Confessions Of A Hopeless Guitarist: Learning my ABCs

Our anonymous guitarist understands the letters of the musical alphabet, where their respective dots sit on a stave, but they have absolutely no idea where to find them on a guitar fretboard. Time for school.

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Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. Thanks to Seattle grunge pioneers Mudhoney and their excellent sophomore album of that name, I know my musical alphabet and how that looks when written as dots and lines. That’s not to say I understand any of the intricacies of music on the stave, just to say that I know the notes E, G, B, D and F live on the lines, and therefore that F, A, C and E sit in the spaces.

So that’s great, and in theory I could therefore look at a piece of music and translate the notes to my ‘chosen instrument’, as I believe musicians do. Except not in my case, because besides playing the open strings in standard tuning to produce E, A, D, G, B and E again (and I’ll spare you the mnemonic that taught me that), I actually have no idea where the notes live on my guitar.

I’ve talked in recent columns about practising the C major scale to try to develop the beginnings of an ear for music, and of making use of this website’s own Chord Clinic columns to begin to understand variations, so you’d think that I must be learning something about what note fretting a particular string in a particular place produces (and hopefully I am, though all musical progress is extraordinarily slow in my world) but I’d be the first to admit that the fretboard bewilders me. And we haven’t even talked about flats and sharps yet…

All that is a precursor to my telling you that this month has been the month in which I have begun to at least attempt to unravel this mystery, having wandered back onto the path Fender Play has set for me and straight into a 10-lesson segment called ABCs: Know Your Notes.

Now that’s exactly the sort of thing that would have me running back to the comfort of ignorance normally, but in my heart I know this is the important stuff. This is the stuff I never bothered to learn when I first picked up a guitar and which not knowing has held me back ever since.

And if this column has a purpose, beyond hopefully entertaining my fellow hopeless players and giving the competent ones someone to laugh at, then it is to show that it’s never too late and that (hopefully) anything is possible in the world of guitar… even me understanding how one actually functions as a musical instrument. And maybe putting that knowledge to use, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Fender Play
Image: Fender

So in I’ve jumped, and although I’m not even halfway through the segment (let’s be kind and call it a quarter), some of it makes sense. Sort of. Each fret represents a half-step, which should mean every other fret gives you an A, B, C, D, E, F or G. Except it doesn’t, because some notes don’t have flats or sharps, which is why some white keys on a piano don’t have black keys between them. Still with me? No, I’m not even still with myself.

I’ve even spent a bit of time staring guitarsecrets.com’s illustration of all the notes on a 22-fret fretboard, but just when I think I’m on to something with the idea that if you can find an A note, then move up the neck five frets and down one string to play another A, I try the same thing with E and it falls apart.

There obviously is a pattern to the fretboard, and with more help and further lessons I’m determined to learn it, but for now I’m just copying the teacher and trying to remember afterwards what we did. Remembering stuff is not my strength, and so Fender Play’s Practice Mode has become my friend and I’m going to make a point of revisiting this until it starts to sink in.

The one thing I do know is that I haven’t read a single thing about learning the fretboard that claims it to be easy: it takes a lot of practice, it can be boring, short cuts don’t work… all phrases that usually see me running off to strum my way through my cheat’s version of America’s A Horse With No Name again. And I want to say not this time, but that wouldn’t be true. I mean, I’ve already done it several times (Taylor Swift’s You Belong With Me too, and Your Love Alone Is Not Enough by Manic Street Preachers), but I’m going to keep coming back to it, that’s the difference. I am. Honest…

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