Know Every Note on the Guitar in 9 Days

Every Note on the Guitar

Knowing every note on the guitar is a challenge unique to the instrument. A saxophone has only one way to finger each note, while a guitar usually has a few different strings and four fingers to choose from. String a few notes together and the permutations of how to play them will wreck your brain. Pianists have a similar problem with ten available digits, but you can memorize the notes on a keyboard in a matter of minutes; the same pattern of white and black keys repeats every octave.

The challenge with navigating the guitar fretboard is its two-dimensional layout. It’s a matrix, while nearly every other instrument has a linear path of notes from the bottom to the top of its range. But this challenge hasn’t halted anyone’s progress through generations of great guitar players, and it needn’t halt yours. In fact, you can use the guitar’s layout to your advantage. Pattern visualization comes much easier on guitar than any other instrument, and we can use it for memorizing the notes on the fretboard.

Why Know the Whole Fretboard?

If you don’t know every single note on the guitar cold, without hesitation, then I highly recommend taking a little time to get that under your belt. It will enhance everything else you do with the instrument. Depending on your experience, you might be able to skip some of the first few days below.

The primary advantage to knowing every note on the fretboard is in creation. You can build your own chords and scales anywhere on the neck instead of memorizing all the shapes. You can improvise in any position you want instead of getting stuck in one spot. Knowing every note is the key to getting around the whole fretboard effortlessly.

If you haven’t started playing yet, come back to this after you’ve learned some music. That’s way more fun than memorizing notes. (I teach lessons.)

Day 1: Open Strings

From low to high (in pitch), thickest to thinnest, ceiling to floor:
E A D G B E

Know your open strings like you know your alphabet. Pause your playing every couple minutes to point at each string and name it out loud. Don’t worry if you have to think about it. That won’t last. Just keep naming the strings out loud until it’s automatic.

Day 2: Structure of the C Major Scale

The C major scale is the only major scale without any sharps or flats. We’ll stick with it through most of this process:
C D E F G A B C

Straying from C major for a moment, a whole step is a distance of two frets; a half step, one fret. To construct any major scale on a single string, start with any note and ascend with the following blueprint:
Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half

Applying the whole/half pattern between each note, you’ll find half steps between E and F, and between B and C. Those are the only half steps.

Yell it out loud a few times if this is new information: “E and F! B and C! E and F! B and C!” Your job is to have this stuck in your head forever before Day 3.

Day 3: First Three Frets

First Three Frets

Today you get to play a little bit. You might know the scale diagram above already. It’s the C major scale contained in the first three frets. Starting down on the low open E string, play each note and say its name out loud. Even if you’ve already memorized this scale shape, don’t skip this step until you can play the scale up and down, over and over, saying every note out loud without thinking.

Day 4: Sixth String

Now to the rest of the neck. We’ll start with the first octave on the sixth string.
0: E
1: F
3: G
5: A
7: B
8: C
10: D
12: E

If you’ve ever played a barre or power chord, then you’ve dealt with the notes on the sixth string. This is the easiest and most useful string to memorize, so make sure you’ve got it down for good before proceeding. Also notice that you’re memorizing the first string at the same time; every fret has the same note on the first and sixth strings, two octaves apart.

Day 5: Fifth String

Spend today on the first octave of the fifth string.
0: A
2: B
3: C
5: D
7: E
8: F
10: G
12: A

Plucking more low-hanging fruit, the fifth string is handy for the same reasons as the sixth. Barre and power chords are frequently rooted on this string as well.

Day 6: Finding Octaves

Today we’ll look at a few patterns for finding the same note in different places. First review how you tune your guitar: 5th fret on strings 6, 5, 4, 2, and 4th fret on string 3. Each of those gets you the same note as the next open string. That pattern holds throughout the fretboard, so you can always go up or down four or five frets, depending on your location, to get the same note on an adjacent string.

Now let’s look at finding octaves. From the sixth and fifth strings, the formula is identical: two frets up, two strings up.

Octave 6 4 Octave 5 3

From the fourth and third strings, you get a different formula: three frets up, two strings up.

Octave 4 2 Octave 3 1

You can also go back two or three frets from strings 6, 5, and 4.

Octave 6 3
Octave 5 2 Octave 4 1

Put some of these shapes together. You can get three-note shapes on strings 6-3-1, 6-4-1, 6-4-2, 5-3-1. Play around with these patterns for a while. Think about how they apply to the music you already know.

