“My guitar is not a thing. It is an extension of myself.
It is who I am.”
– Joan Jett
If you saw the blog post From Zero to Beginner, then you should already know what the fretboard is. Now we’ll learn why it’s so important to know it as we would know our best friend (which, in fact, it is).
The fretboard is where we’ll be pressing the strings to play all the notes in our music, but first we have to know where the notes are.
We’ll refer to each string with a number. Starting from the thinner string, which we’ll call “1st string”, we increase the number with each string. On a six-string guitar, the thickest string is called “6th”. Do not get confused with the numbers of strings and the numbers of frets, please.
From now on, we’ll assume the guitar is tuned to standard, that is EADGBE. You can read my post on how to tune your guitar here.
When we play a string without pressing it on any fret, we call it playing an open string. When you play an open string, it will sound as the note it’s tuned to, so if we play the 6 strings from thicker to thinner, we’ll get the notes E, A, D, G, B, and E, respectively.
If we now press on the first fret on the 6th string, we’ll get a note that is one semitone above the open string note, which was E. What note is it? It’s F, of course.
Each time we press on a fret, we’ll get a note which is one semitone above the note from the fret before, down until the note from the open string, so in this case for the 6th and 5th strings we would get the following notes:
Can you complete the rest of the notes on the rest of the strings? Just start from the note of the open string and add a semitone on each fret. Come on, it’ll be fun. Sort of.
Note that the image above shows up to the 4th fret, but the same rule applies to the whole fretboard.
With some practice you’ll remember which note is in which fret. Do not worry about this for now.
Did you notice the small dot in the middle of the third fret? This is what’s called an indication dot. These dots are placed along the fretboard to serve as a reference to quickly find the fret where you want to play, otherwise they would all look the same.
Even though manufacturers sometimes vary where they place the dots, the general rule is the following:
The 12th fret on each string is special. They will usually have two dots or else another symbol to make it different from the other marks. Do you remember what happens when you move 12 semitones from a note? Well, you get the same note! This means that each string on the 12th fret has the same note that it does playing it open.
This guitar of mine has 22 frets, as you can see from the image. Some guitars have 24 frets, which means they will have another two dots on the 24th fret (yes, in that fret the notes are once again the same as the open strings).
OK, so now we know how to find out which note is on each fret. But this is not very useful by itself, since when we are playing we cannot really count frets to know what to play next. There are some shortcuts we can learn to quickly know which note/interval is located where.
Let’s take a look at the 6th and 5th open strings. The 6th string is an E, while the 5th is an A.
If we take the E note as a root note, what interval is the A? Can you tell? You can use the interval calculator I gave you at the end of the post where we learned the notes.
Well, the A note happens to be the 4th interval from E:
How about we now take a look at the notes in the first frets of the 6th and 5th?
On the 6th we have an F, while on the 5th we have A#.
What interval is an A# from an F root note? Yes, it’s the same as the open strings, it’s a 4th!
This is not a coincidence. In every fret, the note from a string below is always a 4th interval from the string above.
Take a look at the following image:
Taking F# as a root note, can you tell which intervals are the rest of the notes marked?
Yes, the notes marked are all the intervals we’ve already seen. So, let’s switch the notes for the intervals:
With some practice you’ll be able to memorize the locations of each interval relative to a root. Notice that we can move this whole figure up and down frets and it will still be valid.
OK, so now let’s go back and talk about the tuning itself. We saw we get these shapes because the notes on the open strings are one 4th apart from each other:
E to A (4th)
A to D (4th)
D to G (4th)
What happens then? Take a look at the 3rd and 2nd strings: G and B notes respectively. What interval is B relative to G?
Gotcha! These two strings are not tuned a 4th interval apart, but a 3rd, which means that the relative positions of the intervals between these two will be one semitone (fret) behind, so we will have the following diagram:
Again, you will learn to identify these with experience.
As an exercise, I'll let you find out where the intervals are starting from a root note on the 3rd string.
Are you ready to start learning the fretboard by yourself?
Let me know if you get stuck!