Understanding the fretboard - Part I
Piano Keyboard vs. Guitar, Tuning and Major Scale

The guitar fretboard requires a different way of thinking than the piano keyboard. Step by step the lections of this series will change your perspective. At the end of the day you'll see that many things will even be easier to realize on guitar than on a piano. But first you just need to ...you should ;-)... go through the following...

So lock your door ...and open your mind!...

The white piano keys ...on the guitar fretboard

At first glance the piano keyboard looks clearly structured and comprehensible. The guitar fretboard instead seems like an incomrehensible grid of strings and frets.

The white keys of the piano keyboard represent the tones of the C major scale.

On the piano every octave just looks the same . If you know the names of the tones within ONE octave, you will know them in ALL octaves.

On the guitar you have to (at least you should) gradually LEARN to name ALL TONES BY HEART. But the tones/scales can also be deduced easily. Where there's a black key in-between on the keyboard, you just skip one fret on the fretboard!

Now press the "next" button on the fretboard diagram several times!

Instead of playing up on one string endlessly...

Instead of playing up on one string endlessly, you can also jump to the next string.

Of course that's much easier if you know how the guitar is tuned! Here we jumped from low E-string to A-string.

You may already want to memorize the location of the C on the 3rd fret of the A-string!

Instead to keep going up on A-string (which is also possible of course), we jump to D-string here.

From E to F we just move one fret. We call it a half-step. There's where we don't find a black key on the piano as well.

On the piano there are no black keys between E and F and between B and C

...because that is where the half-steps in the C major scale are!

Again, we can jump to the next string here to continue with G.

B is located on the 4th fret. So the next tone C will be exactly where now???

Right, just one fret above, because we know it's a half-step!

Now again a whole-step from C to D.

Here we can already jump to the next string when we play the B.

On G-string the B has been on 4th fret. Up to now, when jumping from one string to the next, we did this when a tone was on 5th fret. So something is different here: the distance from G-string to B-String is one half-step less. But more on that later...

You may also want to memorize the location of the second C on the 1st fret of B-string!

Again just a half-step between E and F.

The major scale is based on half-steps and whole-steps!

On high E-string everything looks like on the low E-string.

...now all those tones at a glance!

The tonality we use in our spheres is based on half-steps and whole-steps.

Therefore call it diatonic system.

E A D G B E standard guitar tuning

Let's start with the open low E-string.

  • We call it "open", because we let the string ring in its full length without any finger pushing it down to the fretboard.
  • "Low" E-string, because it produces the lowest tone
    ...it doesn't count here, that it's (usually) physically located on the upper side.

Press the "next" button on the fretboard-diagramm.

On the piano the tone A is located four (including the first) white keys from E.

On the guitar we have to press down the E-string on the 5th fret (E is located on "fret zero") to hear an A, because we have to skip a fret for each black key on the piano.

But in standard tuning, the next string is also tuned in A.

The interval betweeen E and A is called a "perfect fourth", or just "fourth"
(latin: quartus = the fourth).

And here is how you can tune the guitar without using an electronic tuner:

  • Press the 5th fret on the low E-string and hit the string: you will hear an A.
  • Now let the A-string additionally ring and compare the two tones.
  • Adjust the pitch of the A-string at the guitars tuning head until both tones have exactly the same pitch.

The D-string again sounds a fourth higher than the A-string.

  • On A-string you press the 5th fret to play a D.
  • Play that D and let the D-string ring additionally. Compare the two tones.
  • Correct the pitch of the D-string until both tones sound the same.

Again, the tone G of the next string is right a fourth above D.

  • On D-string presss the G on 5th fret.
  • Hit the two G's one after another and compare their pitches.
  • With the tuning head of the G-string you adjust the pitch until both G's have the same pitch.

The next string (B-string) is tuned just a major 3rd higher than the G-string.

  • Therefore you find the B at the 4th(!!!) fret on G-string.
  • Hit the B on G-string and the open B-string one after another and again compare the two pitches.
  • Correct the pitch of the B-string until both B's sound the same.

The interval between G and B
is a "major 3rd"
(latin: tertius = the third).

The interval from B-string to E-string finally is a fourth again, like between the first 4 strings.

  • On B-string you play an E on 5th fret.
  • You play the open E-string as well and compare.
  • Correct the pitch of the E-string until both tones have the same pitch.

Voila! your guitar is tuned!

Or not yet perfectly? Then once again starting with the low E-string. Tuning has to be practised as well as playing!

By the way there are also alternative tunings, so called "open tunings".
Open tunings are especially popular with acoustic guitar players to achieve certain sounds, e.g. by allowing special open chords (chords including ringing open strings) that are impossible to play in standard tuning, by creating special flageolet tones or when using a bottle-neck.
But hardly anybody will read chord charts when using open tunings. In most cases you will use tabulature notation ("tabs") for that. Therefore we will entirely focus on standard tuning at Oolimo. But you may want to use the open tuning options in the chord analyzer by yourself.

All strings are tuned in the interval of a fourth,
except the B string that is just a major 3rd higher than the G string.

The C major scale within one octave

It's time to practise!

The C major scale is such a fundemental thing, that you should practise it up and down for several minutes after getting up, before and after brushing teeth, in front of the television, in your garden chair, ...no, for the sake of your guitar... better not in the shower or sauna!

Sing along the names of its tones to memorize them (especially when playing the scale backwards)!

With the info button ⓘ you can also display the fingering here.

If you start with the C on the low E-string, the strukture on the fretboard is basically the same as before.

Just the B and C have been shifted* by one fret. Actually they are arranged as you would expect here (three frets back when jumping to the next higher string form a whole-step).

In the previous shape the B and C were one fret higher, because the B-string is tuned just a major 3rd higher than the G-string.

*) In Part III of this series that shifting will be shown again in all facets and even with animated chord diagrams!

Especially this shape should be memorized and practised well!

Here again basically the identical structure as the shape before. Just a little shift to compensate the different interval between G-string and B-string again.

C and E are located on the same fret now, because they form the interval of a major 3rd, the interval that lies between G-string and B-string

C major scale in three positions

...played through all string. Hint for practising:

  • Start with the root (any C here).
  • Play up and down (start backwarts sometimes!) in both directions to the last/first tone of the shape.
  • Arrive back on C as last note.

That's the best way to memorize the root in the shape and to train your ears in the best possible way!

...the same shapes again without the orientation spots that have been displayed additionally before.

What's next?

In Part II of this series we are dealing with the black keys of the piano keyboard, with tones and scales using # ("sharp") and b ("flat") accidentals. You'll also learn the meaning and use of enharmonic equivalents.

After you witnessed the little twists when moving scales or chord shapes to higher or lower strings, you will now see how easy it is to transpose those structures to different keys by just shifting their position horizontally along the fretboard. This also shows one of the biggest advantages of the guitar fretboard. If that was just that easy on the piano...

Go to Understanding the fretboard - Part II