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The Classical Guitar Fingerboard or Fretboard - How to learn all the Notes

Updated on July 5, 2013

Classical Guitar - the fingerboard

To progress on Classical Guitar, you have to learn 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 or fretboard.

the classic or classical guitar - this one is spanish and nearly fifty years old
the classic or classical guitar - this one is spanish and nearly fifty years old | Source

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 fretboard. I relied too heavily on memorising pieces, by what many guitarists call 'finger 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 sightreading that you can't match. It's a sad fact that amateur classic guitarists are the worst sightreaders 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.

The Fingerboard

The Fingerboard (not to scale)
The Fingerboard (not to scale) | Source

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.

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    • profile image

      Zane 20 months ago

      Although now that I've reread your article I see that I missed the point. The value is in fingering and speaking and hearing. I'll try again.

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 22 months ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hi Zane - yes, it's not as daunting a task as it first appears.

    • profile image

      Zane 22 months ago

      I just found this article and have created flashcards which helped me see the task can be reduced further.

      Even beginners learn the open strings (Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie) so that eliminates six notes. And since the 1st and 6th string are the same that eliminates another six notes. 42-6-6=30. That actually sounds pretty easy.

      Thanks Paraglider!

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 2 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hi Stella and Kathryn - thanks for visiting /revisiting. Tablature has an honourable history, going right back to the Renaissance lutenists. But its big limitation is that it purely mechanistic, depending entirely on how the strings are tuned. It teaches nothing at all about harmony, for example. Musical notation isn't perfect but it is far and away our best solution to date.

    • Kathryn L Hill profile image

      Kathryn L Hill 2 years ago from LA

      Note study/mastery is easy on piano... Is it easy on guitar?

      Keyboard practice/experience is probably vital. After re-reading the article… yes, it addresses this question exactly. Thank you.

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Hi, so many do not want to learn the notes, I even have kids that just want to play tab for Classical Music. They need to learn how to read notation so they can play with others. I also like them to play with out music. The greatest challenge to the beginner is practice. Great hub, Stella

    • Kathryn L Hill profile image

      Kathryn L Hill 2 years ago from LA

      - oh, I know… But, DejaLynn said she was just beginning. Your chart looks hard to fathom. I am just about ready for it. Not quite…almost…Actually, I figured out how the chords are created using my own method. I'll get back to you as needed… which might be soon.

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 2 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Kathryn - that works, if you want to play chordal accompaniments to songs. But if you want also to read music and play the repertoire, you still need to learn the notes.

    • Kathryn L Hill profile image

      Kathryn L Hill 2 years ago from LA

      @DejaLynn

      Make up your own tunes and lyrics. Use a keyboard to do this and then transfer your keyboard tunes to guitar. To start, avoid any tunes with F and B. I started with D and G… then C, A, E, majors and minors. Then work on the F major and minor chords like crazy and then the B chords. This is a non-tedious/fun way to progress quickly. After you can play your F and B chords, make up tunes that include them.

      Good Luck!

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 2 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      DejaLynn good luck! I wish I had discovered this method much earlier in my playing life.

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      DejaLynn 2 years ago

      This is awesome. I just received my first guitar from my husband. It has been a long anticipated desire of mine. This really seems like a great system and I'm going to discipline myself to try this out.

      Thanks Again for sharing....

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 2 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Thanks Stella -yes, learning the fingerboard is never time wasted :)

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Hi, I use this system with the kids I teach beginning guitar it works good. The beginning kids do a better job than the beginning adults. I like to teach them not to look at their hands when playing. Learning the fingerboard is where its at. A very nice informative page. Stella

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 3 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Learning the fingerboard in no way precludes developing an aesthetic appreciation of the music. In fact, it enhances it, by facilitating your attempts to release the music from the page.

