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Unlike pianos and other keyboard instruments, guitars (and other stringed instruments) have multiple positions for the same notes... most of them, anyway. This can be very confusing when you're first starting out, especially if you're learning a tune by ear. You can never be quite sure in what position you should be playing the notes you're hearing. But, after a while, we guitarists begin to realize how blessed we are to have this multiplicity of choices. That, coupled with the asymmetric tuning of the guitar — that 'kink' in the tuning — gives us all kinds of different ways to attack the same piece of music. If it were simply the same pattern in a new location, that wouldn't be very useful, but it's not. That jogged out B string allows us to find different fingerings for the very same passages of music, whether it's a chord progression, or a riff, or melody... whatever. While this may not make you jump for joy if you're just starting out, later on you'll begin to see how handy that becomes, and how it enriches your playing, especially when you start dabbling with improvisation, making your parts up on the fly.

You will eventually get to know your fretboard like the back of your hand, with plenty of practice, of course. If you're anything like me, it won't be the note names so much as shapes and patterns of music that can move along the fingerboard according to the key of the piece. I'm sure that applies to most instruments, but the guitar is particularly suited to a graphic mindset. That is not to say that knowing all the note names isn't important — it's very important — but let them filter in over time.

Map of the fretboard

The notes on the fretboard
1:10 min video.

fretboard map

Horizontal lines represent the strings, tuning pegs to the left, body of the guitar to the right. The number of each fret is indicated above, the fretboard markers are below. Trust those fretboard markers, they're the same on all guitars. Notes repeat beyond the 12th fret, in other words 13 is the same as 1, 14 as 2, etc., but one octave higher.

Learn the natural notes first, shown here in red. The sharp/flat notes fit between. While it's important to know where all notes are, it's far more important to know where chords are, as chords carry much more information than notes — just as words carry more information than the letters of the alphabet. More on chords soon.

I'm sure there are as many ways to learn this map as there are players, but so long as you remember the open string notes (EADGBE) and the fact that notes come in alphabetical order as they rise in pitch, you can never really get lost.

Even if, at first, you need to go back to the open string work your way up through the notes to find whatever you're looking for, you'll be fine. Notice that the natural notes stack up at the fifth and tenth frets. This is also a good landmark to lock in.

Do you need to know this by heart when you're starting out? No, not unless you can read notation and want to play pieces that have been scored out. If you're just starting out, you probably won't venture too far up the neck and won't really need to know the names of notes.

Apart from the five lowest notes on a guitar — E, F, F#, G and G# — and some of the very highest notes, all the others have at least one other position. Watch the video above to see what I mean. Some, like the open B string note, have four other places where they can be found. This is what makes guitars so different from pianos, where only one of each note can be found. This is both a curse and a blessing!

OK, so we've learned that:

• there are 12 notes that repeat like the months of the year
• that a music year is called an octave
• that all have a sharp/flat note between them except for E-F and B-C
• that the distance between any two adjacent notes is called a semitone.

These are the raw ingredients, the building blocks. On a guitar, every string/fret postion is a note and the sharp/flat notes are all there, mixed in together. On a piano they're color-coded black and white; there is no such distinction on a fretboard.

What we hear as music is the way these 12 notes, plus the repeats in other octaves, interact with each other. For that, we need a blueprint. Music's Master blueprint is called the Major Scale.

On to the master blueprint: the Major Scale —››