How to Use Guitar Fretboards: Learn How to Read Guitar Fretboards

Published Categorized as Basic Techniques, How To/Tips

If you’re a beginner to intermediate guitarist, you can probably play plenty of chords and maybe even a scale or two. But if you’re like many guitarists, much of the fretboard of your instrument remains a mystery. But by taking the steps to really learn the fretboard notes on guitar, you will revolutionize your playing and be more comfortable than ever on your instrument.

Table of Contents

What is a Guitar Fretboard?

Maybe you already know what a fretboard is. But in case you don’t, it’s the piece of wood (or similar material) covering the top of the neck. The fretboard is marked with wires called frets. When a string touches a fret and you pluck that string, a note sounds. 

Depending on where you place your fingers on the fretboard, you can play any note in the musical alphabet. There are 12 notes in total: A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#.

Close-up photo of a custom guitar.

How Do You Read Guitar Frets?

What to Know Before You Start Practicing

Before we start playing, let’s make sure you have a basic familiarity with the fretboard.

String Numbering and Standard Tuning

In many different tutorials, you’ll hear instructors mention string numbers. The strings are numbered in a way you might not expect: the string closest to you as you play (the thickest string) is the sixth string. The thinnest string is the first string. 

In order for all of the note names to be correct, your guitar needs to be in standard tuning. That means that, from sixth string to first string, they are tuned to E, A, D, G, B, E, respectively. The E on the first string is two octaves higher than the E on the sixth string.

Fret Numbering

Before starting to play, make sure you know what teachers mean by “first fret,” “second fret,” etc. The space right in front of the fret wire itself (if you count “in front of” as closest to the headstock) is generally called the fret. So the first fret is the space between the nut and the first fret wire, the second fret is the space between the first and second fret wires, etc. Most guitars have between 20 and 24 frets. 

Fretboard Movement

Although a string touches a fret to sound a note, you press your finger right next to a fret (not on it) to play a note. For example, to play an F on the low E string, place your index finger next to the first fret (on the side closest to the headstock).

Guitarists also use specific terms referencing fretboard movement. These can be very helpful to understand:

  • Down the fretboard – toward the headstock
  • Up the fretboard – away from the headstock
  • Horizontal movement – back and forth between the nut and the bridge
  • Vertical movement – up and down between the low E and the high E

Fretboard Note Locations

You can easily find charts of the guitar fretboard with notes that show you the exact location of each note. But to really commit them to memory, it’s ideal to be able to find them yourself. That’s easy enough to do when you recall the musical alphabet:

 A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#

As you can see, there are no sharps between B and C and E and F. You can look deeper into music theory to find out why, but we’ll save that for another article.

You can find guitar fretboard notes any string by starting with the open string. So we’ll start with the sixth string. Playing it open gives you an E. Playing each successive fret moves you one note forward in the musical alphabet. So placing a finger on the first fret gives you F, and placing a finger on the second fret gives you F#. Once you get to the 12th fret, you will get an E again, and the pattern repeats itself. 

You can do this with any of the strings of the guitar. learning the E string is a good place to start. Once you know the notes on the low or high E string, you know the notes for the other one, too.

For you visual learners, here’s a pretty good video talking you through navigating your fretboard:

Fretboard Basics

Learning the fretboard the right way involves building on knowledge as you learn. make sure you fully understand each step before moving forward!

Fretboard Basics #1 – Frets and Inlays

Your fretboard likely has dots or other inlays as markers. These markers are effectively road signs for guitarists — no matter where you are on the fretboard, an inlay can help keep you from getting lost. 

Usually, you can find inlays at fret 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12. The pattern repeats itself after 12. Be sure to avoid tilting your guitar up toward you to read the frets — most guitars have dot markers on the fretboard binding that faces upward while you play.

