Updated: Feb 18, 2022
Join the dots to see the full picture
On the upward edge of most guitar necks, and inlaid to the fretboard, there is a pattern of dots. If your guitar is like mine you'll see a single dot at frets 3, 5, 7 and 9, and two dots at fret 12.
We'll use the dots at frets 3, 5 and 7 to lay the foundation for getting to know every note on the guitar! If you get all this after one read through you're doing better than most. If not, it should only take a couple more looks before it sticks for good! Follow this through and you'll pick up in a few minutes what has eluded many others for years!
It's as easy as A B C!
Your first job is to remember one simple pattern. Think of it as two lines of a song. They rhyme!
G A B
C D E
I call these the "notes on the dots". Here's how they sit on bottom 2 strings of the guitar:
Try playing this using just the notes on the dots. Name that tune!
C C C G A A G
E E D D C
A keyboard helps to see things clearly
To learn the whole fretboard working from the pattern on the dots, we just need a few small pieces of information. First, let's look at the notes of western music on a piano keyboard.
Looking at the white piano keys, there are 7 notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G in this repeating pattern. These are called the "natural" notes. In between some of them are black keys. These are "sharps" and flats"
"Sharp" means one step (a semitone) to the right , and is written "#" for short. You can see on the keyboard that G# is the black key to the right of G. On guitar, because G is played at fret 3 of the bottom string, we now know that G# is played at fret 4!
"Flat" means one step to the left and is written "♭" for short. Looking again at the keyboard, notice that G# can also be called A♭. One to the left of A is the same as one to the right of G. And it's the same on guitar! Let's fill in the sharps and flats between the notes on the dots.
Here's another "Name that Tune!" challenge. I've put the recommended left hand fingering underneath.
E E♭ E E♭ E B D C A
fingering 4 2 4 2 4 3 1 1 3
The exceptions that prove the rule
The keyboard makes it easy to see that there are two pairs of notes that don't have a sharp or flat between them.
These are B and C, and E and F. Using that information we can add some Fs to our fretboard to the right of the Es we know (don't forget the open Es) like so ...
To see the Fs clearly, play this recognisable sound in the 3 different places ...
E F F F E F F F
E F F F
We also now know there's a C to the right of B, and a B to the left of C like so ...
Here's another familiar sound played using fingers 1, 2 and 3 on the bottom two strings from frets 0-4. We'll begin by using the open low E string, and you may need to keep your thumb low on the back of the neck to reach everything ...
E E G G# B B C# B
fingering 0 0 2 3 1 1 3 1
Reusing the patterns on the dots
The C we just added at fret 8 of the E string is (if you're in tune and in standard tuning) the same note as the C at fret 3 of the A string. You can see from the keyboard that patterns always repeat, so wherever there's a C we'll get the same pattern C D E we began with on the dots.
Adding that pattern to the C on the low E string takes us to fret 12. Here the notes are the same as the open strings (Eddie Ate Dynamite Good Bye Eddie), as there are only 12 notes in western music before things repeat (count them on the piano and don't forget the black keys).
Getting there now!
There's also another G A B pattern we can now use. See the A at fret 12 of the A string? Picture how the pattern G A B sits on it. G sits at fret 10 of the A string. Here are all the "natural" notes from frets 0-12 of that string.
Let's add that G into our fretboard along with the sharps and flats. Because the top and bottom strings are both E strings, we can also fill out the top string notes, they'll mirror those on the bottom.
Nearly there! To easily learn the notes on the G and B strings, we'll use some simple patterns. If you know your power chords it will be a help.
The final pieces in the jigsaw - "Octave" patterns
In the 3 string G power chord shown here, the 1st and 4th finger both play the note G. Although both Gs, they aren't exactly the same note like the Cs we saw earlier. One is an octave (8 notes of a scale) higher than the other.
Using the pattern shown by the dotted line, we see that for any bottom string note, 2 across and 2 frets higher is the same (but an octave higher)! We can use this pattern to fill in the notes on the D string.
Similarly, in the 3 string C power chord shown here, the 1st and 4th finger both play the note C.
So as before, for any A string note, 2 across and 2 frets higher is the same! We can use this pattern to fill in the notes on the G string.
Lastly, in the 3 string G power chord shown here, the 1st and 4th finger again both play the note G.
This time, we can see that for any D string note, 2 across and 3 frets higher is the same. Using this pattern gives us the B string notes and completes our fretboard.
Here's one for your wall!
I've added this guitar neck to my free download "BPM", sent when you subscribe to my blog (at the bottom of this page). Notes on the dots are shown in red, all other natural notes in orange, and sharps/flats in green. Octave patterns are also clearly shown. Print out and frame (as shown) or just keep it handy in your practice area to help hammer down these ideas until they become easy!
Phew. That's a lot to take in!
It's not important to get this down in one sitting. What you're looking to avoid is still not having it down after 10+ years like so many students I see. All the real work is done on the bottom 2 strings. The rest we can work out as required until things get easy, which they will if you keep this approach in mind!
If it seems like a lot to remember, focus today on just remembering the notes on the dots; G A B ... C D E, then come back and re-read this article to bolt on the rest of the framework when you're ready!
Once you've got it, see if you can draw the whole thing out on paper from memory only, following the same thought process presented here.
Over time you'll move away from having to work things out this way, but you'll get to that stage by having a system like this in place to begin with, and thinking about how it relates to the things you play. You'll also develop your own ways of seeing things and as long as it works for you, it's good!
Any thoughts on this article? Let me know below in the comments.
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