At this stage in your playing, you've probably encountered players who seem to have this gift of locating and/or naming all of the notes that span the entire fretboard, on all six strings. You may have even thought to yourself: "It must take years to acquire that skill!" Okay, so maybe I'm projecting a bit, because I've definitely had that same pessimistic thought in the past.
But what if I told you that within what seems like total chaos is a nice, predictable order to it all, and within three simple steps, you too can locate any note on the fretboard?
(Step 1) Learn the Notes by Order (by remembering two simple things):
Like most things worth doing, there will be some effort involved, but it is important to approach the topic by working smart - not hard. Every musical interval is represented by a letter from the alphabet, ranging from A to G, with what's known as a "sharp" or "#" symbol between all intervals but two, and is shown in sequential order below:
A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G# (Repeating the sequence at the octave.)
Notice anything different about the arrangement of notes?
*Hint: two of these things are not like the others.
Under close inspection you've probably noticed that there are no sharpened versions of B and E - in other words there is no B sharp or E sharp.
*The mnemonic device that I use to remember this subtle difference is: "BE careful to spot each sharp!"
1. The order of notes span from A to G with sharps in between
2. B and E have no such sharps
*By remembering these two chunks of information, you are saving your brain the extra effort of having to memorize each individual note.
(Step 2) Memorize Three Reference Points:
The guitar is typically tuned to E standard tuning, and now that you know the order of notes, just locate any three of what I refer to as "reference points" on the guitar. The three reference points that I use on both high and low E strings are as follows:
3rd Fret = G
5th Fret = A
7th Fret = B
*This may be a bit gabby of me to say, but the mnemonic device that I use is: "gab."
Without any sharps between E and B, we can determine each note in between each reference point; and since we know that the 12th fret is the same note as the open fret, we can apply the same logic to each fret below the 12th fret.
*To clarify, because of the way that the guitar is tuned, the 1st and 6th strings are octaves of one another, allowing you to apply the same reference points.
(Step 3) Apply Octave Shape:
The octave shape functions as an extension of your points of reference, allowing you to locate octaves on three different strings at a time - think of it as a fretboard note decoder.
I refer to this method of note location as the top down/bottom up approach, as the notes determined from the low E are done so from the top down, while the notes determined from the high E are done so from the bottom up.
Ex. 1: Top down
Ex. 2: Bottom up
If the you're just looking to find a note on one string only, you can streamline the process by leaving out the third octave in the shape.
To clarify, if you're trying to find a note on the D string, just eliminate the octave found on the B string (pinky finger); if you're trying to locate a note on the G string, simply eliminate the octave on the A string (index finger).