In our first installment of Guitarist, Know Thy Notes, we covered the all the basics of fretboard organization.
To recap, we started out with a comprehensive review of basic theory, including the musical alphabet, whole steps versus half-steps and accidentals.
We also covered the names of the open strings and learned to name the notes along each string, using the fret markers to aid us.
It’s all critical and fundamental information, for sure. But the major takeaway point of that first lesson was the importance of learning the notes on strings 6 and 5 first. This is because those strings provide the starting point from which we can learn notes across the strings.
Being able to navigate the notes across the strings, rather than just along the strings, will enhance our sense of fretboard organization and make us much efficient at finding any note we wish. In Part 2 of our series, we’ll learn how octaves can help us to do just that. Let’s rock, y’all…
Talkin’ ‘Bout Octaves
An octave is the distance of six whole steps or 12 frets distance on the guitar. More practically speaking (since we’d rather not have to count so much), it is the span of eight notes, beginning and ending on the same note, after having cycled through the musical alphabet one time.
As an example, open E (string 6) and E on the 12th fret are octaves. In between the E’s lie the rest of the notes of the musical alphabet: E (low octave), F, G, A, B, C, D, and E (high octave).
[Theory Geek Note: Whereas the interval between the low E and the same low E is called a perfect unison, the interval between the low E and high E is technically called a perfect octave. So if Sid and Nancy are singing the same E note, they are singing in unison; however, if Nancy is singing the E note six steps above Sid’s E, they are singing in octaves.]
Interestingly enough, although unison notes are the same, the human ear tends to hear octave notes as basically the same also, due to the frequencies/harmonic structure of the pitches. The physics of sound, however, is well beyond the scope of this lesson, but octave equivalency remains one of the foundational concepts in music.
We don’t just hear octave E’s as the same note; from an organizational perspective, we also think of all E’s as the same note, albeit in lower or higher octaves. This idea can be used to enhance musical performance.
For example, guitarists and pianists have long used harmonic octaves – both notes played simultaneously – to “beef up” a melody or riff. From jazzers Wes Montgomery and George Benson to rockers U2 and Foo Fighters, octaves are not just a valuable fretboard concept, but a valuable technique as well.
Melodic octaves – notes played consecutively – have been used for decades to create memorable rock riffs. See “My Sharona” by The Knack or “Immigrant Song” by the mighty Led Zeppelin for just two classic examples.
Just finding notes – octaves or otherwise – along a string is not enough to efficiently navigate the fretboard. We also need a way to find specific notes across the strings, preferably within easy reach. Within the organization of the fretboard are specific octave patterns which can help us find these notes or identify them where they sit.
Working with octaves is like creating guideposts on the fingerboard. It’s usually a good idea to start on a low note and find the octave note above it, which is why I suggested in the previous lesson that you learn the notes on strings 6 and 5 first. Those notes will serve as our low-pitched starting notes; we’ll now learn some methods for quickly finding the octaves above them.
THE “2+2” METHOD
From any starting note on string 6, you can find the same note an octave higher by using the “2+2” method: two frets higher and two strings higher, to string 4. This same pattern also works from string 5 to string 3.
THE “3+2” METHOD
The pattern changes slightly when starting from strings 4 or 3. From any note on string 4, you can find the same note an octave higher by using the “3+2” method: three frets higher and two strings higher, to string 2. This same pattern works from string 3 to string 1.
When we connect the two methods, we get the following two-octave pathways:
These patterns are slightly more difficult to visualize, but they help to complete our octave picture. As opposed to the above patterns, where the higher octave notes are moving “forward”, toward the bridge, the following examples can be found by working “backward”, toward the nut/headstock.
From any note on strings 5 or 4, you can find the same note an octave higher by moving 2 frets backward and over 3 strings:
You may recognize these patterns as the root notes in an open C or F chord, and indeed, it’s probably easiest to view them that way. Compare the pattern to the open C:
From any note on string 6, you can find the same note an octave higher by moving 3 frets backward and over 3 strings, to string 3. This is the one pattern that is unique:
Notice that this pattern is found in our basic open G chord:
Be forewarned, however, that because this pattern is tied to an open string (string 3 in the G chord), it’s not quite as easy to visualize as we move down the fretboard.
PUT ‘EM TOGETHER
You might have noticed in the previous G chord example that not only is there an octave from string 6 to string 3, but there is also an octave from string 3 to string 1 – a “3+2” example. So there is a two-octave pathway from string 6, backwards to string 3 and forward to string 1.
If we take away the “in between” note, we get a straight two-octave jump from string 6 to string 1 at the same fret:
Another chord shape that contains a combination of forward and backward octave patterns is an open E chord. Here we’ve got a “2+2” pattern forward from string 6 to 4 and a backward pattern from string 4 to 1. Check it:
As you can see, the E chord also contains the same straight two-octave jump as the G chord, on open strings 6 and 1.
Here are some sample practice exercises for working out the octave patterns. So work ’em out, rock stars!
1 – Pick a note on string 6 and find its octave on string 4. Connect that note on string 4 to its octave on string 2. Then work it backwards.
2 – Repeat the same exercise starting on string 5.
3 – Pick a note on string 6 and find its octave on string 4. Then connect backwards to its octave on string 1 (E chord shape).
4 – Pick a note on string 6 and connect backwards to its octave on string 3. Then connect forward to its octave on string 1 (G chord shape).
5 – Pick a note on string 5 (preferably fret 8 or higher) and connect backwards to its octave on string 2 (C chord shape). Then connect backwards twice, to the lower octave notes on strings 4 and 6.
6 – Pick any note on strings 4, 3 or 2. Name it by visualizing its relationship – but not physically connecting it – to a lower octave note on strings 6 or 5.
In the next installment, we’ll tackle a concept called the CAGED system. This system of fretboard organization will bring our octave patterns together in a very cool way. You may already understand the CAGED system…without knowing that you know it!
QUESTION: How strong is your vision of octaves on the fretboard? Can you see the benefits of visualizing the fretboard this way? Leave me a comment below!