One way to learn the notes on the fretboard is to focus on the 7 natural notes. There are a few simple rules that, once learned, allow you to find any note on the fretboard. At first this will take a bit of time, especially on higher frets. But, if used a lot, you will start to commit them to memory over time. Yes, this involves a bit of music theory, but fear not. I promise this is easy. Here’s how to get started.
Learn the Open Notes
The traditional/common ukulele tuning is GCEA. Read Ukulele String Names for orientation if you’re unsure which string is which. If you haven’t memorized the open notes yet, try a mnemonic. Here are two I’m familiar with:
If you know of others, let me know in a comment.
Once you know these four reference points, you can easily walk up each string on the fretboard from there. While this trick alone isn’t the same as memorizing the fretboard notes, it is a simple way to fairly quickly find any note on the fretboard until you do memorize them. Of course, to use this trick effectively, you must first learn the chromatic scale. Don’t worry—it’s easy.
Learn the Chromatic Scale
“Chromatic scale” sounds fancy, but it’s simply all the notes – the naturals, sharps and flats, in order. You can start the scale on any note, as shown here in the circle. Let’s use C since this is the most common key played on the ukulele. Playing these notes on a piano would be playing every key, white and black, in order between two C notes. On a ukulele, this would be starting with the open C string (the 3rd string from the bottom) and playing every fret going up the fretboard until you reach the next C on the 12th fret.
C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb – E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab – A – A#/Bb – B – C
Notice the following about this sequence:
- The natural (not sharp or flat) notes are bolded and in blue. They are also in alphabetic order.
- Sharp (#) and flat (b) are just two ways to name the same note. The note between a natural C and natural D can be called a C# or Db depending on the point of reference. I’ll just call it the “sharp” for simplicity.
- Each note in this scale, including both naturals and sharps, is represented sequentially by a single fret on the fretboard.
- Not every note is followed by a sharp (#). In fact, there are two natural note pairs that never have a sharp between them: E/F and B/C. If you look at a piano, these are the sets of two white keys in every octave that don’t have a black key between them.
With these observations in mind, we can summarize a few simple rules that, if memorized, will let you find any note on the fretboard with relative ease. These rules are:
- The open string notes are G, C, E and A
- From each open string, frets follow notes in the chromatic scale in alphabetic order.
- Every natural note is followed by sharp, except for E and B.
Try It Out
Empowered with this knowledge, you can walk up the fretboard on any string and go up the alphabet from A-G repeatedly to find every natural note. Each natural note except for E and B is followed by a sharp and so two frets away from the next natural note.
Putting this into practice, let’s find the F note on the 3rd string (C string):
- Start with the open note of C
- Up two frets to D (2nd fret)
- Up two more frets to E (4th fret)
- Since E and F don’t have a shart/flat between them, up one more fret to F (5th fret)
Practice this by picking random notes and finding them from different strings. After a short while you’ll get pretty quick at it. And if you do this a lot, you’ll start to remember the notes. One way to do this a lot is to learn to read music. Again, that’s really not as hard as you think, but its a topic is for another post. Another way is to drill yourself with flashcards. More to come on that topic, as well.