Chapter 1 – Notes on the Guitar Neck

Objectives: In this chapter, you'll learn the names of the strings on the guitar, the names of the notes at every fret, and differentiate between half-steps and whole steps.

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The Piano Keyboard

While these lessons are geared towards guitar, we'll use the piano keyboard to start this lesson. Why? Because the piano is easier to visualize and great for showing examples. It's made up of a simple repeating pattern with no repeating pitches. (Notes do repeat, but pitches don't. We'll talk about notes and pitches later.) And it moves in only one dimension – horizontal. It's also color coded black and white to differentiate between natural notes and accidentals. (We'll talk about natural notes and accidentals later in this lesson.)

Piano keyboard with arrow showing notes are played across one dimension
Pianists play the keyboard side to side.

Guitar notes move in two dimensions: horizontally across single strings and vertically crossing from string to string. Because the guitar is played in two dimensions, it's more difficult to visualize than the one dimensional piano keyboard. There's also no color coding of notes like the piano has.

Guitar fretboard with arrows showing notes are played across two dimensions
Guitarists play both left/right across the neck and up/down crossing strings.

Musical Alphabet

A B C D E F G

There are 12 notes in Western music (music originating from the Western hemisphere of Earth). These notes are labeled using the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, G and the symbols ♭ (flat) and ♯ (sharp). Additional symbols like (double flat), (double sharp), and ♮ (natural) are also used in music notation. Seven of the 12 notes are referred to as natural notes and are the white keys on a piano. (We'll talk about the black keys a little later.) Natural notes are labeled with just a letter and no symbol.

Piano Keyboard Patterns

Take a look at a full piano keyboard.

Piano keyboard

Notice the patterns on the keyboard:

Middle C

The C in the middle of the keyboard is called Middle C. Well - it's not exactly in the middle, but it's still called that. There are three lower C's to its left and four higher C's to its right. Beginning pianists use it as an approximate border between keys played with the left hand and keys played with the right hand. Middle C is the same pitch as the second string's second fret on guitar.

Middle C on piano and guitar

Notes and Pitches

The white piano key to the left of each group of two black keys is the note C, so there are many C notes on the piano. However, each one of those C notes is a different pitch. Pitch refers to how low or high a note sounds. Note simply refers to the letter name.

Here are all the C's played one after the other. They are all the same note (C), but different pitches (lower and higher).

Piano keyboard with all C keys labeled
All C's from low to high

Science

Warning! Science alert.

How can a letter name like C be a label for multiple pitches? How can there be different C's? Science. Sound is produced from vibration. If a plucked string vibrates 262 times per second, it produces the pitch we label as C. You can use shorthand for "times per second" using the scientific measurement Hertz (Hz). Vibrating at 262 times per second is written as 262 Hz. If a string vibrates at double that rate (524 Hz), it's the next higher C. If it vibrates at half (131 Hz), it's the next lower C. A letter name indicates the same family of pitch. For a pitch to be labeled as C, its vibration must be a multiple of 262.

If you dive deeply in to the physics of sound, you'll discover that the pitch C doesn't always vibrate exactly at multiples of 262. It varies slightly based on several factors. Still, a letter name simply indicates a family of pitches vibrating in multiples.

You may have heard of A440. That refers to the note A just to the right of the center of a piano keyboard which vibrates at 440 Hz. You can probably guess that the next two lower A's would vibrate at 220 Hz and 110 Hz and the two next higher A's would vibrate at 880 Hz and 1760 Hz.

Each letter in the musical alphabet represents a family of pitches vibrating in multiples of each other.

One Pattern Block

Since the piano keyboard repeats the same pattern of keys over and over, we can focus on just one block of the pattern. Let's add the rest of the natural notes. Remember – the white keys are the natural notes. It's common when studying the piano keyboard to start on the note C. The following pattern starts on C and continues through all the natural notes (which begins the next pattern).

Piano keyboard one octave with all natural notes labeled

What about the guitar? Don't worry! We'll get there. But we need a bit more information about notes in general first. Hopefully you're starting to see how notes relate to each other when laid out horizontally, as on a piano keyboard (and guitar string).

Steps

A step describes the distance between notes. Piano keys that are next to each other are a half-step apart. For example, E to F is a half-step because there's no key between them. Another half-step occurs from B to C. Because this pattern of piano keys/notes repeats along the entire piano keyboard, the same is true everywhere on the keyboard. There is always a half-step between E and F and between B and C. Another name for half-step is semitone.

Piano keyboard with all B, C, E, and F's labeled to show natural note half-steps

When piano keys have an additional key between them, the keys are a whole step apart. For example, C to D is a whole step because there's a key (a black key in this case) between them. F to G is another whole step. Another name for whole step is whole tone or sometimes just tone. The following figure shows where half-steps and whole steps are for the natural (white) notes.

Piano keyboard one octave with whole and half-steps labeled

The Black Keys

The black keys represent accidental notes (notes with the accidentals – ♭ and ♯). A flat (♭) lowers the pitch of a note a half-step while a sharp (♯) raises it a half-step. For example, C♯ is a half-step higher than C and A♭ is a half-step lower than A.

Notice that each black key has two different names. It can either be named for the white key to its left getting sharped, or for the white key to its right being flatted. Either way, it's a single pitch with two different note names.

Note names that refer to the same pitch are called enharmonic. For example, C♯ and D♭ are enharmonic because they are two different names for the same pitch. Which name you decide to use is usually determined by the key of the song. We'll talk about song keys later.

Piano keyboard, one octave, labeled with natural notes and enharmonic accidentals

White keys can also have enharmonic names. For example, while there's no key between B and C (they are a half-step apart) if you raise B by a half-step, you get C. So, B♯ is enharmonic to C. Similarly, if you lower C a half-step, you get B. So, C♭ is enharmonic to B.

