How to Read Guitar Notes on the Musical Staff
The primary goal of anyone who wishes to learn to play guitar is to understand how musical notes become guitar scales and basic guitar chords. This is true regardless of the style of music the student intends to play, because electric guitar chords are identical to acoustic guitar chords. The goal of this first lesson, therefore, will be to learn how scales and chords on paper translate to fingers on the fret board.
Before we begin, it is important to identify the guitar notes on the musical staff as well as the notes on the guitar fret board. A standard musical staff contains five lines and four spaces. Each line and space represents a specific note. Additional lines can be added above or below the staff when necessary, as seen here:
How to Identify the Guitar Notes on the Fretboard
The notes on a guitar fretboard are played by using a finger to hold a certain string against a particular fret. In other words, pressing the E String (the thickest string) against the first fret will produce an F note. The following chart represents the notes on the guitar fretboard. You are not expected to memorize it just yet, but may want to refer back to it from time to time as we progress through our lessons.
Beginner Guitar Scales
When you first learn how to play guitar chords, or any musical instrument, you will find very quickly that every piece of music, whether it is by Bach or the Bee Gees, is built around scales.
A scale is simply a series of musical notes that are used to create the chords, melody, and harmony within a song. All electric and acoustic guitar chords, including the basic guitar chords we will be covering in this lesson and the more complex ones we will deal with later, are based upon scales. The very essence and character of any piece of music is founded on the scale, and only when you understand what a scale is and how it works, will music make any sense at all.
There are many kinds of guitar scales, but for the purpose of this lesson, we will be interested only in major scales for guitar. Minor scales will be covered later.
When musicians identify the scale that is used in a particular piece of music, they use the word “key.” In other words, when someone says that a song is “in the key of C,” what they mean is that the song is based on a C major scale. This is a good scale to start with because it contains no sharps or flats, and is therefore the easiest to understand. Here is what a C major scale looks like on paper:
The first C in this scale, the one on the left, is known as “Middle C.” You can usually identify Middle C because it has a short line through it. In this scale, Middle C is the “root.” That is, it is the first note in the scale, and the note from which the scale gets its name. You will notice that this scale also has a C at the end. This second C is called the “octave,” which means “eighth,” because it is the eighth note in the scale. This second C is the first note, or the “root,” of the next scale. The “octave” of that scale is the “root” of the scale after that, and so on.
Now, let’s take a look at what this scale looks like on the guitar:
This guitar scale chart represents the neck of the guitar as it would look if the guitar were propped up on a stand in front of you, not as it looks while you’re playing it. In other words, the vertical lines are the strings, the horizontal lines are the frets, and the top of the diagram is where the head of the guitar is.
This may seem awkward, but it’s how all scales and basic guitar chords, both electric and acoustic guitar chords, are represented. So, as you learn to play guitar, it’s best to get accustomed to it right from the start.
You can see that Middle C is located at the intersection of the A String and the 3rd Fret. The next note up, the D, is on the same string, but is at the 5th fret.
When someone first learns to play guitar scales, it is best to play the “root” with the middle finger of their non-dominant hand. In other words, if you are right-handed, position your left hand so that its middle finger is on the A String at the 3rd Fret. This will allow you to hit all the notes in the scale easily without having to reposition your hand too much.
When your hand is in position, press down with your middle finger on the A String at the 3rd Fret, and lightly pluck that same string with your right hand. That’s Middle C.
Now, while keeping your hand as stationary as possible, press down on the same string with your pinky at the 5th fret and pluck the string. That’s the D. (While you’re doing this, you can lift your middle finger off the fretboard to make it easier.)
Now, use your index finger to press down on the D String at the 2nd fret—that’s the E note. Then make the F at the 3rd fret with your middle finger, and make the G at the 5th fret with your pinky.
On the G String, make the A note with your index finger at the 2nd fret. Then, use your ring finger to make the B note at the 4th fret, and finally, use your pinky again to make the octave at the 5th fret.
You have just played the C major scale!
Becoming comfortable playing guitar scales like this is a vital skill for anyone who wishes to learn to play guitar. Once you have mastered this sequence of strings, frets, and fingers, you will be able to move your hand up and down the fretboard to play any major scale in exactly the same way. In order to play a D scale, for example, you do exactly what you just did, only with your hand positioned two frets up.
But we’ll get to that later. For now, we’ll use what we just learned to figure out how to build chords for guitar.