- How long does it take to memorize the fretboard?
- Learn how to master the CAGED system
- We compile fool-proof ways to memorize notes on the fretboard
- Also, check out our post on the best courses for learning music theory!
The average guitar has 18-24 frets and up to 150 total notes. If you’re feeling overwhelmed about memorizing the notes on the fretboard, it’s no wonder! Luckily, of those 150 notes, there are less than 50 unique tones.
My preferred way to learn notes on the fretboard is “Notes on the Axe.” Other, more popular methods you’ll hear about include “One String at a Time” and the “CAGED” method.
So why should you do a deep dive into memorizing notes on the fretboard?
- It helps you read sheet music for the guitar
- It allows you to build notes from scratch
- Overall, it contributes to your mastery of the instrument
Reasons to Learn the Fretboard
Reading Sheet Music
If you know where every note is on the fretboard, you can read anything written for the guitar. And while learning the notes on the fretboard can be done separately from reading notation, I think it benefits learning them simultaneously.
If you can do both, you can make scratch playing in everything from musicals to movie scores or undergraduate woodwind recitals.
Building Chords From Scratch
Sure, you can play pretty much anything you hear on the radio with open chords (more affectionately known as “Cowboy Chords”). But if you want to create a unique sound or even accurately replicate somebody else, you should learn how to build chords from scratch.
Jazz guitarist Sam Rugg began teaching me how to memorize the notes on the fretboard after I listened to him teach a plethora of online guitar lessons during the midst of the pandemic.
As I wrote press releases and worked on my online listings for my Etsy shop, the sound of guitars sparked inside me: a renewed interest in playing. More specifically, I wanted to know how musicians learned the notes on the fretboard and how to read notation.
How to Start Learning the Fretboard
Begin by memorizing the strings (EADGBE). You can use an acronym at first (Ex. Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie!), but you will need to be able to know which string is which on the first blush to really move forward.
Don’t move to the next steps unless you can name the strings without hesitation. After you have that down, move on to one of the following methods: Notes on the Axe, One String at a Time, or the CAGED System.
Notes on the Axe
Reverend Rinsen Roshi (Jay Rinsen Weik) is a professor of guitar at the University of Toledo. He devised a method for learning notes on the fretboard and called it “Notes On The Axe.” Of all the methods I’ve seen guitarists use, this method is the one that I think results in the most success.
Notes on the Axe is a practice that is best begun with a teacher. You are assigned a set of notes– Let’s say, all A’s on the instrument. Then, the teacher will say “A on the _ string” or “A in _ octave.”
The reason why I think notes on the axe works so well with a teacher is that it gives you that little jolt of an “Oh no! Where is that note, right now?” and helps you form a stronger body-brain connection.
Next, you move on to note B, and so on. After just a few notes in all the octaves, everything that seems muddy starts to look a little clearer. You get used to frets, which once felt like an oceanic void you got lost in, within 5 minutes flat.
Eventually, your teacher (or you) can test you on any note on the fretboard. I love this method because it really put me on the spot.
Another thing you can do is pair your preferred fretboard learning method with a method book that introduces notation- More on that later.
One String at a Time
Learning the notes one string at a time can greatly reduce any sort of fretboard overwhelm you may be experiencing.
The “One string at a time” method usually begins with a form of an F scale with no accidentals (F Lydian), starting on the low E string. Players use all the natural notes (FGABCDEF). As you play, you say the notes out loud. The nice thing about starting on the low E string is that the top string, high E, is exactly the same.
The one string at a time helps you learn flat and sharp notes by inference after you learn most of the fretboard in modes like the first string. The one-string-at-a-time method works well, but it can be a little boring for some.
The CAGED system is an extremely popular way of memorizing notes on the fretboard. The basis is learning all the notes in the chords: C, A, G, E, and D major. How fitting!
For this method, you learn the chords first and notes second. This way is quite different from Rinsen’s “Notes on the Axe” since that is a note-first approach.
In the CAGED system, after you get comfy with the chords, you learn the root note (the lowest note) of each chord. The CAGED system is also a way of learning scales, which gives you a pattern for each of the (CAGED) scales. This method groups the sets of notes into 2-3 notes per string.
Uh oh, here’s what you didn’t want to hear: Learn your scales, folks! Memorizing scales can help you in the long run, even if you first learned them without knowing what notes you were playing. One scale a week is a good place to start.
To help yourself better learn the fretboard, say the name of each note out loud as you play. Several systems use different fingerings that can help you both learn the notes on the fretboard and how to read sheet music for the guitar.
This brings us to another method of learning: 3NPS.
Three Notes A String / 3NPS
Unfortunately, the CAGED method can feel clunky, unintuitive, and confusing for many players (myself included!).
This scale system is an alternative to the CAGED scale method. This method helps players understand the relation to intervals and how scales are built, more so than the CAGED system.
The 3NPS method (7 pattern system) has a different pattern for each note you start on (1-7).
While this might sound like a lot, I find that having 3 notes per string feels more comfy and consistent to my fingers and is easier to memorize.
A lot of players who tend to play technical legato passages use 3NPS. Rinsen also paired this with his notes on the axe.
Other systems you may hear about include the pentatonic system (5P), triad system, the Stitch method (Never Lost), and chord tone system. Whatever works for you, use it!
Some folks find that, after a while of sticking to one method of learning the fretboard, they want to combine it with another.
While doing this too early on can lead to frustration and confusion, it can be helpful to combine methods after a few months of sticking to just one.
For example, combining the 5P pentatonic method with either the CAGED or Notes on the Axe system would be a good way to fill in the gaps without getting things too muddied- I wouldn’t recommend using both CAGED and Notes on the Axe at the same time.
You can learn both eventually, just probably not at the same time.
Using a Metronome to Speed Up Results
If you use a metronome while using one of the methods for learning the fretboard, you will have the same notes-on-the-axe’s “Oh no!” moment.
And that oh-no moment is great for making connections in your brain. Try putting your metronome on a slow click (say, 50-60 bpm) and trying to find a note within 4 beats.
“The guitar is a miniature orchestra in itself” -Ludwig Van Beethoven
How Long Does It Take to Learn Notes on the Fretboard?
This is a bit of a loaded question. Some folks on Reddit forms will have you thinking that learning the fretboard will only take a few hours. But this isn’t realistic. Even if you can learn it all in one sitting, you’ll never retain it!
That’s why chunking things into small sections, like how Notes on the Axe or the CAGED system does it, works best.
If you are an adult learner and are really clocking in that hour or two of practice each day, learning the notes on the fretboard will take a few months, at the very least. But there are plenty of successful guitar players that took several years to learn the fretboard.
Which Genre of Guitar Players Should Use Which Method?
While there are no hard and fast rules here, those who are interested in rock soloing or Blues should probably start by delving into the 5P (pentatonic) scale learning system, whereas aspiring jazz guitarists will likely do best with the 3-note-per-string method.
That said, I know plenty of amazing jazzers that began with the CAGED method. Any familiarity you can get with the infamous fretboard will go a long way in improving your playing.
What Books Lend Well to Learning the Fretboard?
Mel Bay method books are an excellent way to practice reading notes in folk songs so you don’t get bored. I started out with Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method, Grade 1. Try and get the expanded edition if you can because it keeps you on each note a little bit longer.
When you combine, say, Notes on the Axe with notation, reading and the note names and locations of the frets will begin to really click.
Before you go, check out our guide to the 9 Best Places to Buy Guitars Online!