Easy Guitar Fretboard Reading Tricks

On the surface, the guitar fretboard is a mess of notes seemingly thrown on there at random.  But the reality is that there’s a very easy system to easily help you learn every note on your guitar’s fretboard.  You can learn the entire fretboard in 30 minutes with this trick.

None of my teachers ever showed me this for some reason.  So I make sure all my students know about this easy guitar fretboard reading trick.

You’ve probably seen those posters of the whole guitar fretboard that label every note on the neck.  Those are mostly great for giving you a migraine headache.  The first time I saw one I almost stuck my guitar in the closet to go back to piano.

Guitar fretboard with all notes labeled

SHIELD YOUR EYES! BEFORE THE BRAIN DAMAGE SETS IN!

There IS an easier way, my friend!  As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, our brains are not capable of memorizing that many pieces of information in order.  You’d have to be an idiot savant to do so.  Since you and I are both lacking in the “savant” department, we’re going to use a very easy system to read the guitar fretboard instead.

We’re going to do this with the least amount of memorization possible.  And you’ll know the whole fretboard in 30 minutes.

Step 1: Learn the natural notes on the 6th string.
Definitions:
Natural – A natural note is one that does not have a sharp or flat on it.  It’s just the letter (ie. C, F, A, etc).
Half Step – A half step is a movement of one fret on the fretboard.  From the first to second fret, for example.
Whole Step – A whole step is a movement of two frets on the fretboard.  Like from the first to third fret.

Let’s look at a C major scale.  If you don’t know what that is yet, don’t sweat it.  You don’t need to.  The scale looks like this: C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C.

We need to know where the half steps and whole steps in this scale are.  If you’re not familiar with scales, that’s totally fine.  Take my word for it at this point.  Everything in this scale is a whole step, EXCEPT between E and F, and B and C.  Those are the only half steps.

C w D w E h F w G w A w B h C

Memorization Point #1: It’s a half step from E to F, and B to C.  Everything else is whole steps.

Side Note: Later on when you want to dig into scales more, I highly recommend Guitar Scale Mastery.

Now we’ll apply that pattern to the sixth string, low E, the thickest one.  If you don’t know the names of the open strings yet check out my article, “Guitar Notes For Beginners”.  If E is the open string and it’s a half step to F as we learned above, the F is at the first fret.  We moved up one fret for the half step.

F to G is a whole step, so go from the first to third fret.  Try finding the rest of the natural notes on the 6th string using the combination of half steps and whole steps you learned above.

Check your answers:
E – open string
F – 1st fret
G – 3rd fret
A – 5th fret
B – 7th fret
C – 8th fret
D – 10th fret
E – 12th fret

Do not memorize that list above.  That’s the hard way.  Simply play through each of those notes on the fretboard, saying the names out loud until you start to get comfortable with it.  Work the system of half steps and whole steps instead of memorizing.  When your brain has gone through the system enough times it will appear to be memorized.  It’s really just your brain going very quickly through the system.

Once you can do them in order, give yourself random letters and find that note on the string.

What happens after the 12th fret?
After the 12th fret, the whole pattern simply repeats. Easy!

There’s one note I’d like you to memorize here.  The 5th fret is A.  Why do you want that?  Because it gives you a landmark halfway through.  You’ll be able to start there for a note higher on the fretboard instead of always having to start at the bottom.

Memorization Point #2: The open 6th string is E and the 5th fret is A.
Memorization Point #1 was: It’s a half step from E to F, and B to C.  Everything else is whole steps.

Step 2: Learn the natural notes on the 5th string.
As you can imagine, we’re going to just use the exact same process with the 5th string.  Nothing changes except the starting note.  Your open 5th string is the note A.  Start your pattern from there.  A to B is a whole step, so B is at the 2nd fret.  C is a half step up to the 3rd fret.  Go through the same system of half and whole steps.

Check your answers:
A – open string
B – 2nd fret
C – 3rd fret
D – 5th fret
E – 7th fret
F – 8th fret
G – 10th fret
A – 12th fret

Again, everything just repeats above the 12th fret.  What’s the 5th fret on the 5th string?  D, of course. Do everything the same as you did with the 6th string to get the hang of this one.

Memorization Point #3: The open 5th string is A and the 5th fret of that string is D.
Memorization Point #2 was: The open 6th string is E and the 5th fret is A.
Memorization Point #1 was: It’s a half step from E to F, and B to C.  Everything else is whole steps.

30 Day Guitar Challenge

 

Step 3: Learn the chromatic notes
So now we’ve got the natural notes on the bottom two strings of the fretboard worked out.  Let’s take care of the chromatic notes on all those frets we skipped over.

