Music & Entertainment

What Is a Guitar Fretboard? Learn All About Guitar Notes and Chords

Written by MasterClass

Mar 29, 2019 • 5 min read

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Tom Morello Teaches Electric Guitar

A guitar is a fretted stringed instrument, which means it produces sound via vibrating strings that produce different pitches based on their length. A guitarist is able to alter a string’s length by pressing down where the strings meet individual frets—small metal bars that appear at precise intervals on the guitar’s neck.


What Is a Guitar Fretboard?

A guitar neck attaches to the guitar body and spans outward, culminating in its headstock. The front facing side of the neck is called the fretboard. This fretboard is lined with individual metal frets running perpendicular to the neck itself. Hovering atop the fretboard are guitar strings.

How Many Strings Are on a Guitar Fretboard?

Most guitars have 6 strings, but instruments with 7 and 8 strings are popular with certain progressive rock and heavy metal players. The highest pitch string is referred to as the “first string” and the lowest pitch string is called the “6th string” (unless you’re dealing with a 7 or 8 string guitar as mentioned above).

How Many Frets Does an Electric Guitar Have?

Most electric guitars have either 21 or 22 frets, although 24 fret electric guitars have become increasingly popular.

How Many Frets Does an Acoustic Guitar Have?

Acoustic guitars typically have 12 to 15 frets that are reasonably accessible. Although more frets may be present on the guitar, high fretboard notes are difficult to reach on acoustic guitars, and thus they exist mainly for cosmetic purposes.

What’s the Difference Between Fretted Guitars and Other Instruments

One thing that sets a guitar apart from other instruments is that the same note can be produced on different parts of the guitar.

For instance, if a musician wants to play a D3 note (which in scientific terms is the sound produced by a 146.83 Hz wavelength), there is only one piano key that will produce this tone. However on a guitar, there are many ways to produce this tone. For instance:

  • In standard tuning, this note can be produced by playing the 6th string at the 10th fret
  • Or by playing the 5th string at the 5th fret
  • Or by striking the 4th string as an open string (ie. not pressing down on any frets).

Although all 3 of these methods will produce a vibration of 146.83 Hz, there are slight tonal differences between each position, and advanced guitar players will choose one position over another to achieve a precise auditory effect.

How to Know Where You Are On a Guitar Neck

Unlike a piano, where particular notes have particularly-shaped keys, all guitar frets look the same. So at first glance, it may seem that it’s harder to locate notes up and down the guitar neck. However, there is a visual trick that guitarists use for locating particular notes. This trick involves using fret markers (sometimes called fret inlays) to help count how high one is on the fretboard. Typically these fret markers are represented as dots, but some fret markers come in the form of blocks or even illustrations.

Most guitars have:

  • Single dot fret markers at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th frets
  • A double dot at the 12th fret
  • Single dots resume at the 15th fret and then appear on every odd numbered fret until the guitar neck ends at the guitar body.

How to Fret A Note

When a guitarist is instructed to “play the 3rd string, 5th fret,” this means he or she should:

  1. Locate the 3rd string of the guitar.
  2. Press down at the 5th fret.
  3. Strike that 3rd string using his or her other hand. One must press down hard to achieve a pure note, but this becomes fairly easy with practice.

Lower numbered frets (ie. the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc) will produce lower pitched sounds. Higher numbered frets (ie. the 18th, 20th, etc.) will produce higher pitched sounds.

How to Play Scales and Chords on a Fretboard

Once you master playing individual notes on the guitar, you can move on to scales and chords.

Scales are patterns of notes (typically in whole-step and half-step intervals) that connect two notes an octave apart. What’s nice about a guitar is that once you learn certain scale patterns, you can begin them from any starting point on the neck. For instance:

  • Once you’ve learned how to play an A minor scale, you can play any minor scale. You simply play the same pattern, starting on a different note.
  • This same principle applies to all kinds of scales—from pentatonic scales, to diminished scales to whole tone scales.

Chords are multiple notes struck simultaneously to create a harmonically dense sound.

  • Most chords are built on triads, which (as the name might suggest) consist of three notes.
  • Many guitar chords repeat notes in different registers. For instance, a G major triad consists of three pitches—a G, a B, and a D. However on a 6 string guitar, it’s quite easy to play a G chord that features 3 G notes, 2 B notes, and 1 D note (as opposed to just one of each).

How to Improve Guitar Skills With the Fretboard

As is the case with any skill, fretboard knowledge becomes second nature the more you practice it. Seasoned professional guitarists don’t spend their time on stage figuring out what string to press down at what fret. Years of experience have taught them the answer, and so they’re able to summon any note without conscious thought. With dedicated practice and discipline, you can as well.

  • Learn how to play scales in multiple positions. Every scale begins in a specific key with a specific root note. Of course, when you’re soloing, you don’t want to limit yourself to just that first scale position you initially used to learn the blues or pentatonic scale. If you want to solo freely up and down the neck, you’ll need to learn how to play the scale in all of its positions.
  • Look for patterns. The exact pattern of notes within the scale never changes, only the note where the position begins. Upon reaching the last possible position in the sequence, the cycle repeats, returning to the same root note you originally played in first position, only now that note is one octave higher.
  • Expand your sound to include modes. Every note in a scale also has a corresponding mode. The more you experiment with the unique sounds and moods of each, the more you’ll discover how they can impact your songwriting. Learn more about musical modes with our guide here.