As you get familiar with guitar notes and strings, it can be useful to take note of which notes are at which inlays. To make sure you’re on the right track, here are the notes on the low E string at the inlays through number 12:

  • 3rd fret: G
  • 5th fret: A
  • 7th fret: B
  • 9th fret: C#
  • 12th fret: E

Fretting Position

As you start playing, make sure to immediately start working on using the right playing position. It will be much easier to correct mistakes now than it will be down the line.

As we noted earlier, when fretting a note, be sure to keep your fingertip as close to the fret as you can. As you may find out, having your finger too far from the fret can result in the highly unpleasant “fret buzz.”

Do your best to use the tips of your fingers to fret notes. Using the pads of your fingers can mean accidentally fretting other notes or making your playing sound generally indistinct. To use the tips, bend each finger at the first joint until each fingertip is close to being perpendicular to the fretboard.

Fretboard Basics #2 – Open Strings & Octaves

Hopefully, you remember that a six-string guitar in standard tuning is tuned (from sixth string to first string) EADGBE. If you have trouble remembering these as you tune up, a mnemonic might help: Edgar ate dynamite. Good bye Edgar.

When you play each string open, you get the note that it’s tuned to. Now, you might recall that we previously mentioned that the pattern of notes repeats itself after the 12th fret. That’s because the 12th fret is the octave of each open string — it’s eight spaces higher on the musical alphabet. Theoretically, the musical alphabet could infinitely repeat at pitches higher and higher (or lower and lower). Each cycle through the alphabet is one octave. 

How Do You Memorize a Guitar Fretboard?

Memorizing a fretboard takes a lot of patience and time — as well as plenty of practice. You’ll want to be familiar with every note on each string. But to really commit those notes to memory, it’s helpful to use them in context. If you’ve already learned a scale, playing that scale down the fretboard can be helpful.

Why You Should Learn the Fretboard

Learning notes on guitar fret board can seem like a tedious exercise at first. But learning it will help you be a better improviser and open up new musical possibilities. But how do you do it?

Again, for you visual learners here’s another video to help you memorize the fretboard:

How to Learn the Fretboard

Use Associations

Associating the notes on the fretboard with their names can be especially valuable. Try saying the names of the notes as you play them — that way, you’ll associate the sound with the name. Take in each note’s place in relation to fretboard inlays. Connecting these things will help you to gain a more complete understanding of the fretboard.

Practice to Remember

While it might seem that multi-hour fretboard study sessions will help you master the guitar fretboard notes more quickly, these sessions can actually be counterproductive. You’re more likely to retain the information you learn if you study in small 10-20minute increments once or twice a day.

Avoid These Methods

There seem to be endless recommendations for learning the fretboard online. But some are more effective than others. Here are some learning methods you should definitely avoid:

Memorizing charts. A chart or diagram of a guitar fretboard with notes can be a handy reference, but don’t base your learning on it. Recalling a space on a piece of paper is a lot different from having to find and play the note on an actual guitar.

Learning too much at once. It can be tempting to try and memorize every single note in one sitting. Please don’t do this! You’re likely to retain less information. Learn a few notes each practice session (but learn them completely), and you’re more likely to really remember them.

Looking only at frets 1-12. Since the notes repeat themselves after the 12th fret, many guitarists are tempted to just stick to the first 12. But the frets get much narrower past the 12th fret. Make sure you practice playing them, too!

More Guitar Fretboard Exercises

Anything that can help you get more familiar with the guitar notes and strings is useful. Here are a few recommended exercises to try:

Going down a string. This is a fairly basic exercise that can help you remember locations of fretboard notes on guitar. Move along one string and fret each note as you do. Say their names aloud as you do so.

Finding notes. To test your recall and develop it further, choose a note at random. Then, find it everywhere it occurs on the fretboard.

Locating octaves. You can often find the octave of a given note on the adjacent string. For example, the sixth string plays low E when plucked open. If you move to the fifth string on the seventh fret, you get a higher E.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the notes on the fretboard and how to use them. If you’re just starting your journey, it can be a little overwhelming at first. Just remember to take your time and learn little pieces at once. All the effort will be worth it!

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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