This is going to be a quick little article about the musical alphabet on guitar.
This will be a very basic overview for those who are just getting into playing the guitar and haven’t played any other instrument and for those that already play but have never been exposed to musical theory.
First, we’ll look at the musical alphabet and then we’ll see what that looks like on the guitar.
The Musical Alphabet
At the very core of musical theory is the musical alphabet. It’s the foundation.
But it’s actually a fairly simple thing when you look into it. This section will describe what the musical alphabet is for those that are unfamiliar.
The musical alphabet starts at A and goes to G.
Simple, so far, right?
How many notes in the Musical Alphabet?
There are 12 notes in the musical alphabet.
Wait, hang on? But A to G is only 7 notes. Are you trying to trick me!
Sharps and Flats
Every musical note has a sharp and/or flat associated with it.
let’s look at sharps first.
The notes A, C, D, F & G all have sharps. A sharp is notated with a ‘#’ symbol.
So, we have:
B and E do not have sharps.
So our musical alphabet is:
Making up our 12 notes.
But you mentioned sharps and flats. What are flats?
Flats are notated with a ‘b’ symbol.
Flats are essentially another way for denoting sharps. There is a reason why flats exist, but that’s beyond the scope of this particular post.
For now, let’s look at what flats are.
A, B, D, E & G all have flats.
So we have:
C and F don’t have flats.
But now we have 17 notes, don’t we?
Ab is the same note as G#. And the same is true of all the other flats? They all correspond to a sharp.
Ab = G#
Bb = A#
Db = C#
Eb = D#
Gb = F#
O.k, now it makes more sense, right?
Tones and Semi-Tones
So essentially what we have are tones and semi-tones that make up the 12 notes. The space between each note is a semi-tone.
- A to A# = a semi tone
- A# to B = a semi tone
- B to C = a semi tone (remember that there is no B#/Cb)
- C to C# = a semi tone
- C# to D = a semi tone
- D to D# = a semi tone
- D# to E = a semi tone
- E to F = a semi tone
- F to F# = a semi tone
- F# to G = a semi tone
- G to G# = a semi tone
- G# to A = a semi tone
And remember that those sharps have an equivalent flat. So, saying the same thing but with flats instead of sharps we have:
- A to Bb = a semi tone
- Bb to B = a semi tone
- B to C = a semi tone (remember that there is no B#/Cb)
- C to Db = a semi tone
- Db to D = a semi tone
- D to Eb = a semi tone
- Eb to E = a semi tone
- E to F = a semi tone
- F to Gb = a semi tone
- Gb to G = a semi tone
- G to Ab = a semi tone
- Ab to A = a semi tone
This is the same thing but just said in a different way.
Should You Learn Notes or Chords First?
If you’ve just picked up your first guitar and you’re looking for the most logical route to mastery, you may ask yourself if you should learn guitar string names, notes, or chords first.
Honestly, it doesn’t really matter if you focus on one, the other, or both to begin with. Each method has its benefits, although I would suggest learning the open notes of the strings before moving on to anything else.
Starting your musical journey with chords can be an exciting way to learn as you’ll build finger strength and articulation quickly and develop a rudimentary understanding of how to play your favorite songs. What’s more, chords are made up of notes, so you’re still picking that side of the guitar up as you go.
Learning notes chromatically up and down the neck, and more importantly, in scales, is beneficial as you attain dexterity and a mental fluency of the fretboard, and when you finally start learning chords, you have a good understanding of how they exist within the context of the scale.
On the Guitar
Understanding semi-tones and the musical alphabet is a much easier thing when you have a guitar in front of you.
Each fret on the guitar represents a semi-tone and also represents a letter in the musical alphabet.
If you pluck the thickest string, which is closest to you when you’re holding the guitar (this is called the Low E string), without holding down any frets, you are playing an ‘E’ note. This is where the string gets its name.
As you go down and pluck the rest of the strings, you will be playing an A, D, G, B, then E again.
