Understanding the Guitar Fretboard

In this guest by post by Dan Vuksanovich, from WhyISuckAtGuitar.com, we will explore the guitar fretboard.

The guitar fretboard can be a bit confusing for beginners, or even for people who have played other instruments, such as the piano, where there’s only one place to play each note, but the layout is actually very simple.

Here are the two basic pieces of information you’ll need to navigate the fretboard:

  • In standard tuning, the strings (from lowest sounding to highest sounding) are tuned to the pitches E, A, D, G, B, E. These strings are sometimes called by number, starting from the highest pitch string and ending with the lowest pitch string (e.g. the “fourth” string would be the string that plays the open D) or by note name (e.g. the “D” string).
  • Each fret represents one minor second, or half step. An open string does not count as a fret. It is simply referred to as an open string.

Using these basic pieces of information, we now also know:

  • With the exception of the G and B strings, the interval between each open string is a perfect fourth. The G and B strings are separated by a major third. This is done as a compromise to make chording and scales both relatively easy on the instrument. If the guitar were tuned in all perfect fourths, many of the barre chords used in standard tuning would not be possible.
  • Because the same pitch can be played on multiple strings, we can tune the guitar to itself fairly easily:
    • Tune the fifth fret of the low E string (or sixth string) to the open A string (or fifth string)
    • Tune the fifth fret of the A string (or fifth string) to the open D string (or fourth string)
    • Tune the fifth fret of the D string (or fourth string) to the open G string (or third string)
    • Tune the fourth fret of the G string (or third string) to the open B string (or second string)
    • Tune the fifth fret of the B string (or second string) to the open E string (or first string)
  • At the twelfth fret, the entire fretboard pattern repeats itself. The open notes at the twelfth fret are one octave higher than their respective open strings. This makes sense because the chromatic scale has twelve tones, and each fret represents one step in the chromatic scale.

Here is a diagram of the fretboard to further explain:

About the author

Dan Vuksanovich received his Master of Music degree in classical guitar performance from the Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University in 1999. He currently teaches and blogs about how to get better at guitar via his website www.whyisuckatguitar.com.

Where to go next:

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    This entry was posted in Fretboard, Guest Post, Guitar, Intervals, Tuning. Bookmark the permalink.
    • Tokpanou Victor

      Thank you very much for this helpful lesson.
      But there is one thing, I always
      don’t understand:
      The note, that I will get, when I press the first fret of the E string (it can be the first string/the highest pitch or the sixth string/ the lowest pitch) is an F, isn’t it? Which has a half step to it, doesn’t it?
      The same F is referred to as a minor-second:
      In relationship with, what note is it referred to, as a minor-second note, since an open string isn’t known as a fret?
      (I know that, if we play chromatically, all the notes are related to one another by a half step.)
      Thanks!

      • leonharrell

        Hi Tokpanou Victor,

        I think you are mixing two separate ideas together.

        A half step is a measurement, or an interval. This interval is the distance between two different notes. A half step is the small distance possible between any two notes. These two notes will be one fret apart on the guitar (or open string to first fret), or adjacent keys on the piano.

        An F by itself is not a half step, however F is one half step above an E, and F is also one half step below G-flat.

        So this half step or minor second is the distance from F to one of it’s closest neighboring pitches.

        I hope this clarifies it for you. You may also want to check out my video on Specific Intervals for further explanation.

        Thanks for the question,

        Leon Harrell