Learn the Note-Layout…understand Music!

OK!  Let’s admit right up front that many guitarists DO NOT tend to make time learning their fretboard in terms of its note-layout – what I call Fretboard Thought.  Why?  Simple!  Learning the notes on the fretboard takes time and commitment making it (apparently) a less motivating pursuit.  We live in a time where speed of comprehension seems to rule and because we are primarily “visual” beasts, we respond more quickly to the shapes & patterns that occur on the fretboard because we get quick results. 

But have you ever asked yourself “why are those shapes and patterns the way they are?”.  Well of course, they ARE THE WAY THEY ARE because of the NOTES THAT MAKE THEM UP.

So, logically, it makes sense to learn the note-layout the fretboard in order to comprehend musical features more deeply…that is beyond shape & pattern.  Why you would choose NOT TO DO THIS is to set yourself up for not understanding the big-picture of music, and the guitar, but to ultimately get exposed to musical information overwhelm – which is rampant today.

 Memorize these two images…go!


I wouldn’t do it either…thrust me!

Let’s look at a better way!

Just look at the blue notes (circles and the one square…but just the blue notes.   These are the 7 “natural” notes that are used in music.  Don’t worry about notes like sharp (#) or flat (b) ones for now.

Now here’s the thing!

Do You Really Know The Note-Layout?

Way to many players will look at an image like this and simply think “OK I’ve got it”  to which I would say “you are familiar with it but do you actually KNOW IT?”. This is the rub for many players.  They’re familiar with something but don’t actually know it deep down in their bones.  

If you really are unfamiliar with the note-layout, you will have to take some time (and effort) to play with it (and I mean play with it like a child plays with sand in a sandbox).  Only through this innocent process will you begin to develop a relationship with the note- layout that is unique to your way of thinking.

Note-Layout Relationships is Key.

An obvious relationship is the overall distances between the notes… in terms of frets.  But even more specifically, you might observe that two groups of notes (B-C, E-F) are only one fret apart.  All the other consecutive notes are two frets apart.  In that sense these two grouping are somewhat unique and therefore (usually) easy to memorize.

You might even start to make some connections between the notes, the frets they are on and the fretboard markers- again an experience unique to you.

Perhaps you notice that the notes C, D, and E all fall on fretboard markers 3, 5, and 7.  For some reason, that relationship stuck with you.  Pay attention to those moments because you will draw on that experience over and over again as to gain even more familiarity with the fretboard.

Of course, I hope you can easily see the octave relationship between the open strings and the 12th fret.

Over time, you will build up these overlapping layers of “fretboard relationships”, some taught to you and others you discover just by the way you think and organize…very cool to me!

Learning the fretboard in terms of relationships is absolutely better than the tedium of ROTE memorization.

Now this next step was a BIG one for me.

Know One String…Know the whole Fretboard.

If you know the location of all the natural notes on the 5th string (and I mean really know them!…and not just being “familiar” with them, then you actually know ALL the natural notes on your fretboard.  Why?

Because everything you did or thought regarding the 5th string simply repeats itself on the other strings…but starting on a different open string note other than A.  All the relationships you already know can be applied to the remaining strings.  So now you know this…


Notice how each string follows the same exact note relationship that you learned on the 5th string.  This is a powerful example of how knowing one thing really well helps to learn the next logical thing more effectively.

You now have much to play around with here and it won’t sink-in in a week.  You need to consistently return to this way of thinking and exploring the fretboard within your practice in order for it to get into your bones.

But as of this lesson, you now have a system to help identify any natural note anywhere on the fretboard.  Can you do this fast?  May be in some areas and less so in others…join the club.  Just spend more time with the areas you know less – which I know is hard to do while you’d rather be riffing some VanHalen.

The choice is always yours.

It’s never too late to begin really learning the fretboard beyond using shapes, frets and strings.

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think about learning the notes on the fretboard.  How do YOU do this?



Don't Strum Another Song Until You've Read This GUIDE!

"I think it's a fairly well-accepted urban legend that strumming will just occur naturally once a guitarist learns a few chords...and while this may be true for some, your teaching is precisely what the rest of us need in order to progress". 

Dan Tanner

Learn to strum