Learning the Fretboard – Quick Guide to The Guitar’s Fretboard Notes

Learning how to play a song on the guitar is quite an accomplishment considering the amount of obstacles that you’ve overcome in the process. But, understanding what you’re doing, where you’re going, and how to get there is another level altogether.

I often equate learning the fretboard of the guitar to being dropped out of a plane in the middle of the night into the Atlantic Ocean and being told on the way down to swim to Portugal. You have a basic idea of where you want to go but none as to where you are and how you’re going to get to your final destination.

Learn the guitar fretboard

I have often told students that I can teach a blind person—who’s never seen or played a piano—the notes of the piano’s keyboard easier than the notes of the guitar fretboard to a guitar student. It’s really easy:

  • Imagine the piano keyboard in your mind.

  • There are black keys and white keys.

  • The black keys are in arranged in groups of two black and three black keys.

  • The C note is the piano key directly to the left of the group of two black keys.

  • Next, find all of the Cs on the piano keyboard.

Piano Keyboard

Now, try to do the same with the guitar’s fretboard.

Learn the guitar fretboard

There’s almost a sense of randomness as to where the C notes are in relation to one another. I found this incredibly frustrating and private lessons did not offer a solution. It seemed as though I learned the fretboard one note at a time through a series of trial and error attempts—and, in my case, it felt as though it was more error than trial.


In this article, we will look at some common methods for understanding the guitar’s layout and how to logically connect from one chord to the next, one scale to the next, etc.

The Root-6 Power Chord / Pentatonic Scale Method

This is usually the place where beginners start. You’ve learned the root-6 pentatonic power chord and root-6 pentatonic box pattern. Here it is in the key of A.

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The method is based on having your 1st finger find the root on the 6th string and then apply the chord or scale pattern. This method is very useful for the beginner and a great place to start. All you need to do is learn the notes of the 6th string.

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The ProsThe Cons
Easy to understand and begin applying.You’re limited to chord and scale shapes based on the 6th-string root. And, you still don’t understand the fretboard.

Possible Solution

You can apply this system to all 6 strings which means a lot of tedious memorization.

A better solution would be to put in the next method into practice.

The One-String Major Scale System

This system is based on applying the major scale formula to the note name of each string. For example, the 6th string is E. We’ll build an E major scale by applying the major scale formula to the 6th-string, open E note.

First, a few guidelines regarding the major scale.

  • The major scale formula is: W W H W W W H.

  • The W means a whole step or 2 frets.

  • The H means a half step or 1 fret.

The one-string E major scale:

  • Beginning with 6th string, open (E), W or 2 frets; to,

  • 6th string, 2nd fret (F#), W or 2 frets; to,

  • 6th string, 4th fret (G#), H or 1 fret; to,

  • 6th string, 5th fret (A), W or 2 frets; to,

  • 6th string, 7th fret (B), W or 2 frets; to,

  • 6th string, 9th fret (C#), W or 2 frets; to,

  • 6th string, 11th fret (D#), H or 1 fret; to,

  • 6th string, 12th fret (E).

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The ProsThe Cons
Easy to understand and can be applied as an extension of the previous system.You’re still limited to chord and scale shapes based on the 6th-string root. However, you now understand that there is a relationship between the notes.

Possible Solution

You can apply this system to all 6 strings which means a lot of tedious memorization.

A better solution would be to put in the next method into practice.


The Five-Root-Shape System

All roads eventually lead here. Trust me. I’m ashamed to say it, but I learned the fretboard through sheer memorization. It wasn’t until I was a seasoned teacher that I heard of the five-root-shape system, the tonality wheel system, the CAGED system, etc.—they all refer to the same thing. I went to support a fellow colleague as he did a workshop on the CAGED system and it made complete sense. I then began to apply it in my teaching system with great success.

The five root shapes are the shapes of the CAGED chords: C, A, G, E, and D.

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Next, we’ll look at how these shapes apply to the fretboard. If you recall the introduction to this article, I made reference to finding the C notes over the entire fretboard. And, we ended up with this:

Learn the guitar fretboard

It looks totally confusing. So, we’ll look at just the C notes (in red).

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It suddenly becomes a lot easier to digest. By understanding the relationships between the notes we strip away all of the ultimately confusing information.

How does this system work?

We’ll begin by using the five shapes of the CAGED system and apply those shapes to the C chord. We turn all of the open-position shapes into movable shapes—except, of course, in the case of the first C chord.

The C chord with the C shape.

This shape is a little tricky in regards to the concept. Because they’re both C chord and shape. As you progress in your playing you’ll notice the importance of this shape. But, for now, this is our starting point.

Guitar Fretboard Notes

The C chord with the A shape.

Notice that the root of the C shape was played with the 3rd finger. In order to play the C chord with the A shape you’ll need to use your 1st finger for the root on the 5th string. Can you see the A shape? The visualization of the movable-A shape is important as you move forward. If you don’t see right away, don’t worry, it will all make sense soon enough.

Fretboard Notes 9

The C chord with the G shape.

This is a finger buster to play. And, to be honest, I rarely play the movable-G shape; however, I see it everywhere and I use it as a visual reference for related chord and scale shapes.

Fretboard 10

The C chord with the E shape.

This is one of the first movable shapes that beginners learn. The bottom two and three strings give use the ever-popular root-6 power chord.

The C chord with the D shape.


As I mentioned above in the section “The C chord with the G shape,” I don’t play this chord shape often. I will use the shape on the top three strings for chordal accompaniment and, mostly, as a shape reference for solos.


Final Thoughts

This is just a stepping stone to unlocking the mysterious patterns that connect the notes of the fretboard. The first step is seeing the shapes. As you continue, the underlying scale shapes will also become easy to immediately recognize.

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Ultimately, you’ll reach the next level. Not only will you be able to identify the roots and the CAGED shapes, but, you’ll also be able to see 3rds, 5ths, 7ths, etc. Once this information becomes second nature I would suggest that you investigate the CAGED system further to deepen your understanding of the layout of notes on the guitar.

And, hopefully you’ll find that there is a method to the madness.

Thanks for checking out this article and best of luck.

Ed Lozano

Ed Lozano is a professional guitarist, instructor, producer and published author. He is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and lives in the Andes mountains.