Before continuing, find every possible C note on the fretboard using these octave patterns. Repeat for D, E, F, G, A, and B. You don’t need all the notes memorized yet, just make sure you can use the patterns without referring to diagrams.

Day 7: Fourth String

Here’s where things get a little harder. Review the notes on the sixth and fifth strings; those are essential before moving on. The fourth string is far less common for building chords, so this might be unfamiliar territory.

The process from here on will likely involve menial memorization, but it’s worth the effort. Get out some flash card materials and get ready to rock. You’ll only need seven for now. Write down the notes we’ve been dealing with, one on each card: C D E F G A B.

From Day 1 and Day 3, you already know the open string is D, 2nd fret is E, 3rd fret is F. And you know the octave D is at the 12th fret. Throw those flash cards out, and you have G, A, B, and C. Memorize those four, then add the other cards and test your knowledge of every note on the fourth string.

0: D
2: E
3: F
5: G
7: A
9: B
10: C
12: D

Any time you get stuck, return to yesterday’s octave patterns and relate the note you’re looking for to an octave below on the sixth string.

Day 8: Third String

Repeat Day 7 on the third string!

0: G
2: A
4: B
5: C
7: D
9: E
10: F
12: G

Also think an octave below on the fifth and sixth strings.

Day 9: Second String

Repeat Day 8 on the second string!

0: B
1: C
3: D
5: E
6: F
8: G
10: A
12: B

Think an octave below on the fourth and fifth strings.

Conclusion

To review everything at once, make six more flash cards, one for each string. Pull a note and a string and rattle off those fret numbers. Eventually you’ll know every note without hesitation. To get any note with a sharp or flat, just relate it to the unaltered notes you know: sharp is a half step higher, flat is a half step lower.

To expand your knowledge beyond the 12th fret, visualize a repeat of the first few frets. All the notes and shapes are the same, only an octave higher and 12 frets up the neck.

On top of this memorization method, keep the note relationships in mind. Be aware of every instance of a note on the fretboard. Use the tools above and apply them in your head to your daily playing. The next steps are bigger and better!

See a French translation of this article.

This entry was posted in Intermediate, Theory and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
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  • This is REALLY good! I’ve tried lots of methods already and technically I do know where all the notes are – it just takes me far too long (5 – 10 seconds) to figure out what note I’m playing (depending on where on the fretboard I am – some notes I know right away). I don’t know if this post will help but it looks promising and was a great read anyway! :)

    • Joe

      Thanks Nick! Let me know how it goes if you try it. The article is basically how I learned all the notes (concentrated into a more focused time frame). It worked for me, but I haven’t had confirmation that it works for others too yet.

      My big motivation for this was a series of Steve Vai articles I read about ten years ago. At the beginning of the first one, he outlined the prerequisites for applying the concepts he was about to expose. Most of the requirements were “know your major scales” or “know your triads,” stuff I had a good handle on. Then one of them was “know every note on the guitar, cold.” That made me get my flash cards out and learn them once and for all.

  • Darryl

    Fantastic! Been self-taught for years, and never figured out how to apply my classical non-guitar training to the fretboard… This makes things MUCH clearer. Now I know what notes I’m playing, and it’s helped my soloing tremendously. I havent even really practiced it as such, but this method of thinking is clear-cut, logical, and above all easy to understand and apply. Thank you for this article man! Excellent system, many kudos to you my good sir.

    • Joe

      Thanks for reading and digging it, Darryl. It’s great to hear that it’s helping someone connect the musical language between instruments.

  • So, you’re wrong. Saxophones have multiple alternate fingerings that use harmonics, quarter tones, or produce tones at odd dynamics that the standard fingerings don’t accomplish. It’s actually part of the brilliance of great saxophonists to master these transitions and alternates and use them appropriately.

    A short list of alternates within the first octave alone:
    http://www.wfg.woodwind.org/sax/sax_alt_1.html

    Note the *solid dozen* fingering options for C# in the first octave alone. In lower altissimo, there are 28 options for F#.

    • Joe

      So, I am wrong. Of course, it’s not at all the point of this article, but I stand corrected. I know I was fudging it a bit when I said that about saxophones (should have used the piano), but I had no idea there were so many alternate fingerings. I guess the analogous approach on guitar would be to include harmonics, bent notes, and whammy-detuned notes, which I will not do. Good catch, thanks.

