Guitar Fretboard Notes: How to Learn Them Once and for All

Knowing all the notes on your fretboard is more useful and simpler than you think. Read here how.

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Guitar Fretboard Notes: How to Learn Them Once and for All
If you start studying ANY instrument, the first thing they show you is how to find the notes on them (where is the C, where the D, etc.) There is only one exception: the guitar. Somehow guitarists think they are excused from learning the notes on their fretboard.

One of the consequences of this attitude is that guitar players find music theory needlessly difficult. Indeed it is quite hard to understand (for instance) how to create a controlled dissonance by playing a D note over a Cm chord, if you have no idea where the D note is in the first place AND can find it in "real time". Many cool-sounding music theory concepts would be relatively simpler to learn and apply if you can find the notes on the fretboard effortlessly.

Sure, some people will say that they can find the notes all over the fretboard "given enough time". News flash: this is as useless as it sound. If you are playing you have a split second time to find the note you want, otherwise you are going to miss the musical moment.

The problem most people have about learning the notes is that they put this off their practice for too long, and they are now simply scared of doing it. What is in fact just a simple, easily solved problem has now become a monster. "Do I need to learn ALL the notes? Over ALL the fretboard? No way! Let me play a few more power chords instead…"

The reality is that everyone can learn all the notes, in a PERMANENT way, by investing only few minutes a day for a few weeks, provided they are practicing the right way. And it's not even going to be boring if you approach it the right way. So here is the "magic" exercise that will have you learn the notes with little effort and time:

YouTube preview picture

A few suggestions to make your learning faster:
  • Make it a game! I used to challenge myself to play the notes with the metronome as described in the video faster and faster, or playing them in a random order. How fast can you go today?

  • Learn with a friend. A game is more fun if it's done with somebody else. For instance, you can call a note and your friend has to play it, and then you reverse roles. In a sense, it's like Guitar Hero… only with real guitars and with real learning.

  • Don't get obsessed: as mentioned in the video, you won't remember the patterns consciously. That's ok. You will see that very soon you will simply KNOW where the notes are. I don't remember the patterns either: I find them again on the spot every time I show this exercise. The exercise is just a bridge to take you to the other side of the river, so practice it only until it's useful.
About the Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.

43 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Why was I never told this before. You have saved me
    Thank you for this, everytime I look at other people who try and teach this it is always a nightmare and made a hell of a lot more complicated than it should be and it is so dull to learn. Brilliant way of learning it, you sir are a legend!
    Not much useful for me, since I play metal and I'm forced to use lots of different tunings. Only option I found was training my ears so I know exactly how to get the sound I want. It takes a lot more time, but I think it'll get me better results in the end.
    If you tune down the whole guitar, it's just a matter of transposing on-the-fly, which is not as difficult as you think and gives a lot of benefits in the long run. As for completely different tuning (such as DADGAD or similar) you can use this system to learn the notes in more than one tuning. Just learn them one at a time.
    It is most useful for metal. If someone asks you to play a c minor arpeggio, how do you find it, and if the tuning is half step down or full step, its just moving each note down a half sep or full
    It would be very useful to you. Usually, the alternate tunings in metal involve tuning the down a number of steps relative to standard tuning. If you are very comfortable knowing the notes of your fretboard in standard tuning, and the interval patterns in standard tuning, then determining them in alternate tunings is a simple logic game in which you shift the notes in standard tuning down the fretboard according to the number of semitones you down tuned your strings. It might sound complicated the way I explained it, but from knowing your fretboard and understanding intervals, its unbelievably intuitive.
    Yeah I definitely have the same problem, I feel it'd be wasted effort because I'd just forget it all when I tune 3 semitones down or whatever.
    Davus PG
    Great lesson - thank you What about sharps and flats and the frets beyond 12? Do you just repeat the 8 weeks drill for those too?
    Is it weird that I just now realized that the fret board is a matrix? And that shifting the notes for different tunings is a function? Wow, thanks college algebra. Never thought I would use you or recognize you in the real world other than my job.
    Music, like everything... boils down to math. Get good with your numbers. Everything boils down to this concept and music is a brilliant example of this. Math. That is all!
    i just remember the E and A strings and remember the other four strings are just higher octaves 3 and four frets up.
    Your method won't work in a real playing situation. If you need to find an A on the 2nd string, by your method you will need to 1) realize you need to find an A on the 6th string. 2) actually find that A 3) find the A on the 4th string using the octave pattern. 4) from the A on the 4th string, finally find the one on the 2nd. As you can see, there are too many passages! The system I explain in the video will give you DIRECTLY the A on the 2nd string you were searching for.
    Well, I've now done this for more than 11 weeks. I can do the all notes on the 6 strings, one after the other at around 120bpm. Believe me, whereas you don't know the pattern by heart, I do, but what I don't remember, are the notes. I'm simply not able to find a note on the fretboard, apart from the e, A and E strings, like before. What didn't I do correctly? I worked on it about 30 minutes a day, saying out loud the notes most of the time. My family kind of thought I was a bit nut to do this, I guess they were right...
    Ol' chap I'd have to say that this idea is the bees knees. Quite innovating indeed
    Great lesson! But why is it so important at first to not skip strings? Seems like that would help you learn to play that note all over the fretboard, in any order.
    What I did to learn the all the notes unconciously is use modes, saved me much when improvising solos and riffs
    This is so great. I mix it up with the usual 1234 pattern and it gives me a hell of a workout
    I've been playing for years, and yet I never realized this. How simple when somebody points it out to you. Thanks.
    Tommaso, Thank you for your insight on learning the fretboard. I am 47 years old and trying to teach myself how to play the guitar. The instruction you provide is simple but meaningful. How does this relate if I change my string tuning though? Thanks, George nevermind my question, just read the previous posts.
    that's logic actually. if you tune down your guitar half a step, you just move the note up half a step to compensate. Fx. if you need to find an a there is one in 5th fret on the Low E string, and then if you're tuned down half a step, you just play the sixth fret instead to make up for the tuning
    Great excercize!I never looked at the same instance of each note in this method on individual strings,its much simpler than trying to go by any pattern I usualy play.
    An interesting lesson. I have 2 question though: First, if I wanted to practice this for more then 5 minutes (lets say for half an hour each day) would I simply go through 6 notes per day or would something change? And second - I used to practice learning the notes on fretboard by playing really slowly with a backing tracking and naming each note I played, aloud. I think this has the added benefit of training your ear and intonation as well. Do you think this is a good exercise?
    1) I wouldn't go for more than few minutes per day as there are many other things that you should do too (technique, phrasing, etc). But if you want to do more, I would simply go through the other notes. 2) Yes, your method is good too as a reinforcement. It works if you already have an idea of where the notes are. For this reason, to someone who does not know the notes yet I'd suggest to start with the exercise in the video, and implement your method only later. Also, if you use a backing track I would say aloud the degree of the scale, not the note: this will train your ear faster.
    Basic question : how do you find the note initially ? What is the method that fits the most your exercise ? If you know the open string notes, should you start from there and count the steps to the note you want ? I agree that once you found them you just need to remember, but how are you supposed to find them the first time ?
    Any method to find the notes initially would work. What I teach to my student is simply to count up from the open string. This has the added benefit of them learning where are the steps and half steps between the natural notes.
    Great lesson, I am now learning the A notes on each string. tomorrow i will do the B notes and so on. I plan to practice about 30 minutes for each note on each string.