09 Nov Guitar Note Recognition
Have you ever watched someone playing guitar and been amazed at the way they can play up and down the entire fretboard? One of the secrets to their masterful playing is guitar note recognition. Guitar note recognition is a skill that you can learn with practice and dedication. Let’s learn more about what it is and how you can improve.
What is Guitar Note Recognition?
Guitar note recognition is the ability to look at the fretboard and determine which fret on which string makes a specific note. Notes are the alphabet of music and make up songs, melodies, chords, scales, solos, and more. Being able to recognize and play the specific notes in this alphabet is like knowing your letters for reading and spelling. If a lead sheet calls for an “E”, you need to be able to pinpoint an “E” on the fretboard. This skill will come in handy as you learn to play the C major scale on the guitar.
Guitar fretboards are shaped differently and some have more frets than others, but all fretboards are chromatic. This means that each fret you move up is one half-step. These half steps make up the chromatic scale, which is a twelve note scale that spans the entire musical alphabet from “A” to “G”. It is important to learn this musical alphabet well, both backwards and forwards. It is also important to know the half-steps in each note. The first step in guitar note recognition is knowing the note names.
The next step is translating that knowledge to the fretboard itself. Next, you need to be able to place those notes on the fretboard. Picture your guitar fretboard like a long grid. The frets running up and down are intersected by the strings running left to right. Each fret up and down and left to right are a box on this grid, and each box has its own note name. When you know which box is which note, you will be able to quickly find the notes on the fretboard you need.
The third step in guitar note recognition is learning where each fret is. If your music calls for a “D”, you need to be able to locate the 7th fret on the 4th string. Thankfully, many necks and fretboards on guitars give visible cues to help find specific frets quickly. Perhaps your guitar has a dot on the 3rd and 7th fret, and a double dot on the 5th and 12 fret. These help you orient yourself quickly on the fretboard.
Knowing these three steps of guitar note recognition will help to improve your playing. First, it will make you a theoretically better player, because you will know how to find notes and play specific things needed in the music. Second, it will make you a better player technically. Knowing where to find notes and how to get to them will expand your playing across the fretboard. Third, being able to recognize guitar notes leads the way to reading both music and guitar tablature.
How to Recognize Notes on the Fretboard
When learning to recognize guitar notes on the fretboard, it is crucial to learn the note names of each string. “EADGBE”. Drill this into your head. Doodle this on napkins in a coffee shop. Repeat this over and over until it is ingrained in your to the point you can’t forget it. Once you have the string names memorized, slowly play each string up and down and say the note name out loud. Pick the low “E” string and say “E” out loud. Next, play the “A” string and say “A” out loud. Once you get to the bottom of the strings, work your way back up. This will help your ear to hear and learn their sounds and your strumming or picking hand to learn their location.
Now that you know the string names, you can start to “fill in the grid” of the fretboard we talked about earlier. Next, find the twelfth fret and hold down every string. Twelve frets up is twelve half-steps, a full chromatic scale. When you go up twelve half-steps, you have gone up the octave, so you are still playing “EADGBE”. Repeat the same exercise as above. Again, you are helping your ear to hear the notes and your strumming hand to know the location.
Now that you have your “grid” drawn, you can continue to “fill in the grid”. Starting with your low “E”, play a chromatic scale up the fretboard to the twelfth fret. Using all four fingers, start open, then place first finger on 1st fret, second finger on 2nd fret, third finger on 3rd fret, fourth finger on 4th fret, then slide your hand up and keep going. As you play the notes, sing them at the same pitch you are playing. “E-F-F#-G-G#-A-A#-B-C-C#-D-D#-E”. Then work your way back down the fretboard singing the notes as you play in a descending chromatic scale.
Play this scale on every string on your guitar. Depending on your hand strength, aim for one to two minutes per scale per string. This will also help develop dexterity and strength for your hands as well. Over time, you will get quicker, but always focus on singing the notes as you play them so that you are memorizing the note names. To change the exercise up a bit, you can also sing the string name and fret as you play. “A string 3rd fret-A string 4th fret” for instance. The more you do this exercise, the more you will be able to recognize guitar notes on a fretboard.
