Hey, my name is Jason Martin (guitarist) also known as Atomic Bob to some. I teach a variety of styles and subjects in the southern California area and most of them are music oriented. Today, I am going to breakdown the fretboard of an electric or acoustic guitar to help beginners understand what they might be getting themselves into as they attempt to jump start their music career.
The fretboard is ultimately both upside down and backwards, essentially meaning that if you are playing with someone (possibly your guitar instructor) that your eyes are going to be viewing something going in the opposite direction that your fretboard is going. The same concept is going to apply when dealing with tablature, but that is a separate article. What I would like to explain is direction. Starting with the nut (the piece that divides the headstock and the neck) if I was to tell you to move "up" the neck I'm referring to go in the direction toward the pickups. Moving "down" the neck from the starting point of the pickups would be going in the direction of the nut. This will become important if you are asked to "move up two frets" from your current location. If you end up moving backwards or "down" your friend or instructor will have to recompensate for the error and now you will have to move "four frets up" to get to that original note you were asked to go to. Keep in mind that a fret is not a string as well, if you are asked to move two frets up and you change strings entirely (possibly moving two strings up or down) you will need to go back and adjust again from the original spot.
The names of the strings low to high in standard tuning is E A D G B and e. The use of the smaller e is refers to the high E which is the thinnest guage string on the guitar. I use the acronym Every Apple Does Go Bad Eventually and that seems to be something anyone can pick up easily. Knowing the names of the strings is going to be the next most important part of taking direction from your friend, bandmate or instructor. You might also be able to use the names string 1, string 2, etc. But you'll need to make sure that the other person your talking to knows which direction your talking about. Typically, string one refers to the high E.
The frets, also known as fretwire are the pieces that divide one note from another. Although obvious, playing a fret is generally done by playing right behind the fret being mentioned. My observation is that most people understand this immediately until I notice when they try to chart a chord that they end up placing their given notes directly on the fret of the chart. This is why I decided that was helpful information. Most guitars have 18-24 frets which depends on the style and type of guitar that you own. Acoustics are usually about 18 frets, electrics range from 21-24.
The notes on the guitar are something that may not even make sense to the established guitar player. Unfortunately, as an instructor it is ten times easier to tell you to play E to D rather than to tell you to play the 7th fret of the A or 5th string, then move down to the 5th fret of the same string. The best approach to taking on the notes is to learn the names of the notes on the lowest two strings, the E and the A. The reason for this is that you will be able to build chords off of these two strings your entire playing career and you'll soon discover a formula that will help you identify the notes surrounding the location of these tones on E and A. The reason notes are a bit more difficult I attribute people who only playing tablature. Not that tablature is bad, but clear identification of a number as a note will help you discover things about the fretboard exponentially.
Because the guitar is an E based instrument I will start with the notes on the low E. If you are asked to play an E on the low E string it is going to be played "open". Open on a guitar refers to a note that is unfretted or played without holding down any notes. From there, moving up to the first fret we have an interval known as a half step. So one half step up from the open E is the first fret known as F. This also happens to be the first anomaly of the guitar that people stumble on. Often people who are asked to play a note higher than the low E will end up counting "up" to that note starting with the first fret as E. The other misconception is that if E is open and F is on the first fret that the second fret must be G. Wrong, the 2nd fret is an enharmonic tone known by two names as F sharp or G flat. Now that we got that out of the way, if you play a note higher in pitch than the original note it is going to be known as sharp. If you play a note lower in pitch than the original note it is known as a flat. Given, it just so happens that the first two notes that you learn are one of the two exceptions. Instead of E, E sharp or F flat, then F the notes just go E to F. The reason is that you have what is called a "naturally occurring half step" between these two notes. The other one that I was talking about and we will get to later is B to C. Okay, so moving up the fretboard from the low E the notes after F and before B are going to have a "whole step" between them or two frets in distance. Then the note that you skipped over will have both a sharp and a flat name associated with it. Once you get to C the rule will apply again where you have a whole step between tones getting you to the E "octave" located on the 12th fret. The notes between the tones will have a respective sharp or flat name.
Key in point, you will now need to know the musical alphabet. The musical alphabet is consisted of 12 tones and 8 notes. If you were to start on A, the alphabet would end after you got done with the G tones meaning you go back to A. Since we are starting with the lowest string E and moving up the neck I will give you the notes so that you can piece all this information together. Open will be the low E, first fret F, 2nd fret F sharp(#) or G flat(b), 3rd fret G, 4th fret G# or Ab, 5th fret A, 6th fret A# or Bb, 7th fret B, 8th fret C, 9th fret C# or Db, 10th fret D, 11th fret D# or Eb and the 12th fret will bring you back to your original note E giving you that note I mentioned was the "octave" earlier. From that fret on everything is going to repeat itself and it's the same on every other string.
That brings on the next tool designed to help you conquer the notes on the fretboard, the fretmarkers. The fretmarkers are typically the dots on the fretboard that divide the neck to help you find specific locations without always having to count up from an open tone. The earlier that you master the locations of these fretmarkers the faster you will be able to find notes higher than the 3rd fret. You will for the most part have fretmarkers on the first, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, twelfth, fifthteenth, seventeethn, nineteenth, twenty-first and twenty-fouth frets.
Once you master the fretmarkers you will be able to adjust your mind to thinking that notes are on or above a certain point that you already know by way of the fretmarker. The first time you might notice this is when you begin counting backwards from the 12th fret to possibly find the D or 10th fret on the E string. Reason, it's way easier to think back 2 notes than up 10 notes. Also, I learned early on that the 7th fret of the A string was an E note and typically use that as a point of reference when playing music of my own.
There ya have it, my take on an introduction to the fretboard. Feel free to comment, share or ask questions as necessary and rock on!