Understanding the fretboard - Part II
Accidentals # and b, Moving Structures along the Fretboard

In Understanding the Fretboard - Part I we took a closer look at our tonal system: it is based on tones of the C major scale, whole-steps and half-steps. Tones that don't belong to the C major scale, can now (in this lection!) be deduced from these with accidentals: by rasing them with a # ("sharp") or lowering with a b ("flat")...

we understood that all are tuned in the same tonal distance (interval), except the distance between G-string and B-string.

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.

This has a strong impact on structures that we want to shift vertically on the fretboard, if we want to play the same thing on higher or lower strings. Moving structure horizontally along the fretboard is much simpler: they stay the same. Looking at the tones though, the accidentals are now coming into play...

The black piano keys

It's only a half-step from E to F and from B to C. Consequently there are no black keys in-between here.

The black keys of the piano keyboard represent the half-steps between the tones of the C major scale that are a whole-step apart from each other.

They can be named after the tone below (raised by #) or after the tone above (lowered by b).

Transposing a Major Scale

With the ⓘ button you can toggle between displaying note names and intervals in the chord diagrams.

The sharps keys (#)

The major scale always has the same structure, whatever the key is. The half-steps are always between the 3rd and 4th and between the 7th and 8th(=1st) note.

Here you can see the C major scale as already shown in the previous lection.

Now we will move the whole shape one string down, so that the root switches from C to G on the low E-string.

Please press the next button...

Same shape, but it's a G major scale now.

Because the sequence of whole-steps and half-steps has to be the same in every key, the G major scale looks exactly* the same as the C major scale before. Just one string lower.

*) This is possible here, because all involved strings are tuned in 4th here. Things will become just a little different, when the B-string gets involved.

But to end up with that same structure, the tone F had to be raised by a half-step to F# ("F sharp").

The G major scale has 1 sharp.
F is raised to F# here.

Continue with the next button...

Back to the C major scale again. Now we will move that shape up by two frets to get the D major scale.

Press the next button...

Same shape again, but D major scale now.

If you take a look at the piano keyboard, you can see how things start to look more complicated, while the structure on the guitar stays the same again.

But again we had to adapt same tones to transfer that structure to the key of D: now already two tones had to be raised by a half-step.

The D major scale has two sharps.
F# ("F sharp") and C# ("C sharp").

By pressing the next button we'll move the shape down by one string to A major...

The A major scale.

Increasingly complicated on the piano. Still the same shape on guitar, but one more # again:

The A major scale has 3 sharps:
F#, C# and G#

To complete the keys with sharps: E major scale has 4, B major scale 5 and F# major scale has 6 sharps. You don't have to memorize that by now ;-)

The flat keys (b)

The F major scale has one b accidental: B natural is lowered by a half-step to Bb.

The F major scale has 1 b.
B is lowered to Bb.

Still the same shape here, but let's have a look at the scale, when we place the root on D-string...

Press the next button...

That looks slightly different! But why?

In the previous lection we took a detailed look at the standard tuning of the guitar.

All strings are tuned in perfect 4ths, except B-string, which is tuned just a major 3rd higher than G-string.

That means between G-string and B-string there's one half-step less than between all other strings. Consequently the tones that are now located on B-string had to additionally move up one fret to jump the same distance (interval) as the other tones.

But let's not get stuck... Let's have a look at the Bb major scale...

Bb major scale.

Besides the b in the root, the E had to be lowered to Eb ("E flat") to keep the typical sequence of steps in a major scale.

The Bb major scale has 2 b's. Besides the root Bb, E is lowered to Eb by a flat accidental.

How does this shape look now an octave higher, when the root lies on G-string? Next-Button ;-)

Bb major scale one octave higher...

Since every tone had to jump up two strings, the highest two strings both had to cross the "gap" between G-string and B-string on their way up.

So all tones on both of these two strings had to slide up one fret additionally. Still don't get it? No problem for now, we will take a closer look on moving shapes vertically in the next part of this series...

To Eb major with the next button...

The Eb major scale.

With A lowered to Ab and B lowered to Bb, we have the right sequence of whole-steps and half-steps in place again.

The Eb major scale has 3 b's. Ab, Bb and the root Eb itself have a flat accidental.

To complete the keys with flats: the Ab major scale has 4, Db major 5 and the Gb major scale 6 b's. Doesn't have to be memorized either right now...

Enharmonic Equivalents

The Db major scale has 5 b's:
Db, Eb, Gb, Ab and Bb.

Now is it possible to change Db to C#? Yes, it is! But see what the Db major scale looks like, if we renamed it to C# major.

Press next ...

Uuh, that's a lot of sharps!

E#? Isn't it the same as F? Yes! And...
B#? Isnt't it actually a C? Right, too! But...
we definitely should avoid that two note names derive from one and the same name.

If you'd notate the scale tones as C# D# F F# G# A# C C#, two note names would be based on F, two on C. Simultaneously any name based on E or B would be missing. To get it right, we have to replace F by E# ...and C by B#.

You might agree that the scale looked much more comprehensible with Db as its root. Let's take a look at other scales. Press next...

With 4 flats, the Ab major scale has one accidental less than the Db major scale.

To change the root Ab to its enharmonic equivalent G# might again be theoretically correct, but let's take a look at the consequences...

Press next to see it...

# # # # # # # # # ???

Not only that every tone has a # here now, F## even has a double sharp! Can it get worse?

...press next to see...

D# major scale...

...with F## and C##.

...or... next...

A# major scale...

...without words...

But take a look now! ...press next...

The F# major scale has 6 sharps...

Surprisingly this is just the same number as flats in the the Gb major scale.

Therefore it's actually no problem to choose freely between F# and Gb as the root for that scale.

We don't wanna leave before taking a short look at the Gb major scale...

So finally Gb major scale with its 6 flats...

...the same number as sharps in the F# major scale!

But in conclusion we can say that flats should in general be prefered to sharps when naming major scales.

  • If you have two or more names for one tone with different types of accidentals (e.g. C# and Db) or a different number of accidentals (e.g. F and E#, or F## and G), the alternative names are called enharmonic equivalents.
  • You should prefer one or another enharmonic equivalent, if
    • the need of accidentals in a scale or chord can be reduced, oder...
    • to write a chord progression in a more comprehensible way:
      e.g. Cmaj7 C#°7 Dm7 is better than Cmaj7 Db°7 Dm7.
      If possible, the root without accidental first, then the same name with accidental afterwards.

What's next?

In Understanding the Fretboard - Part III and finally Part IV we will excessively move everything up and down that isn't nailed down to the fretboard: the major scale, intervals, triads and some chords that you already know for certain.

With the help of animations in the fretboard diagrams you will easily recognize and understand that so many different-looking things are actually exactly the same, just with some shifts caused by that one single irregularity in the guitars tuning.

You will get an eye here to quickly identifying relations and apply them to other chords, scales, intervals or melodies.

You will realize that thinking in structures and intervals is the key to your fretboard that you can use to quickly adapt, modify or transpose things. Let's go!

Go to Part III