Definitions:
Sharp (#) – Sharping a note means raising it a half step (one fret).
Flat (b) – Flatting a note means lowering a half step (one fret).

Play a G on your 6th string.  If you’re not sure where that is, review step 1.  If we want to play a G#, we simply go up one fret to the 4th fret.  Gb is one fret lower than G at the 2nd fret.

Now find F#.  It’s the same fret as Gb, right?  Each of the chromatic notes has two names.  We call it the “enharmonic spelling”.  A big word for “it has two names”. 🙂  There are a variety of reasons why we might use one name or the other, but you don’t have to be concerned about those right now.

Practice these notes the same as you did on the naturals.  Do both the 5th and 6th strings.  Do them in order up and back.  Then give yourself random notes to find on each of the 5th and 6th strings.

Memorization Point #4: Sharp means go up a half step.  Flat means go down a half step.
Memorization Point #3 was: The open 5th string is A and the 5th fret of that string is D.
Memorization Point #2 was: The open 6th string is E and the 5th fret is A.
Memorization Point #1 was: It’s a half step from E to F, and B to C.  Everything else is whole steps.

Take stock of what you know now.  You’ve got the bottom two strings all figured out.  The top 1st string is also an open E.  So the notes are in exactly the same places as the bottom string.  We’re half way there!

30 Day Guitar ChallengeStep 4: Learn the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings.
We could learn the other three strings with the same techniques as above.  But that doesn’t lend itself to “quick and easy” very well.  This is the big easy fretboard reading trick.  Ready?

Play that same G on your 6th string.  Now go up two strings and up two frets.  You’ll end up at the 5th fret of the 4th string.  That is also a G.  Up two strings, up two frets.  That’s a moveable pattern.  If you start at Bb at the 6th fret of the 6th string and go up two, up two you’ll find a Bb at the 8th fret of the 4th string.  Super easy!

The same pattern works from the 5th string to notes on the 3rd string.  Up two strings, up two frets.  If you know the bottom two strings you can now easily get to the third and fourth strings.  Just like before, give yourself random notes and play them on each of the 4 strings.

To get to the second string we have to take one extra step.  Start from the G on your 6th string again.  Go up two, up two to get to the G on the 4th string.  Now go up two strings, up three frets to find the G on your second string.

Memorization Point #5: Up two strings, up two frets.  Use up two strings and up three frets to get from the 4th to second string.
Memorization Point #4 was: Sharp means go up a half step.  Flat means go down a half step.
Memorization Point #3 was: The open 5th string is A and the 5th fret of that string is D.
Memorization Point #2 was: The open 6th string is E and the 5th fret is A.
Memorization Point #1 was: It’s a half step from E to F, and B to C.  Everything else is whole steps.

Last Action Step: Give yourself random notes to find on each of the six strings.  Do all the naturals, sharps, and flats.  First learn them by going through the skip-string patterns we just learned.  Once you’re comfortable with that, work on picking them out on the strings in order.  Say, Ab on the 6th, then 5th, then 4th, etc.  This trains your brain to switch patterns on the fly and is a more real world way of thinking through the fretboard.

And now you know the big easy trick to guitar fretboard reading!  Good job!  As always, if you have any questions about this article, leave me a comment below and I’ll be happy to answer.

Next up: Beginning chord theory for guitarists.

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Comments

Easy Guitar Fretboard Reading Tricks — 11 Comments

  1. whaoo dis is great i have gotten some things from your article but i don’t know how to read the musical note can u help in that also.

  2. Thanks for the awesome tutorial! Very informative and fun. I was overwhelmed a few months ago when i first took stock of all the notes on the fretboard. After reading this article it has given me a much easier path to follow in learning all the notes on the neck. Thanks!

    • Thanks Chris… I’m glad it was helpful for you. Let me know about any other guitar problems you’re having and I’ll try and write about those too. 🙂

  3. Hey Phil,
    Thanks for the tutorial, I have checked out a few others online some good some with a bunch of holes in them that they assume you know even though they are called beginner lessons. Yours is the best and most thorough so far… thanks again I look forward to learning more, music and guitar theory and how to create and recoginize chord progressions…
    Hank

    • Thanks Hank! I’m glad you found it useful. Since I don’t always know who will be reading, I try not assume anything. Or at least gives some resources where those other things can be learned too. 🙂

  4. This is a really neat and useful guide, thanks! The only thing I noticed is that on the A string example, there seems to be a mistake as you write that B is on the first fret.

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