  • This looks interesting. I love all these day-by-day kind of practice schedules.
    I will try this when I find the time (hopefully soon), and will let you know how it goes if I remember it!

    • Joe

      I’d love to hear how it goes, and thanks for mentioning it on your blog too!

      • You’re welcome!
        I did the lesson and do get the idea. I did skip some of the days as I am not new to this and I must admit that I wasn’t as focused as I would have wanted to be, due to school taking up a lot of time this week.
        I guess this would work very well if you were practised it very intensely – otherwise I don’t think it will stick. (I don’t know if it is really meant to only last for 9 days?)
        But despite of that; a very great lesson. I think you were very right with the way of thinking!

        • Joe

          Thanks for giving it a shot! I suppose “9 steps” would have been more accurate than “9 days,” but that would make the title less provocative. :)

          Everyone learns at a different pace, and I imagine following the tasks in order would take most guitarists more than nine days. On the other hand, I could see someone dedicating perhaps four focused 15-minute blocks per day and mastering the whole process in nine days. Then, of course, if you want it to stick in the long run, you gotta use all those little notes you’ve learned. Using them in real musical situations will make them stick far better than any flash card drilling.

  • This content is very useful for newbie. I’ll use for my students

  • Sunday obafemi

    Chor changing exercise

  • Angela

    I’ve started guitar lessons and have been working on some basics of music theory on my own. I had started working on some of these things, particularly octaves. The diagrams I made are very similar to yours! I’ll be using some of your other steps to better my knowledge of all the strings.

    I’m going to make flashcards for each note, draw one, and use a die to tell me what string to find it on. I will probably do something very similar using a pair of dice to get a stronger understanding of intervals, since 12 would be the octave.

    Thanks for the suggestions here!

    • Joe

      Awesome, I used to use a die too! Also check out my Custom Flash Cards, so you don’t have to deal so much in the physical world.

  • Thanks for putting together this approach, I liked the idea of using flash cards. Just one question: why in step 3 there are only the first 3 frets, what’s so special about them?

    • Joe

      I probably should have explained that.

      1. They’re very close to the open strings, so they can be learned in relation to something well-known.
      2. Those notes get used in and around open chords all the time.
      3. Music (not tablature) written specifically for guitar is often easiest to read and play within the first three to five frets.

      Joe

  • avi

    In the conclusion where it says to make six more flash cards, one for each string, what are those other strings? Can you please clarify?

    Thanks.

    • Joe

      Under day seven, I suggested making seven flash cards, one for each of the unaltered notes. Use those on one string at a time, quizzing yourself to find the fret for each note on a given string. After you’ve conquered each string on its own, put the whole thing together by finding random notes on random strings. So in addition to the seven flash cards representing notes, you’ll make six more representing the strings. Here’s a preset on my Custom Flash Cards app that will do it without all the messy index cards.

  • I teach this to my students and I may just use some of your tips here. thanks!

  • Matt

    You don’t have to yell ‘B and C…’ over and over: you have to remember Beck and Clapton and Entwhistle and Fripp, or whoever your own scalar heroes are.

  • Heidi

    This is good stuff, BUT “A saxophone has only one way to finger each note, while a guitar usually has a few different strings and four fingers to choose from.” is actually wrong. Are there as many ways on a sax as a guitar? No, but there are notes that can be played more than one way (and no i’m not talking about higher or lower octaves) for example Bb. either the A (First top 2) and bottom side key or the B (first top key) & F (or the first lower)buttons can be used as a Bb. And that’s only 2 ways……just so ya know. ;)

    • Joe

      Thanks. Another reader caught it above. See my reply there.

  • Really detailed and well put together lessons. I get tired of seeing super short write-ups on this kind of stuff. Props for taking the time to be thorough.

  • Fahmy

    I haven’t tried this yet, but I like the “yell it out loud” part.

  • thats good. thanks. but you can complete it in two hours really.

    • Jarek Draven

      You can play through all the exercises in that time, sure. But most people can’t memorize things that quickly. Not to the point where you can pick any random fret/string and name the note without time for thought.

      If you can memorize the entire fretboard in 2 hours as a complete beginner, consider yourself gifted.

  • Old Jack

    Are all of your diagrams set up for a left handed player?