    • profile image

      WebofSound 3 years ago

      Thank you for posting. I've no doubt learning the fingerboard will make your life easier if you are a professional guitarist, and are required to play with other musicians, or play a lot of classical repertoire, etc. But (and this may sound kind of asinine) I still believe that a genuine understanding of music can only really be obtained through an aesthetic awareness of its structures. Standard notation is really just a collection of arbitrary labels used to communicate a musical idea, and as such does not always correlate with understanding of the music in an aesthetic sense.

      For example, a pianist playing a fugue may be able to pick out all the voices in the fugue as he plays it in terms of the actual notes and intervals, but might not perceive the actual structure formed by the constituent voices.

      Of course, it is much better to learn to read standard notation, as it will certainly improve your musical facility in the technical sense. It's just that I don't believe being able read music will guarantee understanding of the music in an aesthetic sense, which is, end the end, all that matters.

      Sounds like sour grapes, I know, but I really think the most important thing is to listen; not to get too hung up reading or theory. Just my two cents.

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 3 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      The piano is a great instrument too (and greater than the guitar in terms of its repertoire). I started too young on piano and never really got along with it. But travelling around as much as I do, the guitar is more suited to my lifestyle.

    • Talisker profile image

      Honor Meci 3 years ago from UK

      It's really useful to see the notes so clearly on the fret board like that. It's making me want to pick up the guitar and actually focus in on the notes (as apposed to strumming chords) A retirement project perhaps...meanwhile I'll keep bashing on with the piano. (it's a very satisfying instrument)

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 3 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      And saves time in the long run.

    • profile image

      Mike 1948 3 years ago

      It takes time but well worth it.

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 3 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hi Kathryn - most welcome. I'm sure this method will help.

    • Kathryn L Hill profile image

      Kathryn L Hill 3 years ago from LA

      I am learning to play guitar. Thank You so much!

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hi ensee - in fact, this method of learning the fingerboard can be practised without a guitar, sitting on a bus or driving. Just saying 6 C 8, 5 C 3, 4 C 10, etc

    • profile image

      ensee 5 years ago

      Even on days that I am not able to pick up the guitar to play or practice I try to find something to read on the guitar for more instruction. There is a great deal to learn and some of it will come through reading. I found a gem here and look forward to trying it out.

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      My pleasure - thanks Dave :)

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      Dave 6 years ago

      Thanks heaps for this Paraglider, much appreciated,

      Dave

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      You're very welcome to link to it. Please don't copy/paste it though!

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      Learn Acoustic Guitar 7 years ago

      Can I share this on my blog?

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Learn Guitar - I've not come across that method before.

      Trusted Marketing - thanks. It's more about good work than lots of work :)

    • Trusted Marketing profile image

      Trusted Marketing 7 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      Yes. Good information and worthy of the time it takes to learn. Small investment for a big result.

    • profile image

      Learn Guitar 7 years ago

      Hi Paraglider,

      Great Info fretboard memory and theory can take you a long way! I use the bag fed/ def gab system to learn all the notes, it's the the natural musical alphabet forwards and backwards minus c.

      Cheers Justin

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Spiderwalker - I agree with that. Learning without dots at the 5th and 7th gives you more security, especially when you find yourself playing in semi-darkness in a night-club!

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      Spiderwalker 7 years ago from Brown County Indiana

      Great hub! I've stashed your graffic in my computer for future reference. This is especially tricky to do with a classical guitar that has no fret markings or inlays to "locate" where you need to go on the fretboard. But I prefer the plain neck. I think it "turns up" the other senses when sight alone can not always distinquish location. Heightens the learning process.

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Tyrrell - nothing comes free, but a little time invested is time well spent - thanks for the comment :)

    • tyrrell123 profile image

      tyrrell123 7 years ago from Yorkshire, England

      Hi, it takes a bit of time but well worth the effort. Nice Hub thanks

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hi Connelly - lots of people never make that extra effort. It's well worth it though, and really raises your game.

    • connelly73 profile image

      connelly73 7 years ago from Motherwell, Scotland

      Super hub. I've played guitar for years but only recently started to get better after trying to learn the fingerboard and spending time with warm up exercises like finger gym and spider gym. has increased my speed and how clean I hit the notes. Still persevering with fingerboard.

