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how to learn the notes on the guitar

The guitar is a strange instrument really; bit of wood with some strings on. Looking at other instruments such as an acoustic piano it’s relatively simple in it’s design. With many of the early stringed instruments their design was not particularly user-friendly but the sound was inspiring enough for people to persevere with it. As keyboard instruments because more widespread people were able to create music they wanted to on it as the design was much easier to get to grips with. Looking at a piano keyboard it’s instantly easier to play notes quickly and to play a tune fairly quickly. Another advantage that a keyboard instrument has over a stringed instrument is that the notes can be learned very quickly. The visual and physical pattern of white and black notes makes learning the note names very easy and piano students can learn these very quickly.

But, what about us guitar players? The guitar neck is a difficult thing to navigate at the best of times, however it’s not impossible. A good starting point is to know the names of the open strings in standard tuning. 

These notes can give you a starting point for learning the notes further up the neck. What is so advantageous on a keyboard is that you can see the order of the notes straight away and the relationships between the white notes (natural notes) and the black notes (sharps/flats/). It is worth becoming familiar with the chromatic scale which contains all the notes, however don’t be put off by it. I’ll show you a quick way to learn this in a bit.

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A

The ‘#s’ are sharpened notes and represent the black keys on a piano keyboard. These could easily be represented by a flat (b) as shown below.

A Bb C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A

Next we will go straight to the A string (5th string up) and play through the following scale. You will see that it contains just the natural notes.

This is where we can start learning the relationship between the notes. As you can see, the notes B and C along with E and F have no sharp or flat between them. All the rest do and so this gives us a good way of being able to remember the order of the notes and therefore being able to start referencing them.

The above diagram is a neck diagram showing the notes in the tab on the A string of the guitar. You can see the open A string marked followed by 2 similar patterns of notes; the first on the 2nd, 3rd and 5th fret and the second on the 7th, 8th and 10th frets. The A note is duplicated an octave higher at the 12th fret. The layout of each group of notes is the same, meaning that you can play one shape and then move to the next shape to play is in the same way. The most important thing to remember is that there are only two notes that do not have a sharp or flat between them and these are taken into account in the shapes at the 2nd and 3rd frets and the 7th and 8th frets. You can start at the open A string and work your way up the neck using these shapes and work out the notes. Just remember that the two shapes need to be two frets apart between the end of one and the beginning of another.

From here you can practicing finding individual notes by working along the neck from an A note, either at the 12th fret or from the open string.

Once you have become familiar with the A string try this on other strings. This can become tricky as you will have a different starting point in the pattern on other strings. For example the thickest string is an E note and so you must remember your order of notes.

As you can see the pattern is not the same on the E string as it is on the A string so always refer back to the A string when working on remembering which notes are next to each other without any sharps or flats.

The next part of the article is on the most important question you need to ask yourself in the process;

"Why do I need to be able to learn the notes on the neck?"

This is the most important question as if you don’t have a good enough reason to learn the notes on the neck then why put the time into doing it? I’m not saying for one moment that you shouldn’t but you need to be able to have a good reason and therefore use for investing the time into learning them.

Secondly there is no perfect method for learning the notes on the neck. Whatever you do you need to be able to relate the notes you can identify with other aspects of your learning so that you are constantly practicing the use of this skill.

Here is a common use for knowing the notes on the neck; barre chords. If you are at a stage where you are ready to start using barre chords then you will need to start learning the notes on the neck quite quickly, especially on the E and A strings (5th and 6th strings up, or the two thickest!). This is because these strings contain the root notes of these chords and so knowing the notes on these strings will help you to reference where to go to play barre chords. Therefore, this is a good method to help you to learn the notes on the neck as it gives you a use for the right away and so have more chance of retaining this information.

With any exercise or learning activity try incorporating the learning of notes into it so that you are use to finding them. It does not need to be complicated either, so for example you could try any of the following;

  • Find the root notes in the scale that you are practicing

  • Call out the notes in an arpeggio pattern you are practicing

  • When improvising using a simple scale such as a minor pentatonic scale, try calling out the notes as you play them

  • Instead of using barre chords, use partial versions of them that only use the first 3 or 4 strings. This will force you to find the root notes of these chords on other strings that you may not normally reference.

Once you have a practice use for something you are more likely to not only retain information but also to be able to use it along side other things to enhance your playing and learning. Give this a try and watch your learning and understanding grow!

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