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.