Are you ready to take your guitar and music theory skills up a notch by knowing the guitar strings? When most people start learning how to play the guitar, they focus mainly on chords and chord shapes. But a few years ago when I bought my very first guitar (a half-size guitar with a pastel pink dragon painted on it), the only books I had to learn from were written back in the 1950s. Most of the focus in those books was about the guitar strings notes and learning how to locate each fret on either the treble or bass clef in music notation. There was hardly any tablature in these books, which made learning a huge (but enjoyable) challenge for me!
So if you’re ready to learn more about music theory and the guitar, let’s take a look at those guitar strings notes and level up, here’s where we can start.
Tuning your guitar
Before we get started, make sure your guitar is in tune and let’s do a quick review of the order and names of the strings on the guitar before we learn how to locate the notes on the guitar strings. Knowing the names of the guitar strings is the most important first step, because those open strings are going to be the foundation for learning where the rest of the notes are located on the guitar fretboard.
So grab your tuner, or if you don’t have a clip-on tuner yet, you can find lots of different free tuning apps for your cell phone, or find a website that uses your computer microphone to tune your guitar!
Read more: Ukulele vs Violin | Know the differences
Numbers and names of the guitar strings
Each of the guitar strings has a number (first through sixth) and a letter name that corresponds to a note in the musical alphabet. If you hold your guitar in front of you like you do when you play it, the string at the top (closest to the ceiling) is the sixth string. This is the low E string, and when you play that open E string, that’s the lowest note you can play on the guitar.
From there, we travel towards the floor. The next string is the fifth string, the A string. Following that is the fourth string, the D string; then the third string, the G string, the second string is the B string, and finally, the string that is closest to the floor is the “top” first string, the high E string.
So if you’re using a clip-on tuner or other tuning app, you want to have your guitar tuned to E-A-D-G-B-E. (If you’re a baritone ukulele player, you’ll recognize those top 4 strings as being the same tuning as your baritone ukulele!)
The musical alphabet
Before we start learning about the names of those notes on the guitar strings, let’s talk for a minute about the musical alphabet. Western music theory uses a system of letters A through G as names for the tones or notes that we hear when we listen to music.
The spaces between those notes are just as important as the notes themselves. These are called semi-tones or half steps. It’s important to know whether there is a whole step or a half step between each note in the musical alphabet – these patterns of whole and half steps (or tones and semi-tones) form the basis of musical scales, and are the foundation of all great solos on the guitar.
If you could look at a piano keyboard, you’d notice a pattern of white keys and black keys. Moving from one key to the next is a half step. Moving from a white key to another white key with a black key in between is a whole step – but there are a couple of places in that musical alphabet where there is just a half step between each note and no half step or semi-tone exists.
Let’s start with middle C, since C major is the easiest musical scale to learn with no sharps and no flats. The pattern of the scale is:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
When we arrive at that second C, we are an octave, or eight, notes above where we started.
Now, the pattern of whole and half steps in any major scale is: whole – whole – half – whole – whole – whole – half. So that tells us that there is a whole step between the notes of C and D, and D and E; a half step between E and F; whole steps between F and G, G and A, A and B; and then finally a half step between B and C.
Looking at a piano keyboard, you would indeed notice that there are no black keys between the E and F keys, and the B and C keys. Where you have two white keys right next to each other is where you have a half-step between notes or tones. When you have a black key between two white keys, those are the places where you have a whole step between the notes.
If you play those black keys between the white keys, those are where you raise or lower the notes of the white keys by a half step. We write these in musical notation by either using a symbol that looks like a lowercase “b” for a flat (lowering a note by a half step), or a hashtag/pound symbol “#” for a sharp (raising a note by a half step).
Because there is some overlap here, you’ll sometimes notice that a D# (D sharp) is the same as an Eb (E flat). Whether or not the note is written as a sharp or a flat depends entirely on the key that the music is written and played in. That’s another lesson for another time, but for now, just remember that sometimes this happens when we’re making our way up the musical scale.
But why does all of this matter for learning the notes on the guitar strings? I’m so happy you asked. Let’s take a look at the guitar fretboard layout before I answer that question.
Guitar fretboard layout
Most acoustic guitars have 20 frets on the fretboard – the frets are those metal dividers spaced wider apart from each other near the headstock of the guitar, and closer together as you move down towards the sound hole.
You might also notice little markers on the side and face of the guitar fretboard at certain frets. The most common places to find these markers are the third, fifth, seventh, ninth, tenth, twelfth, thirteenth, fifteenth, and seventeenth frets. Not all guitars have all these markers at all of these frets, but usually a different combination of these. These frets are significant because they represent major intervals between notes as we work our way up the musical scale on the guitar fretboard, and they make it easier to remember what notes are at each fret on the guitar strings.
Each of the spaces between those frets represents a half-step or a semi-tone in the musical scale. So if we’re starting with the open low E (sixth) string, if we press down on the space just before that first fret (never press down on the actual metal fret), we’ll be playing an F, which is a half-step above E. Slide your finger up to the next fret, and you’ll be playing an F#. Another fret up, and we’re playing a G.
Learning the notes of the guitar strings
Now that you know how to locate the names of the notes on the guitar fretboard, you’ve just opened up a whole new world of musical fun! The first way to start learning about these notes on the guitar strings is to pluck each fret and say the name of the note out loud. From there, you can also learn how to play scale patterns! Knowing your basic scale patterns can help you learn how to play great solos on the guitar and develop your ear as a musician.
Because there are so many scale patterns out there, I’m going to start with just a basic major scale to get you started. Once you learn this basic major scale pattern, you can play any scale in any musical key on the guitar! It’s really pretty simple.
We’re going to start with a basic G major scale pattern, since the guitar is tuned in the key of G. Place your middle finger of your fretting hand on the third fret of the first (low E) string. If you place the rest of your fingers on that string, one finger per fret, you’ll notice that your index finger rests on the second fret; the ring finger on the fourth fret; and the pinky on the fifth fret. This is the basic pattern that we’re going to use to play the G major scale across all six strings of the guitar.
So keeping that finger placement in mind, here’s the basic scale pattern for the G major scale:
- Sixth string: 3rd fret, 5th fret
- Fifth string: 2nd fret, 3rd fret, 5th fret
- Fourth string: 2nd fret, 4th fret, 5th fret
- Third string: 2nd fret, 4th fret, 5th fret
- Second string: 3rd fret, 5th fret
- First string: 2nd fret, 3rd fret
Take it slow the first few times, playing up and down all six strings, saying each note out loud to yourself. (Remember that in the key of G major, your F notes are all going to be F#.) Play it until you can get a nice, clear, ringing tone out of every single note.
After a few repetitions, you might notice your muscle memory starting to kick in – and this is where you can slide that scale pattern up to any other fret on the sixth string of the guitar and play a major scale!
Taking your guitar string notes even further
Scales might not seem like the most exciting thing to play on the guitar, but they can help you learn all of the notes on your guitar strings and how to play amazing guitar solos!
If you’re ready to expand your guitar knowledge when it comes to music theory, then make sure you check out all the great online courses available at Rock Like the Pros/Terry Carter Music Store! Each one includes hours of video, backing tracks, and a community of people who love to play the guitar – just like you!