The strings on the guitar (in standard tuning) are, from the highest pitched string up:
E (High E)
E (Low E)
If you lie your guitar flat on your lap, this is the order you will see your strings in.
Fretting the strings
Starting from the Open High E string (aka the 1st string, the thinnest highest sounding string, which is the furthest from your chin when you’re holding the guitar).
let’s use the high E string as the example string here to illustrate semi-tones on the guitar.
The high E string, when plucked without any fingers on the fretboard, is an E.
Now place your finger in the first fret and pluck the string. You’ve now plucked an F note. This is a semi-tone above the E. Remember from above that the ‘E’ note doesn’t have a sharp so the semi tone is from E to F.
Now place a finger in the 2nd fret and pluck it. Now you have just played an F# (aka Gb). This is one semi-tone above the F you played in the first fret and one whole tone above the E you played when you weren’t fretting any strings.
The 3rd fret is a G.
The 4th fret is a G#.
The 5th fret is an A.
And so on up the fretboard.
This is the same for every string on the guitar.
Choose any string and go up by one fret and you will be playing a note that is a semi-tone above the one you played in the adjacent fret.
The chart below shows the musical alphabet on the fretboard of the guitar.
Some might be confused about how there can only be 12 notes, and yet there are obviously more than 12 notes on the guitar.
In fact, your average acoustic guitar with 20 frets has 126 notes on it! that’s more than 10 times the 12 notes we just looked at!
Don?t fret (pun intended ?) some of those notes are repeats and some of those notes are just octaves.
To understand octaves play the Low E string of your guitar and then play the high E.
These are both E’s ? but the high E string is said to be 2 octaves above the Low E string. When you play them together you can hear that they sound the same ? it’s just that one is higher pitched.
If you play the 2nd fret of the D string you will also be playing an E ? this is one octave above the Low E string and one octave below the high E string.
The notes on the guitar and repeated notes
The guitar has 36 different notes within the first 12 frets of the guitar ? so whilst there are 78 different positions you can play notes in, there only 36 different notes ? which is 3 different octaves of the 12 notes in the musical alphabet.
Most notes on the guitar (even with in the same octave) are repeated somewhere on the guitar.
For example playing the Low E string on the 5th fret is the same as playing the Open A string.
Playing the 2nd fret on the D string is the same as playing the 7th fret on the A string.
However, this isn?t redundancy. Those different positions for the same notes come in handy when you become more advanced on the guitar.
Also, though these notes are the same ? they have a different feel to them because they are being played on different strings.
In what order should you learn guitar chords?
There isn?t a definitive order that you need to learn.
What most people tend to do is pick a song they like and learn the chords in that song. This method can become quite frustrating, however.
For most beginners, the songs they love are generally out of their skill range. The chords and progressions are too tricky in popular songs.
Your best bet is to start out with the open chords. These are chords with one or more open strings. That is, strings you don?t press on.
Within the open chords, you should try to learn Em, G, C, and D first. These chords are some of the most used chords. In fact, most songs can be simplified to these four chords.
Is it easier to learn chords or tabs?
Chords and tabs are two different playing styles that can’t be simplified into easy or hard.
If you want to learn rhythm guitar then you?re going to want to learn chords. Rhythm guitarists are driving the music. They provide the rhythmic beat along with other instruments. You can think of rhythm guitar as the body of the song.
Lead guitarists use tablature or tabs. They provide the melody of the song. that’s the bit that tends to get stuck in your head! Lead guitar is like the embellishment of the song.
Each style has its difficulties. Chords require you to move multiple fingers during transitions while tabs require precise picking.
Which is harder comes down to the kind of player you are or want to be.
Thanks for reading
O.k. that wasn?t as quick as I thought it would be ? these things always require more explanation than you think!
I hope this made sense for those who haven’t heard anything about the musical alphabet and how it relates to guitar. This was a very rudimentary lesson but it’s an important foundation to get in place to learn theory.
Check out the following link to learn more about reading music.
Photo Credits from Top
By Sluffs (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons