I come from piano background and it's been really difficult to visualize the notes I'm playing on guitar. On piano it's simple - they follow sequentially. So, my question is - what is the best way to visualize notes on guitar fretboard if I come from piano background?

  • Do you mean from an absolute point of view (knowing where 'A' or 'F#') is, or from a relative point of view (knowing where the fifth is from a certain root)? Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 11:04

6 Answers 6


Welcome to the wonderful world of guitar. The guitar is a very versatile and portable instrument that you can enjoy anywhere you like.

As you have discovered, fretted (or non fretted) stringed instruments such as guitar, ukulele. mandolin, or even violin, are very different from a keyboard instrument. With a piano, there is only one specific key per note and when you move to the right, the pitch always gets higher and vice versa.

On a guitar (or similar instrument) there are multiple places on the fretboard where you can play the exact same pitch (same note - same octave) on different strings. It is not quite as intuitive because often you change strings and a higher note could either be to the left or right depending on if you are playing it on the same string or on a thinner or thicker string (same with a lower note).

The only way to visually compare a guitar's note layout to a piano's is to look at the guitar as 6 different pianos each with a different pitch range. As long as you stay on the same string, the guitar fretboard functions exactly like a piano. Each fret to the right takes you one half step (semitone) higher and vice versa - just like piano. Each string would function the same but like a piano with a different range of pitches.

Unfortunately due to the way stringed instruments function, the frets are too far apart to practically play in a linear fashion with any modicum of speed or fluidity. So it is most helpful to learn the notes on the other strings.

I learned to play piano by ear fairly intuitively. When I switched to guitar, it took a long time playing before I instinctively knew where all the notes could be found.

The best way to learn the guitar fretboard is to learn the most common patterns for various scales and practice them religiously. Once you memorize a particular pattern (or scale box) you can move it up and down the fretboard to play the same pattern in a different key (A major, A#/Bb Major, B Major, etc. just by moving the box to the right one fret for example). Playing scales in different positions allows you to learn how the note positions relate to one another on the various strings.

As you start incorporating these scale patterns into playing songs, eventually it will become instinctive and automatic just like on piano. The more you play, the easier it gets.

Have fun learning guitar. It's frustrating in the beginning but if you stick with it, it becomes easier and easier as you learn. And it's very rewarding.

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    If the downvoter would explain any errors I would be happy to edit the answer to correct them. Thanks. Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 4:28
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    I guess someone wanted a critical badge Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 5:15

The are scale shapes. The help to memorize notes on fretboard. The every scale has multiple positions. The most popular are vertical patterns but there are others

This is very popular minor pentatonic scale shape diagram minor pentatonic

It will be never so easy to play them as it was on keyboard but you will get used to it. The most beneficial thing you can do on guitar is to shift everything chromatically up or down by just moving the shape.

And don't get confused when using staff with guitar is notated one octave higher than actual sounding pitch


I have a similar background, and in my experience, there simply isn't a good transition or analog from piano to guitar. Whereas a child can learn to identify every B-flat on the piano in an afternoon, it takes weeks or months of practice to know the notes on the fretboard. It's an entirely different system. I would like to suggest a few approaches / ideas I have used:

  • You must memorize the pitches of the open strings. This tends to happen naturally anyway.
  • Above the 12th fret, everything repeats, so you can focus your efforts on the first 12 frets and effectively learn the whole fretboard.
  • If you are reasonably familiar with intervals, the dot inlays are on the minor third, the fourth, the fifth, the major sixth, and the octave, relative to the open string. Practicing piano certainly hammered home the circle of fourths and circle of fifths, so this is probably the approach I used most.
  • Memorize the "shapes" of unison and octave pitches for each string. The oddball B string (assuming standard tuning) makes this harder than we might all wish.
  • Learn the E string first, because it is 1/3 of the strings on the guitar! Learn the A string next, because many of the basic chords are rooted either on the E or A string.
  • There are several free phone apps, and some paid software I also use, that provide exercises or drills to work a specific set of strings and/or frets. Just 10-15 minutes of practice a day, and you should progress well after a few weeks. I have found the use of software to be very helpful.
  • Controversially and with great subjectivity which you are invited to reject, I recommend you avoid practicing scales. Certainly from piano practice, as well as exposure to western music, you know the sound of the diatonic and pentatonic major and minor scales. Your ear knows them. Many guitarists get trapped in the "box" (scale shape on the fretboard), and they take years to get out, if they ever do. What I mean is, after a lot of practice, your fingers will "want" to play scales, and it becomes harder to play spontaneously outside of them. As near as I can tell, my opinion is in the extreme minority. Do what you think is best, but I wish someone had told me this, so I am telling you.

You could put black and white stickers on each fret under each string, but it would ruin the guitar's aesthetics a bit.

I would suggest memorising the notes on the low E and A strings up to the 12th fret and their relation to the dot markers. By knowing the notes on the E string, you can know the notes on the D string, the note two frets further along the neck on the D string will be the same note an octave up. Eg the 7th fret on the E string is B, the 9th fret on the D string is B an octave higher. The same relationship goes for the A and the G string. The high E string is obviously the same notes as the low E-string. The B string is a bit trickier, but you can learn this over time.


I have written or drawn a set of key diagrams to suit standard (Spanish) guitars. They will apply to any style guitar with the same tuning .

The idea came from wanting to combine (or fuse together) the image of a fretboard with the image of the classical music stave.

There are separate diagrams for each Major Key and in practice they cope with any Minor Keys because the accidentals (extra sharps and flats needed for minor keys) will be written in the bar being played.
I don`t know the computer process to show this here on this site but I have a blog on a violin forum that displays all the pages for a violin. So far the violin sheets are the only ones visible on the internet. Look on Violinist.com on the blogs area. to see the principle used. "Visual Guide to Keys and Scales " .Last time I looked it had over 750 likes. I drew them to help me explore the full guitar fretboard. This system can be applied to any string instrument using any music stave .There is a subtle difference in the diagrams between fretted and unfretted instruments that you need to understand before switching between them. So converting playing between violin and guitar is probably harder than between piano and guitar . But playing guitar ,as a beginner , in a key of six sharps or six flats feels very cool . None of the Violin experts and teachers on Violinist.com had seen this explained before. They liked it a lot . A nice piece of serendipity to see this 2 day old question on a site I had not found before .
Ask me about the guitar pages if you like . I have them on a disc or could e mail them . On an unfretted instrument the position of the finger is not physically marked . The player has to imagine and remember . On a guitar the note is set in between frets. So the violin diagram shows the line through the note ,like a kebab. But the guitar diagram shows the notes between the numbered fret lines. If your guitar has no fret markers just stick a few pieces of tape in place for a week .If you play both instruments the difference becomes clear .


My advice, as a player with decades of experience, with respect to visualization of one's instrument is this: Don't! Music is an aural art not a visual art. So auralize your instrument don't visualize it. Learn to associate hand and finger position with the relative pitch. If you take the visualization path on music you will, as countless have before you, get to point where you will realize that you will never become the musician you want to be through visualization. So my advice is to start now and never ever ever visualize your instrument in any way. Ever!!

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    Countless people do extremely well with visual methods. Linking the physical positions with the sound is not inherently better than linking the visual positions with the sound. If this works for you, awesome, but personal experience shouldn't be used as the basis for absolutes.
    – user28
    Commented May 2, 2016 at 4:59

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