Learning Note Names …

How To Find Any Note, Anywhere On Your Guitar

There are many method books that make this seem like a fairly daunting task of memorization, but it’s not all that hard if you remember a few basic facts.

1. All consecutive pairs of notes in the C major scale (no sharps or flats) are 2 frets apart, EXCEPT only the pairs B-C and E-F are one fret apart. In other words:

A<-2->B   C<-2->D   D<-2->E   F<-2->G   G<-2->A

and …

B<1>C   E<1>F

So that the complete musical scale looks like this up and down each string on the guitar, no matter what the first note might be.

Grab Your Guitar And Play These Examples

Let’s start with the open A string (5th string).

A<-2->B<1>C<-2->D<-2->E<1>F<-2->G<-2->A<-2->B<1>C … etc.

Starting on the open E string (6th or 1st string):

E<1>F<-2->G<-2->A<-2->B<1>C etc.

Or if we look at the open G string (3rd string):

G<-2->A<-2->B<1>C<-2->D<-2->E<1>F … etc.

If we left it there it would still seem a bit overwhelming to memorize those long strings of notes, so let’s have some reference points.  You MUST know these without thinking for this to work, but you probably know them anyway. (Oh, yeah … you also have to know the alphabet really well! Don’t laugh … I’m a little weak on that.)

Establish Reference Points

It’s always good to build on simple facts you already know about the guitar … there’s a good chance you know more than you think!

2. Learn the names of the open strings if you don’t know them already.

  • 1st string (thinnest)=E
  • 2nd string=B
  • 3rd string=G
  • 4th string=D
  • 5th string=A
  • 6th string (thickest)=E

If those are the names of the open strings, the 12th fret on each string will have the same note name as the open string, an octave higher in pitch.

  • 1st string, 12th fret=E
  • 2nd string, 12th fret=B
  • 3rd string, 12th fret=G
  • 4th string, 12th fret=D
  • 5th string, 12th fret=A
  • 6th string, 12th fret=E

Now we’re getting somewhere. If you pay attention to the names on the package of a new set of strings, you already know this!

3. Learn the notes at the 5th fret. Anyone who tunes the guitar without an electronic tuner knows that you tune strings on your guitar to the same pitch as a fretted note on the next lowest string.

  • To tune the open A string, match it to the 5th fret on the low E.  That means the note on the 5th fret of the low E string is A.
  • To tune the open D string, match it to the 5th fret on the A string.  That means the note on the 5th fret of the A string is D.
  • To tune the open G string, match it to the 5th fret on the D string.  That means the note on the 5th fret of the D string is G.
  • To tune the open B string, match it to the FOURTH fret on the G string.  This is the only exception, and it means the note on the 4th fret of the G string is B.
  • To tune the high E string, match it to the 5th fret on the B string.  That means the note on the 5th fret of the B string is E.
  • Since the note names are the same on both E strings, we know that the the note on the 5th fret of the high E string is A, just like the low E string.

So, from the highest (thinnest) string to the lowest, here’s what we have at the 5th fret.

  • 1st string, 5th fret=A
  • 2nd string, 5th fret=E
  • 3rd string, 4th fret=B
  • 4th string, 5th fret=G
  • 5th string, 5th fret=D
  • 6th string, 5th fret=A

That’s all the memorization you have to do … not that much if you already knew the names of the open strings.

Here’s what our reference points look like on the guitar neck. Don’t worry … we’re almost ready to start finding notes, but you do have to know these three notes on each string. Then all that remains is to think in relation to these notes you already know … the open strings and the ‘tuning notes’.

open             5th fret                    12th fret

The Three Basic Facts

So now we have our ‘landmarks’. And to recap the three simple facts we’re using:

  • The three reference notes (open string, 5th fret, 12th fret) on each string (above).
  • The musical alphabet goes from A to G and then starts over, i.e., ABCDEFGABC …
  • All pairs of consecutive notes are 2 frets apart, EXCEPT the pairs [BC] and [EF] are right next to each other.