    • Nope, right-handed. Think of hunching over the guitar, seeing the low E and A strings (the thickest ones) at the bottom of your field of vision and the high E and B strings (the thinnest ones) at the top of your field of vision. Fret one on your far left. That’s the most common orientation for horizontal fretboard diagrams like the ones above.

  • Old Jack

    So, when I hold my guitar, and the low (thick) E string is on top of my fret board, I have it strung wrong?

    • Nope, low E should be closest to the ceiling. When you have the guitar in your own lap, and you hunch over to look at the fretboard, low E is at the bottom of your field of vision. That’s why it’s at the bottom of fretboard diagrams, and tablature.

      • Old Jack

        Thank you, for the clarification. When I looked at your diagrams, I must have gotten dislexic.

        • No problem. Just imagine how the lefties feel!

        • Jarek Draven

          Oh, it’s not you. The way they do fretboard diagrams is completely counter-intuitive, IMHO. But that’s the standard way of doing it.

  • Dev

    Excellent lesson! I always make sure my students are learning the guitar fretboard as soon as possible. It opens up so many doors musically and enable the guitarist to get as creative as they want with their song writing.

    I use a slightly different approach with my students, however. The stings, in order, go EADGBE, so what I do is teach the students patterns on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th frets that keep these notes in that sequence, just a different root. So the pattern on the 3rd fret (from low E to high E) would be G-B-E-A-D-G. 5th fret, A-D-G-B-E-A, etc etc etc… I’ve had success with both your technique and this one. Just personal preference. :)

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Not sure what you’re getting at. The “pattern on the 3rd fret” that you mentioned doesn’t stay on the 3rd fret. If you use G B E A D G, you end up using frets 3, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3. Do you find this confuses some of your students? It’s confusing me! :)

      • Dev

        Nope! Because the pattern does change with each fret and I teach them this as well. I just didn’t want to hijack your lesson with a whole other lesson on the same topic but with my method haha. The pattern on the 5th fret is 5, 5, 5, 4, 5, 5 – 7th fret is 7, 7, 7, 7, 8, 7… Respectively, A-D-G-B-E-A and B-E-A-D-G-B. Once these patterns are memorized I teach the C’s and F’s. At whice point once all the patterns are memorized so are all the natural notes on the neck. Sorry for the mix up there! Oh, and yes that is the pattern on the 3rd fret (3-2-2-2-3-3).

    • What? Your students could not learn the fretboard at all by your method.

      3rd fret = G C F B? D G
      5th fret = A D G C E A

      There are only two frets within the first 11 that contain only naturals. Strings descending have intervals of perfect fourths between the strings except G and B, which is a major third.

      Since the open strings are E A D G B E, strings fretted at the 5th fret do not match. B is found on the 4th fret of G and G is found on the 8th fret of B.

  • It should be H instead of B

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  • Derka Durper

    I know absolutely nothing about music…. Im so glad I found this gem of an article… This makes me get it!!! A Black Cock Dick Erectas Fuck Gay Asshole… works out great.

  • Philip Glaser

    Using guitar flash cards to test yourself every day also helps tremendously – seeing the notes again and again with cards, and testing yourself with them. Amazon.com and the Strings by Mail websites carry them.

  • Mr. Doodle

    The discussion was very helpful but the three note pattern notation such as 6-3-1 is throwing me for a loop! Frets come in with this pattern?

    • Sorry, that section of the article wasn’t very clear, was it? I was only pointing out that you can combine some of the seven 1-octave shapes depicted to get some larger 2-octave shapes (each containing three notes). For instance, you can combine the first and third shapes above to get roots on strings 6, 4, and 2. Or you could combine the second and fourth shapes to get roots on strings 5, 3, and 1.

      • Mr. Doodle

        Got it now! The simplicity of it threw me off.. Thanks

      • Mr. Doodle

        Any suggestions remembering the octaves in relation to the CAGED system? Or is that just practice with the patterns? Anyhow nice to be on the right course.

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  • Yes, excellent in its detail. Those Ami pentatonic, bluesy scales are just me! Forever….

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  • This is great!

  • thanks for this beautiful post.

  • Ashwini BHUNJUN

    Thanks for sharing these precious information! Sounds difficult but i’ll end up learning it for sure. *Fingers crossed*

  • Nine days? Wow, that is way too long!

    With my method, you can learn every tone of the fret board easily within with an hour, tops!

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