How (and why!) to learn all the notes on your guitar.
‘If you don’t know your notes, you don’t know sh--”
Joe Satriani wrote this to Steve Vai in his notebook after their second guitar lesson, which lasted 1 minute. Satriani sent him home because Vai didn’t learn all the notes on his guitar, which was his assignment from their FIRST lesson. He was given a week to complete the task. He completed it by the next week, probably due to the embarrassment.
Today, both are considered masters among most players.
If you want to be a truly capable guitarist, you need to learn the notes on your guitar, and be able to play them on every string in a moment’s notice. The more quickly you can attain this kind of fluency, the sooner the guitar feels like an extension of your body and does’t require thought to play. Too many guitar players skip or procrastinate this vital step, hoping they will just learn it eventually instead of tackling the problem head on. It doesn’t take that long (a week of 1hr focused study a day will get you very comfortable), and it is an investment that will make learning almost every other skill 10 times easier.
The more you understand your notes, the more natural the guitar feels in your hands, the deeper into the PLAY you can get, and the more fun you can ultimately have. But you can’t use the understanding of your notes which you have acquired, without knowing where your notes ARE. If you don’t know your notes you don't know shit.
If you know your notes, you don’t have to learn chords anymore, you can make your own and learn to figure out your song ideas the way you hear them in your head.
If you know your notes you don't have to learn scales anymore either, you can learn to build your own and have total freedom to experiment on the fretboard.
If you know your notes, you open the door to full exploration of music theory, so you can learn what to expect when improvising chord progressions and solos, or even both at the same time (See: Chet Atkins)
If you learn your notes, you have a fast and reliable system for explaining them to people so they can play along with you, or for learning them from someone so you can play along with them.
This is not the fun part of playing guitar, but it unlocks the world of music. It is the difference between being a guitar player and being a musician, with the knowledge to figure out any instrument, learn or make any song, and play any melody. This is the part that makes playing guitar more fun later on, knowledge is power, and being confused at the jam is a miserable experience for just about anybody. If you learn the name of every note on your guitar, and learn the music theory of intervals, chords, and scales, you need never worry about being embarrassed at the jam again. This can be done in a surprisingly short time as well with the right foundational knowledge of the instrument. Finally, all that’s left is rhythm and experimenting with the tools you’ve set yourself up with, aka PLAY!!!
This is my very own “Path to guitar mastery” Diagram, which I designed based on my 16 years of guitar playing experience and my interest in techniques for learning new skills. It centers around a Japanese path to mastery called Shuhari. The first step of shuhari is to master the rules, follow them until you understand their inner mechanics, only once you understand the inner workings can you learn to appropriately break the rules, or Ha. Ha doesn’t necessarily have to break written rules, rather, it is the beginning of the truly creative state, it can go against the flow of what you or anyone would expect, it is experimenting and pushing things together in a way no one has before until you get so good at it that people can hear your music and know it’s you playing, you’ve developed a unique style, and reached Ru, becoming the rule, mastery at your craft..
The first step of Shu is learning your tools and the theory behind them. For guitar that means learning to tune, proper fretting, strumming, and picking techniques, and learning where all the notes on your fretboard are, and then developing enough of an understanding of music theory that you can use it as the marvelous tool it is.
Learning the fretboard is amongst the most important (and possibly least fun) steps in learning guitar, everything that follows will be made easier or more difficult by how well you know all your notes. That’s the last time I’ll say it I promise.
When first presented with the task, it may seem impossible, but with some recognition of some basic patterns it is actually very manageable. The guitar is beautifully designed, and this becomes very evident when one ventures to learn the notes and how they are arranged for maximum usability by the player. So finally, let's geet into it (heheh see what I did there?)
First things first.
Check out this fretboard diagram from the awesome folks at https://www.richmondmusicacademy.com
Stop for a minute and see if you notice any patterns. Pick a note, where's the octave up from that? What about the next octave up? Pick another note in the middle, what's the octave down?
There are so many beautiful and useful patterns that emerge on the fretboard once you start to notice them; they are the key to competent playing and fretboard navigation. Here are 4 of my favorites that help me navigate the fretboard.
Pattern 1: The 12 frets
Chances are, if you’ve been playing for a while, you are aware of this very simple pattern, but some people (I was certainly part of this group) don’t become aware of this rule even after a year or more of playing. And even others may know the pattern but not understand the implications of it. The pattern is this:
The fretboard starts over on the 12th fret.
Basically, an open strum on guitar is the same as a strum with all strings on the 12th fret barred, but an octave lower on each string.
This seems simple, but this fact has 2 very important implications:
First, this means that once you learn up to the 12th fret, you’ve already learned everything above the 12th fret too!
