The Best Way to Learn the Neck

The best way to learn the guitar neck is a question that I get almost every day. People want to know if studying the C.A.G.E.D. system is the best way for getting the job done. Others want to know if "Octave Patterns" are the best way, or if learning to do music reading studies might work the best...

While all of them are at the top of the list for understanding how the notes sit on the neck, they still are not the best way to learn the guitar neck the fastest.

In this video lesson I'm going to explain how to use the “Diatonic scale - chromatic circle,” to learn how every note sits all along and across the guitar neck. Once you learn this system, you'll understand how to plot the name of any musical note anywhere on your guitar!


Today we’re talking about the fastest way to learn the note layout of the guitar neck. In traditional music lessons, (for pretty much every musical instrument), the most common way that students will go about learning all of the notes on their instrument generally will come out of learning how to read music.

Unfortunately, guitar players rarely get their music reading together. In fact, most guitar players can’t read a single note of traditional music notation.

Commonly, guitar students will learn how to play with diagram systems and by guitar short-hand – otherwise known as “Tab.”

So, this means that if guitar players learn the best by way of diagrams, what better way to learn the neck, than by using a diagram system.

In getting started, (for any beginner students), we need to clarify that the musical language, (often referred to as the musical alphabet), has 7 letter names. 

They are; “A, B, C, D, E, F and G.” We also need to clarify /understand that the most common scale in our musical language is the; “C Major” scale.

“C Major” is the most widely used scale in music and it consists of all neutral notes. In music applications we call those tones, “Natural” tones.

All of the other keys will include note alterations known of as either “Sharps” or “Flats,” (more on those later). 

What’s important at this point - is to understand that there are a set series of half and whole-steps that are used to create the “C Major” scale.

We need to begin our understanding of the neck from these simple movements.

The whole-step, also referred to as a “Whole-Tone,” (or 2-frets on the guitar), is the most popular movement.

Whole Tones occur between the majorities of scale tones. However, the half-step, also called the, “Semi-Tone,” (applied as just a single one fret movement on the guitar), is an equally important note movement.

Together, these two movements (of a Tone and a Semi-Tone) are the first place that we need to begin when it comes down to understanding note location on the guitar neck.

Before we take this to the guitar, I want you to understand how this Whole-Tone and Semi-Tone system operates when it gets applied to a scale. Let’s take the “C Major” scale, and start there.

The scale of “C Major” is made up of Whole-Tones played between all notes except, “B and C” as well as, “E to F.”

The "C" Major Scale: NOTES

The "C" Major Scale: NOTES and STEPS

The Whole-Step (Tone) on Guitar:

 The Half-Step (Semi-Tone) on Guitar:

The steps of “B to C” along with, “E to F” are natural occurring semi-tones. If you check out the keys on a piano – all the white keys make up the notes of the “C Major” scale. And, the places where there are two white keys well, those are the notes of “B to C” and, “E to F.”

"C" Major on the Piano:

Now that you understand the importance of the “C Major” scale, and you know what’s going on with the simplest of note movements that we have in music, (the tones and semi-tones), our next step is to clarify the names of the guitar’s open strings.

Coming up after that, I’m going to show you how you can use a theory training diagram called the “Diatonic scale - chromatic circle,” to be able to nail every single note all over the guitar fret-board in a way that’s really fast to both learn how to do and also to go ahead and apply. 

The guitar’s open string names are one of the most important fundamental concepts about this instrument that we need to have committed to our memory. And, there are two areas of importance that surround this topic.

String Numbers:
The first important area to learn about is that you need to know the string order as a numbering system, (1 through 6).

For the numbering order, just keep in mind that the high pitch skinny string is number one, and the low thickest string is the sixth. Just remember the, “T” “H” because it operates within the words “thick” and “sixth.”

As far as the string letter names, a mnemonic is the best way to go. From the high pitch first string, I normally use the sentence; “Every,” “Body,” “Goes,” “Down,” “An,” “Elevator.”

String Names (Letters):
You need to have memorized all of the letter names of all six guitar strings. Luckily, this is easy to do using the mnemonic mention above

Once you have the open string numbers and names down, the next part is really easy. We’re going to use the “Diatonic scale - chromatic circle,” to get you thinking of linear note travel along each guitar string.

In the diagram (below), we have the diatonic note movement going clock-wise through the natural tones of the “C Major” scale. Take notice of the “B to C” and the, “E to F.” Remember, those notes are always right next to each other on the guitar fingerboard as well.

The Diatonic - Chromatic Circle:

All of the other notes will have an option of either using a sharp or a flat. For example, if I was on an “A” note, above the “A” I’d have “A#,” or “Bb.” Below the “A” I’d have “Ab” or “G#.”

How the notes get named as specific sharps or flats depends on the chromatic pitch direction (upward or downward pitch travel).

Another way notes are named is by way of the key signature, (some keys use sharps and others use flats to maintain independence of each tone of our musical alphabet system).

If I was focused on the note of “D,” I would have “Db” or “C#” down from the “D” and “D#” or “Eb” above the “D.” 

Again, how they are named just depends on the musical application.

If we were to focus on the note of “G,” the process is the same. Above “G” is “G#” or “Ab” and below “G” would give us the option of “Gb” or “F#.” 

NOTE: All of this information works exactly the same on the guitar neck.

The next thing we are going to do is take these principles onto the guitar neck and you’ll get to find out just how easy it is to apply the note movement strategy using the, “Diatonic scale - chromatic circle,” onto the guitar fret-board.

Linear Single-string Training:
Let’s start learning the first string by training within a small range of note groups. From the open string ascending we have the, “Open E,” “F,” “F#,” and “G.”

As we continue up the 1st string from the 4th to 7th frets, we get, “G#,” “A,” “A#,” and “B.”

And, continuing along the first string from frets 8 up to 12, we get, “C,” “C#,” “D,” “D#,” and the octave of the open string “E.”

Always remember that the double dots on the guitar fret-board represent the guitar’s notes (on all strings), but repeated up an octave higher.

Also, keep in mind that you can study all of your descending flat notes by dropping downward in pitch from the 12th fret “E” going backward toward the open string again, (replacing all the sharp tones, with their appropriate flat tones).

Random Notes - String Training:
You can take this principle all around the guitar fingerboard learning all of the notes going linear along every string. It’s really easy to apply, and it also works great to just drop onto a note someplace /anyplace on the neck.

For example, if you dropped down on the note of “A” located upon the 3rd guitar string, and you were to map out your 4-fret position in that region - you would get, “A, A#, B and C.”

From the 2nd fret of that 3rd-string, I have now become aware and more fully understand the notes that are located there.

You could even take the random note concept further, and start on a note, like for example an “E,” on the 5th string 7th fret. And then, practice dropping down to “Eb,” and then to “D” then jump over the “Db” note, and play the “C” down to “B.”

There’s all kinds of options open to us for how we might practice this. But one things for sure, if you do this – if you practice this for a while - you WILL get to understand the notes across your guitar strings at a VERY high level of understanding. 

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