There’s nothing like trying to explain basic concepts of the guitar to a beginner to help you clarify your own musical thought processes. This is the case as I try to show my nephew some stuff on guitar. I’ve been playing for over 40 years and one of the things that I take for granted as I talk to beginning (or even some intermediate) guitarists is knowing where any note is on the guitar fretboard. They may know what the notes are on the sixth and fifth strings if they are familiar with barre chords but if you asked them what is the note on the fourth string, sixth fret, there’s a good chance that they wouldn’t know (it’s A flat by the way). If you want to stick to simple “cowboy” chords, it’s not that important but this trait also shows up in guitarists who have begun to explore soloing and are basing their solos on some sort of pattern. They know that if they are suppose to be in key X, then if they use guitar pattern Y at fret Z, then they’ll be able to play something in the general ballpark of a solo. It’s no surprise that these solos tend to sound stilted and mechanical. It’s like reciting a speech phonetically in a foreign language, without understanding what you’re saying. Your ultimate goal should be knowing where you are on the fretboard and what is that note’s relationship to the underlying harmony of the music you are playing. It’s knowing that the A flat note on the fourth string, sixth fret is the root if you’re playing over a A flat dominant seventh (Ab7) or that it’s the third if you are playing over a F minor chord or the flat 7th of the B flat dominant 7 (Bb7).
This may sound daunting but it’s not as hard as you think. I believe the key is viewing the fretboard in terms of chord forms as opposed to scale patterns. If you know the basic forms and the role the individual notes have in that chord form, you will have a much better understanding of the fretboard and what you’re playing. The first step in that process goes back to knowing where any given note is on the fretboard. If you are trying to play a G minor 7 chord somewhere around the 9th fret, you need to know where the note G is at that part of the neck. It all starts with the root.
What I found to be a good way to internalize the locations of a given note is to use octaves shapes. By knowing the notes on the sixth and fifth strings, you can then extrapolate where these notes are on the other strings. As I said earlier, if you gotten to the stage where you can play barre chords, you should know the notes on the sixth and fifth strings. If not, here is a quickie chart:
Fret 6th String 5th String
open E A
1 F Bb
2 F#(Gb) B
3 G C
4 G#(Ab) C#(Db)
5 A D
6 A#(Bb) D#(Eb)
7 B E
8 C F
9 C#(Db) F#(Gb)
10 D G
11 D#(Eb) G#(Ab)
12 E A
(The notes on the 12th fret of the guitar are the same as the open strings one octave higher.)
With octave shapes, you can use the notes on the sixth string to figure out the notes on the fourth string. Knowing that the note on the sixth string, 3rd fret is a G, you can see that the note on the fourth string, 5th fret is also a G, one octave higher (see diagram).
The same octave shape applies to the fifth and third strings. Knowing that the note on the fifth string, 3rd fret is a C, you can see that the note on the third string, 5th fret is also a C, one octave higher (see diagram).
Another octave shape exists between the fifth string and the second string:
Same basic shape exists between the fourth and first strings:
One more basic shape, between the fourth and second string and the third and first strings respectively:
Please also note that the notes on the first string are two octaves above the notes on the sixth string. Knowing these shapes will help you to learn where any note is on the fretboard. My next post will build on this by introducing chord shapes based on a given note.