Getting Started Learning Notes on the Fretboard

Installment #2: Seeing “White” Notes on the Guitar Neck, Like a Piano

By Mark Hanson

June 16, 2009

On occasion I joke with my guitar maker friends (Bill Collings and Steve McCreary at Collings, James Goodall at Goodall Guitars, and others) about why the dots on the side of steel-string guitar necks are located where they are. “Tradition” is the answer I hear most often. Tradition is great in many instances, but I believe slightly altering the location of these dots would greatly facilitate learning the notes on the guitar neck.

On a piano, a key-of-C scale is apparent at a glance – it consists of the white notes. But seeing these same “white” notes (no sharps or flats) on a guitar is too abstract for most guitarists. Here is how a slight reworking of the dot locations will help.

The dots at the 5th-, 7th, and 12th-fret locations are logical: They are the mathematical dividing points of the guitar strings, and hence the locations of strong harmonics. The 12th fret is the ½-point of the string; the 7th fret is the 1/3-point; and the 5th fret is the ¼-point. Also, as we discussed in Installment 1, the notes at these fretted positions relate directly to the names of the open strings, and subsequently are easy to learn. (If you haven’t read Installment 1, go back and read it now!)

The dot at the 3rd fret makes some sense, as it marks the G note on the sixth and first strings – a note we often play in the common guitar keys of C, G and D. But what about the dot on the 9th fret? It is a C# on the bass string – not a note in the key of C or G. It is located at the 9th fret simply to make the dots lie symmetrically over the 12-fret octave: with dots at the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th frets, there are two unmarked frets on each end of the octave.

This is a lovely, artistic layout, and one that we have all learned to work with. But does it help you recognize the notes in as easy a manner as possible?

Here is my (only partly tongue-in-cheek) suggestion to guitar makers: add a dot at the 1st fret (like most jazz guitars), and erase the dot at the 9th fret. Replace the 9th-fret dot with dots at the 8th and 10th frets. With this layout the guitarist can instantly see the “white” notes on the bass and treble strings (6th and 1st), just like on the piano!

Here are the “white” notes (key of C) on the 6th and 1st strings:

E – open
F – 1st fret
G – 3rd fret
A – 5th fret
B – 7th fret
C – 8th fret
D – 10th fret
E – 12th fret  

This layout clearly shows the half-steps between E and F (nut and 1st fret), and B and C (7th-8th frets), and the whole steps everywhere else.

Another advantage: knowing the names of the notes on the bass string is very important for tunes that require barre chords with an “E” shape in front of the barre: the root note of the chord is the name of the note on the bass string. Knowing the notes on the sixth string will help you play  “Louie, Louie” or “She’s A Woman” correctly no matter what key you need to play them in!

Of course, it is impractical to retrofit your guitar with dots on the 8th and 10th frets. But I suggest you train yourself to “see” dots on either side of the 9th-fret dot, and learn the names of the notes up and down the sixth and first strings. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on my guitar making buddies to change their dot locations!

Mark Hanson

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