As you do this, you will also learn a few patterns and tricks. You will learn that the 12th fret is a full octave above. You will also learn that the 5th fret on every string but the “B” string is the same note as the next string down (this can be helpful for tuning your guitar if find yourself without a tuner).
How to Read Guitar Tablature
Once you are comfortable finding notes on the fretboard, you can translate this into actual playing with guitar tablature or tabs. Guitar tabs are a form of musical notation specific to guitar playing that help you learn riffs, lines, scales, and solos from real songs or guitar exercises.
Guitar tabs look a little like a grid, but they are read differently than the grid we practiced earlier for learning notes, so don’t be confused. Below is an example of a tab, but it is a list of the guitar strings with dashes. Periodically, the dashes are replaced by numbers. These represent the notes of the song and tell you which fret to play on which string at a particular time.
Reading the tab from left to right, you play the string and fret that is says. Learning to read tabs will help you learn many new songs, riffs, and even some beginner triads. It can also help improve your use of the fretboard, but beware that it does not have time signature and you don’t necessarily know the rhythm that a song calls for from the tab alone. It is important to hear the song or see a lead sheet for this part of the music. Many guitar tab sites have a graded difficulty of the tab, and this will help you know if you are ready for that song or not. As a beginner, take it slow and make your you are playing the proper string and fret correctly before adjusting the tempo.
How to Use a Chromatic Tuner
One of the first pieces of equipment a guitar player should invest in is a chromatic tuner. A chromatic tuner is a tuner that will allow you to tune your guitar to any note, including half-steps. There are different kinds of tuners, such as tuner pedals, clip on tuners that sense vibration, or microphone tuners that listen to the pitch. With each kind, you will pick a string (it is best to pluck a string with your hand and not use a pick) and the tuner will tell you if the pitch is sharp or flat. Many tuners use colored lights to indicate the pitch. Red to the left is often flat, red to the right is often sharp, and a green light means right on pitch. Repeat this process on every string to ensure the guitar is tuned to itself as well.
A chromatic tuner is helpful for tuning down a half step or playing in unique tunings other than standard. It is, however, very important that you know how to tune your guitar to standard as this will generally allow you to play with other musicians more easily. Your tuner should have some indication that it is tuning to 440mHz. This is standard tuning for pianos and other instruments as well. If you notice that your guitar is tuned according to the tuner but it sounds a bit off, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on recalibrating the tuner.
Tips for Improving Note Recognition
Here are some helpful tips for improving your guitar note recognition.
- Learn to read music. Learning to read music is a daunting task, but it will help improve your playing dramatically. Often, people will also learn to play the piano or take a class. College level piano classes are a fantastic way to learn another instrument and learn to read music.
- Learn the note names. Use the exercise above to drill the note names into your brain. Many of the best musicians don’t practice until they get it right, they practice until they can’t get it wrong. Use this mindset when practicing the note names. Practice them until you can’t get them wrong.
- Train your ear. You might think that as a guitar player, you don’t need to sing. But singing is much less about the sounds your voice makes and much more about what your ear hears. Singing the note names as you play them will help your ear to recognize notes as well as your fingers and eyes.
- Use a metronome. Use a metronome to control your tempo. This will mean starting slow and being accurate. It doesn’t pay to be fast but hit every wrong note. Use the metronome to slowly increase speed and tempo while also internalizing a steady beat.
- Break down complex passages. Don’t tackle the whole song or riff at once. Chop the song into smaller bites and take your time finding the notes and frets. Once you have them down, add them back together.
It is important to learn to recognize guitar notes on the fretboard. It will open up your playing to new horizons, as well as expose you to different kinds of musical notation. The discipline of learning the chromatic scale will pay off in freedom on the fretboard. Learning your fretboard will help you to tune your guitar, play more exciting riffs, and help you play in bands or ensembles more fluidly as you can hear and see the notes that mesh with the music. Guitar note recognition will help elevate your musicianship as you learn more of the notes you want to play.
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