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Understanding your guitar

Updated on June 16, 2016

This article is part of a series we are doing on how to play acoustic guitar. Here are the links to the previous articles:

The Basics of Learning guitar

Basic Chords Part 1

Basic Chords Part 2

A basic grasp of music theory

As part of learning to play the guitar, you will need a basic grasp of music theory. This will help you understand the layout of the guitar strings

Musical notes and chords are both labelled using letter of the alphabet, ranging from A to G. Included in-between some of these there are what are called 'Sharps' or 'Flats'. Actually a sharp and a flat is basically the same note or chord, depending upon where you are coming from - as you will see as we progress.

Sharps are written using # Flats are written using b

So a full list of the possible chords (or notes - as they follow the same pattern) are as follows:

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#

Once you reach G#, the sequence goes back to the start and repeats over and over. You will notice that there are not sharps (or flats) in-between B & C or in-between E & F

As I said, sharps and flats are basically the same notes or chords, so an A# is also a Bb

We can then rewrite the above list of chords, but substitute the names of the flats instead of the sharps:

A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab

It is important that you familiarise yourself with these lists, as you will see later in this article that the names of the guitar strings and the specific notes on the guitar use this pattern

Parts of the Guitar

The neck of the guitar

Now that you understand those basics of music theory, you can begin to place that information into how the guitar strings are laid out.

The diagram to the side illustrates the parts of the guitar(some parts of the guitar go by differnent names, so you may see similar diagrams using different names for the guitar parts, other parts are more standad names)


These are the solid lines that run along the neck of the guitar. When placing your fingers on the neck of the guitart to play scales, notes or chords; they must be placed in between the frets. You do not place your fingers on top of the frets

Each guitar string has a letter name, which corresponds to the letters above for music theory. We will tell you in the next section what the letter name each guitar string has.

Moving your finger up one fret, moves the note up one as well.

For example one of the guitar strings is called 'A'. If you place your finger on the first fret of the A string, you are now playing A# or Bb. If you move it up another fret, you are now playing B, then up another one takes you to C, then C#, D etc

names of the guitar strings

Names of the Strings

As mentioned above, each string of the guitar is named according to one of the letters of music theory notes, covered in the above section.

The thickest string (which is positioned on the top of your guitar, closest to your head when you hold it correctly) is called E. Because this string is a bass sounding string, it is not called the top string, but the bottom string! This may be confusing at first, since when you hold the guitar it is the top string positionally, but musically it is the bottom string.

The next thickest string, next to the E, is A

Then D, G, B

The final string, the thinnest one on the guitar is also called E. Positionally as you hold the guitar, this is the lowest string, furthest from yoru head, but it is called the top string, because in music theory it is the highest sounding pitch

So the sequence of strings is: E  A  D  G  B  E

The diagram to the side shows this, make sure you understand which string is labelled which letter, according to the diagram. Make sure you memorise this sequence, as a lot of your ability to play the guitar will build from this sequence.

the guitar string notes

The sequence of notes on guitar neck

now that you have a basic grasp of music theory, and know the names of the guitar strings, you can fit these 2 bits of information together and see how the notes on the guitar are worked out.

The diagram to the side uses the E string (the thickest string).

If you pluck the string without putting any fingers on the guitar neck, you are playing the E note. This is called playing and 'open string'.

If you now place one of the fingers of your left hand on that same string, in the space before the first fret, and pluck the string; you are now playing an F note.

Move your finger up a fret, and play it, you ar enow playing the F#. Continue moving your finger up one fret at a time and pluck it. Each time you are moving one note up.

Do you notice how the sound of the notes you are playing progressively moves higher?

You can do this for each string of the guitar, but remember each string has a different starting note. So if you place the next thickest string, the A, the open note is A.

Placing your finger on before the first fret, you are now playing A#, move it up a fret and you are now playing B, then C.

try to move your finger up a fret and each time figure out what note you are playing. Do this for each string, and try doing it for a few days to get familiar with the sequence. this may seem very laboriouse and unexciting, but it will really help your guitar playing later on.

Eventually this will become 'second nature' and you will find yourself looking at the neck of the guitar and very easily being able to tell what note a specific fret of any particular string is.


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