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Yes, that's more traditional, but it can lead to relative insecurity in higher positions.

    • Portamenteff profile image

      Portamenteff 7 years ago from Western Colorado, USA

      I would start the student on the first register, natural notes first, then fill in with sharps and flats. Then move up the neck. Teach natural notes, and fill in with sharps and flats.

    • nicksstuff profile image

      nicksstuff 7 years ago from Going for a swim in the ocean.

      Too cool for school. This is really good for me. I have been learning chords from an article I found that I posted on hub pages. I hope it's the right info - it makes sense so far. Thanks heaps for your hub - it's all going to help. There is so much to learn.

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      honestkyle - thanks for the appreciation. If you only want to play chordal accompaniments or folk-picking patterns then you don't need to know all the notes, but if you want to play from music it becomes a requirement.

    • profile image

      honestkyle 8 years ago

      You know, I'm not much for guitar theory and actually knowing the details of the fret board, but this is an extremely impressive way to develop a knowledge of the guitar neck. I really enjoyed this hub!

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      learningguitar - thanks for the appreciation :)

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      learningguitar 8 years ago

      great.... you have done a marvelous job. the ideas of learning guitar is really terrific. i am really impressed by your work.. good going all the best, keep it up

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Thanks Jon. I'm reading through your music hubs as well. Lots of goodies there.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Good article, really well presented. Majorly cool,dude. The cycle of fifths one is great too.

      Cheers, Jon Green

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Thanks for the link, Brian!

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      Brian  8 years ago

      Hey nice site! Check out my blog on the same topic at

      www.guitarfingerboard2.blogspot.com

    • profile image

      Elfy  8 years ago

      Thanks dude! Will go work on it before I move on!!

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Maestro - I'm not exclusively a classic player. I have a nice Yamaha electro-acoustic that I use regularly in the local bar. But in quiet times, for me, I play my classic and flamenco instruments. It's a labour of love. Thanks for the read and comment :)

    • maestrowhit profile image

      maestrowhit 8 years ago from Virginia

      Good Hub, Para. I've been playing guitar for about eleven years now. At one point, my main focus was on classic guitar technique. I spent nearly a year learning it, and then finally went back to using a pick. Since then my technique has become a sortof hybrid of classic, rock, and bluegrass. This hub brings back the memory of the joy I had while learning classic technique. There really is something special about it. I think the main reason I didn't go further with it is because I never owned a classic guitar. I attempted to learn the technique on a regular acoustic guitar. The outcome of my various learnings is that now I have a rather unique style of playing. But I still have so much further to go. After reading this, i'm inspired to look again at classic technique. Thanks!

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hi Gus - thanks for commenting, and good luck with the fingerboard learning. It really is worth it. It's also worth learning scales that use no open strings, e.g. the two octave G major that's entirely in 2nd position. Because of no open strings, it can be played anywhere on the neck, e.g. in 4th position for A major, etc.

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      gus 8 years ago

      Great article! I've attempted to learn the notes of the fretboard several times but never truly succeeded. This article definitely motivates me to take the extra step and conquer it once and for all. Do you have any advice for how to learn every key signature on your guitar also? Would be a great boost to my improvisation skills.

    • Paraglider profile image
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      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hey, thanks SweetiePie! I've had a few guitars, but the one I got in 1979 is with me still and gets played most days. It's the one I travel with. (that's it in the picture at the top of this hub).

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 8 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Very good introduction for a beginner. I have had a guitar since 2000 because at the time I thought I wanted to learn how to play, so for Christmas my mom surprised me with this beautiful acoustic guitar. I really need to discipline myself and practice, but in the meantime I did try to give the guitar to my nephew because I know he plays with his dad. He kept it for awhile, but then gave it back once he got one of his on. Perhaps I will visit this hub again when I do try to play.