why Do Songs in a Minor Key Sound Sad? | NME
Scales and Emotions | Ethan Hein