Strings on the Guitar

Let's put all that piano stuff off to the side for a moment and focus on the guitar. We'll get back to the piano keyboard in a little while.

Just like each key on the piano has a note name, each string on the guitar has a note name. But identifying guitar strings is a little tricky because of words like high, low, top, and bottom.

When referring to pitch, high and low indicate what the note sounds like. For example, here's a low E and a high E on the guitar.

Low E
High E

String Names

When talking about guitar strings, we use the terms high, low, top, and bottom to indicate what those strings sound like – not their physical position on the instrument. When holding a guitar, the low/bottom string is higher physically (closer to the ceiling) while the high/top string is lower physically (closer to the ground).

Guitar strings are named with either notes or numbers. Don't get the numbers reversed! The high string (closest to the floor) is always the 1st string while the low string (closest to the ceiling) is always the 6th string.

Guitar string photo showing string names with letters and numbers

Note also that guitar diagrams show the neck upside down with the low string at the bottom (floor) and the high string at the top (ceiling). Guitar diagrams usually show the nut on the left side. You'll read about frets and the nut in the next section.

Guitar string diagram showing string names with letters and numbers

The previous figures show the letter and number names of each string. Here are a few mnemonics to help you memorize the letter order from low string to high string.

Frets

The vertical wires on a guitar neck that cross the strings are called frets. To the left of the first fret is the nut. Most guitars have between 21 - 24 frets. As you play guitar, you'll move your fretting hand up and down the neck horizontally as you jump from fret to fret. Moving towards the nut of the guitar is called moving lower or down the neck (because the pitches get lower). Moving away from the nut is called moving higher or up the neck (because the pitches get higher.)

Parts of the guitar neck

Fret Markers

Most guitar necks have fret markers, which are small dots, diamonds, or other designs that mark some of the frets. Fret markers simply make it easier to locate frets. Here are a few things to remember about fret markers:

Epiphone with rhombus fret markers Ibanez with 24frets and dot markers Gibson Les Paul with dot fret markers
Fret markers vary by guitar.

Steps on the Guitar

Remember that on a piano two consecutive keys on the keyboard are a half-step apart. This translates on the guitar to a span of one fret. For example, from fret 1 to 2 is a half-step. A whole step skips a fret. For example, from fret 5 to 7 is a whole step.

Half-step and whole step on fretboard

Finding Notes on the Guitar

Each fret represents a half-step (or semi-tone). If you know the name of an open string, you can figure out the fretted notes along that string. Remember that:

Let's look at the 1st string (high E) as an example.

Challenge 1

Download and print this challenge to complete it by hand. The numbers under the blank diagrams below indicate the fret number.

  1. Write in the notes along the 1st string up to the 17th fret. Include the open note.
    Blank fretboard diagram up to fret 17
  2. Write in the notes along the 2nd string up to the 17th fret. Include the open note.
    Blank fretboard diagram up to fret 17
  3. Write in the notes along the 3rd string up to the 17th fret. Include the open note.
    Blank fretboard diagram up to fret 17
  4. Write in the notes along the 4th string up to the 17th fret. Include the open note.
    Blank fretboard diagram up to fret 17
  5. Write in the notes along the 5th string up to the 17th fret. Include the open note.
    Blank fretboard diagram up to fret 17
  6. Write in the notes along the 6th string up to the 17th fret. Include the open note.
    Blank fretboard diagram up to fret 17
  7. Locate and write in all E's on the guitar, on every string, up to the 17th fret. Include any open note E's. (Hint: There are 10 E's on this diagram)
    Blank fretboard diagram up to fret 17
  8. Locate and write in all A's on the guitar, on every string, up to the 17th fret. Include any open note A's. (Hint: There are 10 A's on this diagram)
    Blank fretboard diagram up to fret 17
  9. Locate and write in all D's on the guitar, on every string, up to the 17th fret. Include any open note D's. (Hint: There are 9 D's on this diagram)
    Blank fretboard diagram up to fret 17
  10. Locate and write in all G's on the guitar, on every string, up to the 17th fret. Include any open note G's. (Hint: There are 10 G's on this diagram)
    Blank fretboard diagram up to fret 17
  11. Locate and write in all B's on the guitar, on every string, up to the 17th fret. Include any open note B's. (Hint: There are 9 B's on this diagram)
    Blank fretboard diagram up to fret 17

Challenge 2

String Hopping Challenge

The purpose of this challenge is for you to get practice plucking strings that aren't next to each other. You'll play only open strings and won't use your fretting hand at all. There are 12 patterns to play. Once you learn how the patterns work, you'll be able to play it without looking at this sheet.

It may take a few times to find your wrist/hand/pick angels. Once you do, keep those consistent. As you move across the strings, remember these goals:

Here are the patterns. Play the strings as indicated.

Pattern 1 - String 6 Ascending

Notice you are playing strings in pairs, always starting and ending with your 'starter string'. This pattern can also be written out like this:

Pattern 2 - String 5 Ascending

This pattern can also be written out like this:

Pattern 3 - String 4 Ascending

Pattern 4 - String 3 Ascending

Pattern 5 - String 2 Ascending

Pattern 6 - String 1 Ascending

Pattern 7 - String 6 Descending

Pattern 8 - String 5 Descending

Pattern 9 - String 4 Descending

Pattern 10 - String 3 Descending

Pattern 11 - String 2 Descending

Pattern 12 - String 1 Descending

Summary

After completing this lesson, you should be able to answer these questions/do these things:

Answer These

Play These