Learning All the Notes on the Guitar Fingerboard
The Guitar Fingerboard
This article was written for Classical Guitarists but guitarists of every style can benefit from knowing all the notes on the neck. This method is the quickest way to learn them all.
To progress on Classical Guitar, you have to read musical notation. Learning to read the written notes is not difficult; most beginners only need one lesson to be able to recognise and name all the notes in the treble stave. The greater difficulty is in finding the notes on the fingerboard.
Why learn the fingerboard?
Piano players have it easy. Their notes are neatly laid out in sequence on a keyboard where every octave looks the same. The natural notes are all white and the sharps and flats all black. And each note appears once only. Easy. But the guitar fingerboard is a matrix of strings and frets, with a note at every crosspoint. No colour coding, no obvious repeat patterns. And, to further complicate matters, some notes appear in up to three different places on the neck. No wonder some players never progress past 'first position'.
For years, though my actual music-reading was adequate (I'd played piano and flute before coming to the guitar), I found great difficulty in applying this to sight-reading on guitar in the higher positions. My problem wasn't the music; it was basic insecurity in my ability to locate the notes on the fingerboard. I relied too heavily on memorising pieces, by what many guitarists call 'finger memory' or 'muscle memory', a form of recall that comes from basic repetition. There are three main problems with this approach:
- If you don't play your repertoire regularly, you forget it, often at the worst possible moment.
- When you do forget a piece, you find you're almost back to square one because the printed music again feels totally foreign.
- Playing with other non-guitarist musicians is difficult because most possess and expect a level of sight-reading that you can't match. It's a sad fact that amateur classic guitarists are the worst sight-readers of all instrumentalists, and this mainly comes down to fingerboard insecurity.
There is another more subtle but equally serious problem with relying on finger memory: it does little or nothing to develop your understanding of the music as conceived by its original composer. A true understanding of harmony, counterpoint and form comes from correlating the written music with the played music, and is part of every 'classical' musician's development. One of the reasons the top concert guitarists can play an entire repertoire from memory is that they memorise the score, not merely the kinetics of playing it. The supreme exponents of this music memory are the orchestral conductors who can see and hear complete symphonic works in their heads without playing a single note.
How to Learn the Fingerboard?
I learned this method many years ago from Oliver Hunt, former Professor of Guitar at London College of Music. As far as I know, he invented the method. I've adapted it slightly but it's essentially his method still. Within a week of adopting it, my sight reading improved immeasurably. Of course, I still had plenty of technical problems with my playing - who doesn't? - but the basic inability to locate notes quickly on the fingerboard was cured for good. And it's so simple, I really regretted all the lost years before. OK here goes:
1. Reduce the task - high frets
The classic guitar has 18 frets and 6 strings. That's 18 x 6 = 108 notes to learn, (plus the 6 open strings). But from the 12th fret upwards, the notes simply repeat, one octave up. The 12th fret is where the fingerboard reaches the body, so just think of the twelfth fret as another 'nut' and mentally number frets 13 to 18 as 1 to 6. If you know frets 1 to 6, you also know 13 to 18, so there's no need to learn them separately.
2. Reduce the task - natural notes
OK, we've reduced the task to 11 frets and 6 strings. That's only 66 notes instead of 108, (plus the 6 open strings). Let's go a step further. There are only 7 named natural notes - A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Each of these appears once, and once only, on each string, somewhere between open and fret 11. Therefore there are exactly 7 x 6 = 42 natural notes to learn. And if you know where a natural note is, you know that its sharp and flat are respectively one fret higher and lower. Job done.
3. Start learning - one natural note per day
Conveniently, there are seven natural notes and seven days in the week. So, at the rate of one note per day, you can learn the fingerboard in a week. Here's the method, which involves speaking aloud:
To learn A on every string:
Start on the 6th string
Name the string (aloud) "6"
Name the note (aloud) "A"
Name the fret (aloud) "5"
Now play that "A" (on 6th string at 5th fret)
So, anyone listening would hear this:
"6, A, 5, note "
It's an important part of the learning to speak aloud, and in the correct order, before playing. So, it's always stringnumber, notename, fretnumber, play the note
Then repeat the pattern on all strings in turn. The whole sequence (for "A") is:
6, A, 5,
5, A, O, (n.b., say 'Oh', not 'Zero', for 'open')
4, A, 7,
3, A, 2,
2, A, 10,
1, A, 5,
The spoken 'script' will feel a bit strange, but it works to reinforce the learning. Repeat this at regular intervals until you can do it without hesitation or mistakes.
Next day, recap A to make sure, then repeat the process for the note B:
6, B, 7
5, B, 2
4, B, 9
3, B, 4
2, B, O
1, B, 7
And so on, one note per day, until you have mastered the 7 natural notes. When you are genuinely error-free and quick, after a week or two, you can drop the string name from the formula, and simply go, for example "C 8, C 3, C 10, C 5, C 1, C 8", always remembering to describe each note before playing it. This lets you build up more speed. Also, you can start testing yourself with the sharps and flats. You'll find you already know them, as they are simply the naturals +/- 1 fret.
In parallel with learning the fingerboard in this way, it is a good idea to practise sightreading simple music in higher positions. A handy trick is to take some very simple classical studies, e.g. by Carulli or Carcassi, and try to play them without allowing yourself the use of the first string. This forces you to play in higher positions across all the remaining strings in order to find the notes.