That’s it … really nothing else needs to be memorized. Perhaps you can see that any note you name is going to be only three frets or less above or below a known landmark.

How To Put It All Together

I’d recommend starting with the two lowest strings; E (6th) and A (5th), but just for kicks let’s start with the B string (2nd string) … NOBODY knows the notes on the B string!

                 5th fret

So we have our three landmarks that we know without thinking; B on the open string and at the 12th fret, and E at the 5th fret.

Let’s say someone asks us to find a B … obviously we already know 2 places to play B on the B string!  How about if someone asks where E is? Same thing … it’s a landmark.

What if someone asks for an F? We know E is a landmark, F is the next consecutive alphabet letter, and the EF pair is right next to each other.

                 5th fret

What if someone asks for an A on the B string? We know that B is a landmark and the letter/note A is right before B.  We know that it’s 2 frets away from B, because all notes are two frets apart except EF and BC.

                 5th fret

What about C on the B string? B is a landmark, and C is right next door!

                 5th fret

How about G? We know that G is only 3 letter names from a landmark … EFG … and we also know that F is right next to E. Then G is two frets above F.

                 5th fret

How about one more example, let’s say D on the B string? We know that D is one letter name before the landmark E, and the DE pair is two frets apart (only EF and BC are right next to each other).

                 5th fret

Here are all the notes we have found on the B string so far.

                 5th fret

Do not try to memorize this long string of notes. You will start to see them easily after a bit of practice finding one note at a time in random order.

The ‘In Between’ Notes

What about those ‘mystery notes’ between the notes names we just found; the ‘sharps and flats’? A sharp (#) moves a note one fret closer to the 12th fret (i.e., higher in pitch), while a flat (b) moves a note one fret closer to the open string (i.e., lower in pitch)

Therefore, if we know where an A is, we know where Ab is.  If we know where D is, we know where D# is located etc.

For example, we know that A is two frets below the landmark B. Ab is just one fret below that.

                 5th fret

And D is two frets below the landmark E, so D# is just one fret ABOVE that.

                 5th fret

How To Practice

Here’s an exercise to get you started. First, make a list of random note names.  You could start with a list of just the “natural” notes, i.e., no sharps or flats, like this: G D F C A E B

Now record yourself reading that list of notes several times onto an audio file, leaving several seconds between each note name so you have time to find it. You may be able to use your cell phone to do this. The list of notes works for any string you’re working on, so you only have to do it once.

Then choose a string … as I mentioned, it might be a good idea to start with the low E (6th) string and the low A (5th) string, since that’s where the roots of your bar chords and power chords are located. Start with one string at a time, like we did on the B string.  Just run your mp3 file you recorded and try to find each note as it comes up, in relation to one of the 3 landmarks on that string. It’s really easy, and a little repetition will give you increasing confidence.

If you want to make it more challenging, include the sharps and flats in your list.

A Eb C Gb B E Ab D Bb G Db F
  D#   F#     G#   A#   C#

As you can see, each of the notes between the ‘natural’ notes can have two names; the note below moved up. or the note above moved down. In other words, Bb=A#, Gb=F#, etc.

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
  Bb     Db   Eb     Gb   Ab   Bb

Of course no sharps or flats between EF and BC, since they’re right next to each other, right?

All right … time to get busy finding notes on all six strings.  Good luck!


Learning Note Names … — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this lesson Roger. With this method I think I can finally memorize where the notes are on the neck.

    Great show again at Rockfield Live.

    • Hi, Dave … Thank you! I hope to post more free material in the near future … hope it helps a few people.

      Rockfield Live was (again) a great experience for us. I put a post up on the site … you can check it out here: http://www.rockfieldmusic.com/the-story/#comment-2753

      Really, all the thanks goes to Guy, everyone who came out to hear us and gave us such a warm welcome, and everyone who is associated with Rockfield Live. This ranks as one of the all-time best music venues I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

      All the best …


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