How to Learn and Understand the Guitar Fretboard

guitar fretboard with frets numbered

Why is Guitar Different than Other Instruments?

When you first decide to learn how to play the guitar it’s easy to get discouraged early on. As instruments go, the guitar is far from the easiest, and it certainly isn’t intuitive. This is largely due to the fact that the notes of the guitar fretboard don’t follow a perfect linear pattern.

On an instrument like the piano, for instance, you can look at two keys and easily determine which note is higher or lower. Keys will get progressively higher in pitch as you move to the right on the keyboard, and lower as you move to the left. The guitar is less cut-and-dry: If one note is played further up the fretboard than another that doesn’t necessarily mean it has a higher pitch.

Piano keyboard

It’s important, then, to develop a fundamental understanding of the guitar fretboard if you truly want to master this instrument. For this reason, we’ve assembled a guide that’s entirely dedicated to learning and understanding the guitar’s fretboard and the ways in which the strings and frets interact.

While there’s no way to entirely cut out the legwork (hundreds or thousands of hours of practice will be needed), this guide may help to accelerate the learning process a bit. Understanding goes a long way; practicing is more effective when you have a grasp of the musical concepts you’re utilizing.

To get the most out of this guide it’s important to have a fundamental understanding of musical intervals and guitar string names and order, so we recommend reading our articles on these topics if needed.

Understanding Fretboard Markings

You’ve no doubt noticed the dots on the front and sides of your guitar’s fretboard, but what do they mean?

These markings are used to navigate the fretboard quickly. They provide reference points so that you can easily tell where you are on the fretboard.

Here’s an example: You’re reading the guitar tab for Sweet Child O’ Mine and attempting to play it. You see that the opening note is at the 12th-fret D string, but how do you get to the 12th fret?

The first measure of Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine

One method would be to count your way up the neck, one fret at a time. This would be ridiculously slow and it’s an altogether poor way of doing this.

Alternatively, you could simply look for the first fret marked with two dots like the one shown below. This symbol indicates that the fret in question is a perfect octave (or multiple octaves in rare instances) above the open strings. This occurs every 12th fret, and since the majority of guitars have less than 24 frets there’s usually only one of these.

12th fret 2-dot marking on Fender Stratocaster guitar fretboard
The 12th fret of a guitar is usually marked with two dots.

The two-dot symbol isn’t the only one, though. The third, fifth, seventh, and ninth frets are usually marked with a single dot, and this pattern continues beyond the 12th fret at the same intervals (15th, 17th, 19th, etc.). As you become more familiar with this system you’ll be able to quickly pinpoint the fret you need, using the markings as guides.

guitar fretboard with frets numbered

This isn’t only relevant to reading tabs, though. You will eventually begin to associate each fret on each string with the note it represents. For example, you’ll know than an 8th-fret Low E string produces a C, and a fifth-fret D string plays a G.

Understanding Same-String Intervals

Another key concept to understanding the fretboard is familiarity with intervals on the same string. The most important thing to remember, by far, is that each fret on the same string represents a half-step (semitone) in pitch, so if you move your finger one fret down the neck the string’s pitch will increase by a half step. It follows, then, that two frets represents a whole step. Remember that this only applies when moving between frets on the same string.

Same-String Intervals

Below is a table of all same-string intervals up to 12 frets apart. Since an interval of 12 frets is the same as an octave this pattern repeats beginning with the 13th fret, albeit an octave higher.

Number of Frets ApartInterval
2Whole Tone
3Minor Third
4Major Third
5Perfect Fourth
6Diminished Fifth
7Perfect Fifth
8Augmented Fifth/Minor Sixth
9Major Sixth
10Minor Seventh
11Major Seventh
12Perfect Octave

Why Does It Matter?

Understanding relationships between different frets on the same string is immensely useful because it can be used to figure out what pitch any fret on any string will produce. If you’re wondering what pitch the sixth-string B string plays, you can simply count up from the open B, one fret at a time:

C, C#, D, D#, E

By doing this you’ll find that it’s an E. If you have all of the intervals memorized (or use the chart) you’ll be able to find this even quicker: two notes five frets apart on the same string are a perfect fourth apart. A perfect fourth above B is E, giving us our answer.

In addition to its use in locating specific notes on the fretboard, this knowledge should help you better understand what you’re playing. Say you’re reading a tab and it tells you to play a 7th-fret Low E string and hammer on to the 10th-fret of the same string. Knowing that this interval is a minor third can help you identify the key or play the same pattern in a different location on the neck.

Understanding the Relationships Between the Guitar Strings

Grasping the relationships between notes on the same string is a great start, but the real challenge is understanding how all six strings relate to each other. The beautiful thing about the guitar is that the relationships between all adjacent strings are the same, excepting that between the G and B strings.

That might not make sense at first, so let’s look at this more concretely:

  • The interval between the open Low E and A strings is a perfect fourth.
  • The interval between the open A and D strings is a perfect fourth.
  • The interval between the open D and G strings is a perfect fourth.
  • The interval between the open G and B strings is a perfect third.
  • The interval between the open B and High E strings is a perfect fourth.

As you can see, the jump from the G string to the B string is the odd man out; the interval between these two strings is different than all of the rest. This means that the same pattern will produce the same relative sound when moving between the top four strings, or between the bottom two strings.

That means that this pattern:

will sound the same relative to this pattern:

In fact, since they both start on C, they’ll sound exactly the same: The starting note is followed by a whole step, a perfect fourth, and a perfect fifth (in this case a D, F, and G). Play through these mini-tabs to hear it yourself.

Try this same pattern starting on the fifth-fret G string, however, and you’ll see how the jump between the G and B strings differs from that between the rest. Even though the pattern is the same, the sound is different:

That’s because the pitches produced are a whole step, major third, and diminished fifth above C (D, E, and F#). If you wanted to produce the same sound as in the previous examples, you’d need to “shift over” a fret, like so:

You’ll notice and begin to better grasp this phenomenon as you practice the guitar. You’ll see that the same patterns, jumps, and partial chords can be played in the same way between most of the strings, and you’ll also get used to “shifting over” when navigating to the third string from the first and second, or to the second string from any of the top four.

It may help to imagine a line between the second and third (B and G) strings. Any time you “jump over” this line from the top four strings, all inter-string relationships shift a fret up the neck (to the right if you’re right-handed). Any time you cross the line from the bottom of the guitar, relationships shift a fret down the neck.

How to Practice to Learn the Guitar Fretboard

Don’t worry if the above concepts don’t immediately or completely “click” with you. Some of these are complex ideas that you’ll gain a fuller grasp of as you play. You’ll be better off even with a partial understanding of the information relayed in this guide.

If you want to fully understand the fretboard, practice playing the same riffs or songs from different starting points. Play them an octave higher, in a different key, or starting from the same pitch on a different string.

Alternatively, try playing a familiar song by ear rather than using guitar tabs. While the going may be slow at first, this is one of the best ways to learn how to “feel” the intervals rather than thinking through them. Progress may be slow at first but don’t be demoralized. As with any skill worth acquiring mastering the guitar’s fretboard will take a massive amount of time, but it’s well worth the investment in the end.