The guitar is a stringed instrument. In that respect, it uses many of the same tone-making characteristics of other stringed instruments. If you’ve read our article about making notes on the violin, you’ve been exposed to some of these concepts. In this article, I’m going to outline how we use the guitar to make pitches (also called notes).
The guitar has six strings that are tuned to specific pitches. Though there are alternate tunings, we will focus on what is known as “standard tuning” in this article. Standard tuning on the guitar is when your strings are tuned to E, A, D, G, B, E. Notice there are two “E’s”. The first E in the line of notes that I’ve written is the lowest pitched string. You’ll also notice that it’s the thickest string on our six-string guitar. As you move through the other strings, they get higher in pitch and thinner in diameter. By the time you get to the high E string (the second E you see in the sequence I’ve written), the string diameter is less than half the size of the Low E and twice as high in pitch.
Guitar frets are technically the metal fret wire that you see on the fretboard of your guitar. However, when someone says, “play the 5th fret”, they mean the space between two frets. The only time this varies is at the 1st fret where you will be playing between the guitar nut and the 1st fret wire. So, from here on, when I say, “play X fret”, I mean the space between the wires. You can easily see the spaces when you look at the fretboard.
Frets on the guitar are vital to making notes. Yes, there are stringed instruments that don’t have frets and can be played beautifully, the violin being only one of them. However, guitar frets serve multiple purposes. For example, placing your finger on the string just behind the fret you wish to play will produce what is called a “fretted” pitch. Any pitch that is not an open string is fretted. In other words, the open string is the longest the string can get. When we place a finger on a string over our desired fret and press down, we are shortening the string. This raises the pitch of the string.
I won’t go too much in depth as this article is aimed at the beginner guitar player, but here’s a tip: always place your finger just behind the fret you want to play. This will require less pressure to press down than if you played further away near the previous fret or in the case of the 1st fret, playing near the nut.
Physically speaking, this is the mechanic by which we make notes on the guitar outside of playing an open string. Additionally, frets allow us to play techniques like bending, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.
For beginners, it’s important to simply memorize these pitches and tune your guitar to them accordingly. It’s difficult to understand the music theory reasoning behind the strings being the specific notes that they are. However, if you’re not new to the instrument, read on.
Each string on the guitar is tuned in what we call 4ths, except for the B string, which is tuned a major third above the G string. What does this mean in practicality? It means that if you play the open low E string and play each subsequent fret on the guitar starting on the first fret, you will eventually place your finger on the 5th fret. The 5th fret on every string but G will literally be the exact pitch of the next highest string, if the guitar is properly tuned. Therefore, the 5th fret of the low E will sound an A. The 5th fret of the A will sound a D. The 5th fret of the D will sound a G and the 5th fret of the B will sound an E.
Variations on the G string
On the G string, you will walk up to the 4th fret of the guitar. On that fret, you will be playing the B pitch which is identical to the pitch of the open B string. This is the only change from the rule of tuning in 4ths.
I know what you’re thinking, “tuning 4ths? But you said to go up to the 5th fret!” I did. Music theory is a little more complicated than just counting frets, but that’s the basis for everything music theory you will learn on the guitar. To fully understand that, you will need some more information such as intervals, sharps, flats, and scales. Allow me to explain
Intervals, sharps and flats on the guitar
Frets make finding intervals on the guitar nice and easy. First, all intervals in western music are built off of the concept of half steps and whole steps. On the guitar, a half step is the distance from one fret to the next. A whole step is the distance of two frets. For example: One half step above the first fret is the second fret. Another example: One whole step is the distance between the first fret and the third fret. This works for any string.
This leads us to the topic of sharps and flats. Sharps are displayed by writing a “#” symbol. Flats are displayed by writing a “b” symbol. A sharp raises a pitch a half step and a flat lowers a pitch a half step. These symbols are placed next to the pitch you want to sharp(raise) or flat(lower). For example: I want to play a D# so I would play my open D string and realize that I need to raise it one half step. This means that I will play the first fret of the D string. This is an important concept: from any open string to the first fret of the same string is a half step.
Naturally occurring notes and half steps
Finally, this brings us to the discussion of naturally occurring notes and half steps. The basis for all western music (which is largely the tradition in which we play guitar) begins with understanding that your basic, naturally occurring notes are: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Each pitch in this order will grow higher in pitch so that the G is higher than the A if you start on the A. In other words, Ascending is always up in pitch, and descending is always lower in pitch. By extension, we will end up back at another A pitch if we keep going: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, but the final A will be what we call an Octave higher than the first A. If you count from A to A, including the first A as 1, you will count to 8. Hence, the name of an octave.
But there’s a little snag here. You see, there are naturally occurring half steps in these notes. These natural half steps occur between B and C and E and F. This is important. Let’s apply it to guitar. The distance between the B note and the C note is one fret. The distance between the E note and the F note is 1 fret. Between every other note there will be a whole step, which as you recall is made of two half steps. For example: A to B is a whole step. C to D is a whole step. This means there’s technically a note between the two letters that we can also name.
Up in pitch and down in pitch on the guitar
IMPORTANT TIP: When I say, “go up” staying on one string, that means we are moving any number of frets towards the bridge of the guitar. If I say, “go down”, that means we are moving any number of frets away from the bridge of the guitar towards the headstock.
Following our principles, if we go up one fret from the A we have sharped the A one half step. This produces an “A#”. This is NOT the same pitch as an A. It’s one half step above it. If we go up one more fret, we will reach the B note. Let’s look at another example. If I go up one fret from C, I have sharped the pitch one half step. This produces a “C#”. If I go up one more fret, or half step, I will reach the D note.
Using this method, we can create scales, chords, and melodies to our liking. I know, I just made that sound like it was easy. Don’t worry, when you’ve read this enough, practiced enough, and memorized this information, this will actually seem easy. Until then, you’ll need regular refreshers that include practicing your instrument, reading this article, and learning new songs.
TIP: These methods can be used on the acoustic guitar as well as the electric guitar. If you’re a beginner guitar player, the first half of the article is going to be the most helpful, but as you progress through your studies and grow, revisit the second half to learn more about the theory behind making notes on the guitar. I hope this helped everyone! Have a great day!