The single most important thing to learn in music is the Musical Alphabet. Don’t move on until you have this memorized. Be able to recite it forwards AND backward without hesitation.
Let’s start simple. How many notes are there in music? Imagine all the songs you have heard in your life and consider all the stylistic and cultural differences. How many notes would it take to create this seemingly limitless body of music? THE ANSWER IS TWELVE.
12? That can’t be right…but it is. You can play any melody or song using a dozen notes.
Think of these 12 notes as increments on a ruler.
As we move to the right on a ruler, the numbers go UP. Move left and the numbers go DOWN.
If for some bizarre reason you had an unlimited supply of rulers, you could theoretically place them end to end (in either direction) to infinity. The 12 note sequence always remains the same. It just keeps starting over. The only difference is if you are going right (UP) or left (DOWN).
This perpetual 12 note sequence is the basis of understanding music. The only difference is that in music we replace these numbers with letters.
We use the first seven letters of the alphabet (ABCDEFG) to name all 12 notes.
* I know 7 letter names doesn’t seem like enough to name all 12, but bear with me. This is one of those musical concepts that don’t seem to make sense at first.
We can fill in the missing note names by using something known as sharps (#) and flats (b). Sharps and flats can be likened to “generational suffixes” that add “Jr.” or “Sr.” to someone’s name to distinguish them. We’ll add sharps and flats to the existing letters to finish naming the 12 notes.
Sharps (#) raise the pitch of a note- moving it one space to the right.
Flats (b) lower a letter one space- moving it one space to the left.
The space between A and B could be considered one space higher than A (making it an A#) or a B lowered one space (making it a Bb). Both names are considered correct. This is what is referred to as enharmonic equivalents. This means that A# and Bb are the same note expressed differently. Later you will find that one name or the other will be preferable in a given situation.
Let’s try to fill in all 12 notes now.
Notice how we don’t have spaces between B to C and E to F. The reason is we only needed 12 names for our alphabet. If we added a sharp to all 7 letters, we would end up with 14 names. We only need 12, so B and C will always be adjacent to each other. The same thing goes for E to F.
Most people are familiar with the layout of a piano. It’s a great visual aid to see how our musical alphabet lays out. The original 7 notes of the alphabet that we used to name notes are always white keys. Black keys are for sharps/flats.
Here is the complete 12 note sequence on the keyboard (NOTE that B goes right to C and E goes right to F with no black note between them):
Here is what that 12 note sequence repeated on a keyboard looks like:
*Note that every letter has a sharp or flat after it EXCEPT B-C & E-F!!!
Most beginners feel that their hands are completely uncoordinated and independent of each other. This is a common complaint, but luckily there are several exercises and techniques that can help you to synchronize your left & right hands. Concentrate on placing your fretting hand on the correct fret while striking that same string with your picking hand. Both hands should “hit” at the same time.
Here’s an easy exercise: Start with your index finger on the Low E/5th fret. Next place your middle finger Low E/6th fret. Move over to the A string and play index (5th fret) and middle (6th fret). Follow this pattern up and down-while keeping the same fingering for the same frets.
You should get in the habit of playing every musical example forwards and backwards. Not only will your technique improve, but your ear will improve as well. Here is the same example switching the finger order . You’ll still use your index for the 5th fret and your middle for the 6th.
Now let’s try adding a third finger to the mix. Your index plays 5th fret, middle plays 6th fret & your ring plays the 7th fret:
Here is the the same example backwards (remember to keep the same fingering):
We can’t forget about the pinky, so…Your index plays 5th fret, middle plays 6th fret, ring plays the 7th fret & pinky takes the 8th fret.
And backwards (remember to keep the same fingering):
Notice that when we use all four fingers, we cover four frets (using one finger per fret). This “four fret block” is very important because it allows you to span two octaves without shifting your arm up or down the neck.
You can see how we used the four fret block in the exercises above. Let’s move it to a different fret and try to mimic the same fingering. Start on the Low E/12th fret with your index finger, then play Low E/13th fret with your middle. Next move your index to the A string/12th fret followed by your middle on the A string/13th fret, and so on. You’ll notice that this is the same fingering we did in the first example.
Try adding additional fingers until you can repeat the original exercises in this new location. Remember- you can move this four finger block anywhere on the neck…and you should. JUST REMEMBER TO KEEP THE BLOCK’S SHAPE INTACT! The same fingers should remain on the same frets throughout these exercises.
Practice these shapes on the lower, middle and higher registers, and you’ll feel comfortable playing anywhere on the neck.
*In the next lesson we’ll learn our first scale (the Chromatic Scale). It also uses the four fret block…but with a twist…
**Newbs are free to move on to the next lesson, OR stick around for some advanced finger independence.
In all of the previous examples, we used consecutive fingers to play from low-high, or high-low. Kind of like how you might drum your fingers on your desktop. Start the four fret block any where you like and try to play these sequences from string to string using:
If you watched the Introduction to Notes and Notes on the Guitar videos, you’ll remember we only use 12 notes in Western Music. A Chromatic Scale uses all of these notes to produce an ascending or descending effect.
These scales are easy to visualize. We just need to play up or down from a given note making sure to hit EVERY fret on the way to the octave. Remember each fret is a Half Step, so we get a formula that looks like this:
* If you are still learning the note names on the neck, here is a great opportunity to practice. Say each note name as you play through the scale. Let’s start on the letter A. * Remember- when we count up or ascend, we use the sharps.
When we count down or descend, we use the flats.
But playing the chromatic scale up one string is usually impractical. We guitarists prefer to consolidate our fingerings. If we move the higher notes to other strings, we can come up with a more “compact” version of the Chromatic scale that lets us cover two octaves.
We now have the formula of a two octave Chromatic Scale reduced to a simple shape:
The letter you start on names the Chromatic scale. Since we just started the scale on A, we played an A Chromatic Scale. If you wanted to play a B Chromatic Scale, simply start the Chromatic Scale shape on the letter B.
Since there are 12 different notes that you can start this pattern on, theoretically there should be 12 different Chromatic scales. Try playing them all and practice saying the note names.
When you feel comfortable with the shape, try playing the examples on the Chromatic Scale Exercises video.