All About The Guitar Neck

The guitar neck is long and has a lot of notes – more than most instruments.  On a standard 22-fret Fender Stratocaster, you have 132 notes to choose from – but not 132 different notes. Oh no, this is the guitar, the instrument where the notes climb in pitch going up the neck, and also across the neck while climbing the strings.  You can actually play the same exact note in more than one location.  Why, high E alone (the open 1st string) can be found in 5 different locations on that same Strat. Confused yet?

Fortunately, while the guitar neck may seem indecipherable at first, it’s actually quite easy to learn, and well worth the effort to learn it. By being completely familiar with your musical surroundings, you will be far more articulate, inventive, and intelligent in your guitar playing.  Knowing the names of the notes in the chromatic scale, it is possible to determine what every note on the guitar neck is. Keep reading for a full explanation of how to easily learn, find and memorize every note on the guitar neck.

The first thing to know is that the Western system of music divides the octave into twelve equal semitones, or half steps.  A whole step is two half steps.  These twelve tones are called the chromatic scale, and when we spell it out using only the natural notes of the musical alphabet, it looks like this:

Note that some notes have a half step in between them, and some notes have a whole step in between them.  You will want to memorize this:  the only half steps are between B and C, and E and F.  Every other note has a whole step between them. Memorizing this pattern will help greatly when it comes to finding notes and learning scales.

On the guitar neck, one half step is the distance of one fret and one whole step is the distance of two frets.  A note is sharp (#) if it is raised by one half step, and it is flat (b) if it is lowered one half step.  Many notes have the potential to be enharmonic, a single pitch that can be called by more than one name.  For example, G# is the same note as Ab, and B# is the same note as C.

On the guitar neck, these notes are arranged like so:

Take a look at the 5th string, and notice how it matches exactly with our chart of the chromatic scale up above.  A is the open string, then we go a whole step to play B on the 2nd fret, then a half step to play C on the 3rd fret, and so on until we reach A on the 12th fret – the octave of our open string.  From the 12th fret, the pattern repeats.

If you simply memorize the names of the open strings (from 6th to 1st: Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears), you can find any note on any string by simply remembering that the only half steps are between B and C, and E and F.  Practice by starting with any open string, climbing the string with one finger and naming the natural notes (no sharps or flats) as you go. The first few times, use the chart above to check your work, but after that you should be good to go on your own. Do this for each string once a day, and after a while you’ll start to really memorize which note is which.

Of course, the best memorization happens when we actually apply what we know. So, as you play your normal riffs, licks, songs or what have you, take the time to name the notes that you’re playing as you go. If you do this regularly, before you know it you will recognize note names the instant you put your fingers down. This in turn will help you understand the harmonic and melodic relationships that exist between the notes, making you a more literate player and inevitably more fluent in your chosen genres.

To summarize:

  • 1 half step = 1 fret
  • 1 whole step = 2 frets
  • 2 half steps = 1 whole step
  • Chromatic scale: all 12 tones in the Western music system
  • Enharmonic: when one note can be called by two different names
  • The only half steps are between B and C, and E and F
  • Practice climbing each string and naming the notes
  • Name the notes you’re playing as you play songs, riffs, licks and chords

Practice daily, keep at it, and before you know it the mystery of the guitar neck will be swept away.




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