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Guitar Music Theory

Basic Theory

This section will show you how the notes in music fit onto a guitar.

Open String Notes

Standard tuning for a guitar is EADGBE and aligns with the strings of the guitar like this:

Open string notes

Notice that we number the strings with 1st being the thinnest, and 6th the thickest. Also be aware that horizontal fret board diagrams have the 6th (thickest) string at the bottom; although when you look at the guitar the 6th string is at the top.

You will also see vertical fret board diagrams, most often as chord boxes at the beginning of a piece of music like this:

Small chord boxes

Just remember in this case the strings all look the same thickness but it is just the same as rotating our above diagram 90° to give us this:

vertical open string notes

The only other thing that is worth noting is that the two outer strings are the same note - E just one is lower in pitch than the other.
Feel free to come up with a memory aid for the open string notes. If you can't think of one you can use this from one of my younger pupils, who told me that:
Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears!

The Musical Alphabet

Simply put this is just all the notes we have in our Western music system (nothing to do with cowboys and Indians but rather the tuning system we use to come up with our notes), the notes run alphabetically hence, musical alphabet.

musical alphabet

As you can see the musical alphabet differs from the regular alphabet in that it only goes up to G then starts again at A. Also we have extra notes in between such as A# or Bb , these are called accidentals and are the black keys on a piano.

Measuring Musical Distance

In music we need to be able to measure the distance between notes; so just as we use metres and centimetres or feet and inches to measure regular distance, we use tones and semi-tones to measure musical distance.

Showing tones and semi-tones distance


As we pointed out before in between the regular alphabet notes we have accidentals there are two types:

The more astute among you will have already noticed that the same note can have two different names; which brings us onto.....


Try saying that 3 times fast!

Enharmonics are notes that are the same pitch but have two different names, the reason for this is thus:
If we go up one semi-tone from A we get A# but we could also arrive at that note by going down one semi-tone from B giving us Bb and so these notes are said to be enharmonic. Although you could just learn the alphabet with all sharps or all flats you should be able to use both as it could save you from being confused in the future.

The Missing Notes

Those shrewd, on-the-ball types who spotted the enharmonic notes in the alphabet may also have noted that there appears to be missing accidentals, namely: B# / Cb  and  E# / Fb the simple fact is there is no such thing, why not? Who knows, maybe somebody stole them. Just remember they aren't there.

Working Out Notes on the Guitar

So this is what all that above has been for; if you know your open string notes and you know your musical alphabet you can effectively work out every note on the guitar. I'm not suggesting you need to but the possibility is there, if you are thoroughly bored and your TV/PC/PS3/PSP/DS/Xbox(360)/MP3 player/ is broken.
Let's try one out – the 3rd fret on the 3rd string

Answer – G

            Answer – A# or Bb (depending on which way you look at it)
So 3rd fret on the 3rd string is A# or Bb

Now you have a go:

  1. What is the 5th fret on the 5th string?
  2. What is the 4th fret on the 3rd string?
  3. What is the 12th fret on the 6th string?
  4. What is the 9th fret on the 2nd string?
  5. What is the 7th fret on the 4th string?
  6. What is the capital of Mongolia?

OK the last one isn't anything to do with learning guitar but it is worth seeing if you are still
awake and alert.