Guitarists are a special breed of musician for a multitude of reasons, but there’s one fundamental gap in our instrumental knowledge that seems almost exclusive to guitarists:
Most guitarists don’t know all the note names on their instrument.
In our defense, the fretboard can seem daunting to master compared to other instruments. On a 22 fret guitar in standard tuning, there are 132 frets and 6 open strings to memorize, giving us 138 possible spots to play 47 pitches. We also play a two-dimensional instrument with duplicate spots to play each note.
While guitarists have it a little more difficult when it comes to knowing our note names, it’s still a fundamental skill set that we should all know.
Most guitarists have no problem naming all the note names for the open strings and frets 1–5. The same applies starting at fret 12, when the notes are repeated up an octave. These are the notes covered in beginner’s guitar books and are reflected in our use of open chords, so they feel like familiar ground.
We are also comfortable reciting the note names all the way up the neck on string 1 (High E) and string 6 (Low E). I attribute this to the frequent use of 6 string major/minor triad bar chords. In these chords the root note is located on the 6th string and copied two octaves up on the 1st string.
When it comes to memorizing series of data, the brain has a tendency to remember the ends of said series. This further explains why we are comfortable with these areas of the instrument, but we are fuzzy when it comes to memorizing note names in the middle of the fretboard: frets 6–11 (and the octaves on frets 17–23) on strings 2–5.
How can you become more comfortable in the middle of the fretboard?
Focus your practice on this area of the neck!
Start off by taking out your cell phone, tape recorder, or some flash cards. Record/document all 12 notes in a random order. Make sure you give yourself enough time between notes to play them on the guitar. Place a diagram of the fretboard with all the note names on it in front of you. Then, place your hand over fifth position. This will place your index finger over fret 5, middle finger over fret 6, ringer finger over fret 7, and your pinkie over fret 8.
Play the tape!
As your voice calls out note names, find every octave of that note within fifth position over all six strings. You will play each note 2 or 3 times depending on the number of octaves available in that position. Feel free to stop the recording if you need more time. Once you complete all the notes in fifth position, move onto sixth position and so on.
My advice is to keep this a short, but consistent drill in your daily practice. 5 minutes (or one position’s worth of time) at the beginning of your routine will be plenty to close this common gap in our instrumental knowledge.
Don’t let the sound of your recorded voice bother you. It’s all in the name of better guitar playing!