Not the most thrilling topic this, but an important one. A big weakness I come often across in otherwise accomplished players is a lack of knowledge of the names of the notes on the guitar. It would be almost unthinkable to a piano player not know the names of the keys they’re pressing down, but on the guitar it’s kind of normal for the fretboard to be a mysterious black hole of ignorance. There are a few reasons for this. Mainly I think it’s because it’s actually quite hard work to become really familiar with the notes, due to the the slightly illogical way the guitar is tuned. Also, by its nature, the guitar is a pattern-based instrument and many players think in terms of dots and chord shapes rather than the actual names of the notes they are playing. The ubiquity of tab doesn’t help either. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with patterns, chord boxes and tab I think if you want to be a serious musician and really have a deeper understanding of the guitar you need to know the notes. It’s important, kids.
There’s no one easy way to do it. (Or is there? Let me know if you’ve found a surefire method.) Rather it’s a gradual process of gaining familiarity. Here are some things to think about:
- Learn the names of the open strings first. E A D G B E from low to high. Use a humorous mnemonic to help, if you must.
- Learn how the musical alphabet and the chromatic scale works. There are 7 natural notes A through to G. In between we have the sharps and flats. Always remember there’s no Sharp or flat between E and F, or between B and C. With that knowledge, at least you should be able to figure out any note by counting up from the open string notes. A bit laborious, but it’s a start.
- You might like to learn the notes along the low E string first. This is really useful as these notes give their names to a lot of the most common chords and scales. It’s easy to figure these notes out – just count up the chromatic scale from the open E note.
- Learn the notes on the A string next.
- Knowing your octave shapes can initially be a useful shortcut for figuring out unfamiliar notes.
- You can work on learning your notes even when you’re away from the guitar. Try visualising a guitar fretboard and mentally testing yourself on note locations.
- Learn to read music; no tab allowed! It’s hard work, and a bit unfashionable these days, but it will really help.
There are two really effective exercises I use a lot with my students.
Say the note names out loud
Simply play the notes up and down each string and, as you do so, say the names of the notes out loud. There’s something about the process of doing this that really seems to make those note names stick in your head. Once you can do it along the strings you could try the same thing going across the frets, or diagonally over the fretboard…
Play every possible instance of a given note. Use a metronome.
Choose any note and then try and play that note in all the possible locations on the guitar, in time with a metronome. You can vary the difficulty of this exercise depending on your current level of knowledge. Maybe start out with the metronome at 60bpm and play a note every 4 clicks. You could start off doing the exercise with a C note and then move onto the others when you’re ready. I like to work on them in order, round the circle of 4ths – C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, B, E, A, D, G. For the enharmonic notes with sharp and flat names, make sure you do the exercise with both names – eg. C# and Db. Once you can do it with all 12 notes, making no mistakes, you can either reduce the number of clicks per note, or speed up the tempo. Make this a part of your regular practice routine and in a month or two you’ll have no problem instantly identifying any note on the guitar. I made a video to demonstrate how I approach this exercise.