Second and more important, this means that every string, between the open pluck and the 11th fret, has every single note on it, all ascending in the same order starting on a different note (The order of sharps and flats, AKA pattern 2, up next).
For example, lets take the lowest 6-note chromatic (every half step) scale we can play on the guitar: E, F, F#, G, G#, A (The first 6 notes on the E string in ascending order)
Since each string has each note, let's highlight this sequence on our fretboard diagram and see if we see any patterns (if you try to play this pattern it will sound insane just fair warning it’s not pleasant).
See the patterns? The A and The E are always right next to each other, The scale restarts 1 string + 7 frets up, or 2 strings and 2 frets up (More on this in pattern 3, the octave rule).
Also note how if you do this on any each note is the same as on the E string and starts over again back at the lowest note on the string you’ve hit the 11th fret. So you only need to know the name of one single note on the string to figure out any note on that string. To do this, you need the pattern of sharps and flats.
Pattern 2: Sharps and Flats
This is a diagram of one octave on the piano. This is all 12 notes that make up western music theory.
This is the notes of the B string if you play every fret up all the way up to 12
B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Or in the case of the E string:
E F F# G G# A A# B C C# D D# E
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
These both also contain every note that makes up all of western music.
Each string up to the 12th fret is like an octave on the piano.
The first thing you notice is that there is no B# or E#, so it is important to skip those when counting notes. That leaves us with 12 notes total, and how wonderful, you have one of each note on every string! The sharps are sometimes also called flats, but that's for another post.
Using this pattern, if you can find the E on any string you can move up or down to any note you could want. Once you get the pattern of sharps and flats memorized you can move up or down from any note to any other note on the fretboard just by saying your ABCs with appropriate sharps and flats.
But what if you want to, say, jump quickly between notes on different strings, or you know where the E is on the E string but not the D string. There’s a trick for that.
Pattern 3: The Octave Rules
Consider this image of the fretboard, where I've highlighted all of the E and A notes…
What do you notice? What patterns do you see?
Notice how the A is almost always a string up from the E?
Notice how the A is always 5 frets up from the E? Those are the same As. Going up one string on the same fret is the same as going up 5 frets on the same string.
By extension of these 2 observations, we can also deduce that the same note, say E, can be found by going up one string and down 5 frets.
These rules are foolproof for the lowest 4 strings. The B-string however, mixes it up slightly, because the interval for all the other strings is a 4th and from the G to the B is a 3rd. So if your target note is on the B string, you’ll have to go up an extra string to make these rules continue to work. But after that, the interval from the B to E is the same as the first 4 strings.
A good example of this is how the only E-A combo that aren't on the same fret just one string away is between the G and B strings. Look at the diagram again and see if you notice any other instances where there is an extra fret up in the pattern, say for the two strings up two frets up octave rule from E on the D string to E on the B string.
Pattern 4: The 5-note span
Back to the pattern where the note on the same fret that the next string up is the same as the note on the same string 5 frets up. This has serious implications. They may be less helpful in helping you to learn the fretboard but it is too helpful for playing and using this knowledge not to mention.
Because of this pattern of 4th intervals, you have every note (or an octave from it) on the fretboard available to you in any single span of 5 frets. Look:
Notice if you start on the A on the E string and move up the string, the D is just outside of the box, but because the guitar strings are ascending 4ths (except b) the first note in the box on the next string is a D!
This works on any part of the neck and provides 2 whole octaves of notes and then some without having to move the hand up or down. If you look closely you will notice every scale and chord in that box, and maybe even some interesting ways to play them that you have never thought about before. This is how many if not all of the scale and chord shapes you already know are discovered.
So here is my technique for learning all the notes on the fretboard and learning the best ways for your fingers to access them. This system is designed to give you enough reference anywhere you are on the guitar that you know how to figure out what note you are playing or where the note you are looking for is, however, you will still have to internalize all of these associations until you remember where each note is. How do you remember them? Play around with the patterns! Literally any way you can think of!
Here’s some ideas
- Go around the circle of fifths note by note and play every version of each note on your guitar until you go all the way around.
- Pick 4-5 notes from a scale starting on a root and play them In every part of the neck that there is a root note.
- Play ascending thirds in sets of 3 to make a triad, making sure to hit every note in the triad on every part of the neck, then change keys or do the same with 2nds, 4ths, etc.
- Make flashcards and quiz yourself on where each version of each note is on the neck.
The possibilities are endless, what matters is you learn the notes, and once you learn the music theory, you will have all the tools you need to be a great guitar player. I am so excited for you!!!
Next stop - Music Theory City!