I've been reading music since I was five years old, but I learned how on the piano, never on the guitar. I find that when I play guitar, I think of the notes as they relate to each other spatially: "that note is one string over and two frets up from this note, so they form a fifth", that sort of thing. But I don't know the notes on the fretboard well enough to identify them instantly, and this makes sightreading difficult. I want to be able to sightread well enough so that when the bandleader calls out a Real Book tune I've never heard before, I can play it on the spot. How can I improve my sightreading?

Note: I'm emphatically not asking "should one learn how to read?" No need to start a religious war. I know how to read; I want to learn how to read faster.

  • Is there a reason you're not just practicing reading out of your real book?
    – yossarian
    Jan 18, 2011 at 16:23
  • I am, but there are a lot of tunes in that thing, and I don't know them all by a long shot. Jan 19, 2011 at 19:36
  • I started the same way, with piano when I was really young. It's a great starting point because the piano is the composer's instrument - every note is visible, not reached by changing air pressure or adjusting the bite on a reed or multiple valve combinations. The guitar is very repetitive. Learn a scale and it repeats up and down the neck and across it (until you hit the B string). Octaves, thirds, fifths, fourths, flatted-sevenths are the same way. Learn them once and you pretty much know them all. Then it's a case of saying, "here is C, here is the next C, here is G, another G..."
    – Anonymous
    Jan 19, 2011 at 19:39
  • Another nice thing about the piano is that the keys match to pitches in a one-to-one relationship, i.e. there aren't several different ways of playing the same pitch, as there are on the guitar. That's a double-edged sword, of course, but it sure makes sightreading easier. Jan 19, 2011 at 21:01
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    Am I the only one to think that you title is misleading? It's more about learning the notes on the fretboard music.stackexchange.com/q/1621/29 than actual sightreading.
    – Pif
    Jan 26, 2011 at 8:35

7 Answers 7


In my personal opinion; the simplest and most effective way to learn notes/chords on the fretboard is using patterns; in the same way that when you glance at a chord in written music you can see from its shape what type of chord it is. EG: knowing that chords are built from thirds and any deviation from that is usually 'stand out' in written music. Just to re-enforce what Anna said; recognising patterns in the music and mapping those patterns to the guitar patterns will help you a lot.

Your spatial way of learning on the guitar is a pretty good method; if your able to read the specific key signature, and you know scale/intervals/modes, the diatonic triads; and are able to apply them to the key signature then you are half way there.

Always remember that with guitar chords/scales that when starting on a particular string; the root note changes, but the pattern never does. If you can already read music then its literally just a case of practice practice.


There are several approaches you can take to learning the fretboard.

  • You can either go by scales and sound out every note in the scale as you play them to memorize what the notes are
  • You can go the rote memorization route and memorize notes at the significant frets (5, 10) and just go from there -- most notes you need you'll be able to reach either by going up or down a tone/semitone from open strings, 5th, 10th, or 12th fret.
  • Pick a note and find it everywhere on the guitar.
  • Some combination of the above.

Whatever your chosen method is, repeat it until the notes are burned into your mind and you don't have to think about it anymore. Same as you'd know which notes were C's on the piano's keyboard, for example.

It looks like you are already familiar with the interval relationships between notes and how to determine them on the fretboaard, and that'll help you in your sightreading as well. Work on identifying the intervals in sheet music, so that you start recognizing them at a glance. Combined with knowing the notes on the neck cold, you should be able to sightread more seamlessly.

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    You say Same as you'd know which notes were C's on the piano's keyboard. It's NOT the same! On the piano, you only need to learn it in one octave, and the pattern repeats itself visually related to the groups of 2 and 3 black keys. On the guitar frets, it is no such visual pattern to help you.
    – awe
    Jan 18, 2011 at 19:36
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    @awe I meant that you can learn the fretboard and have the knowledge of where a note is be as ingrained in your head as knowing where a note is on the piano keyboard. It's certainly true that it's easier on the piano as you say.
    – Adam Lear
    Jan 18, 2011 at 19:41
  • @awe the patterns on the guitar are less immediately obvious; but they are there nontheless.
    – Bella
    Jan 20, 2011 at 12:23

Like most things with guitar, the only real solution is to practice, practice, practice. That said, there are some tips for memorizing which notes occur where that will help with your practicing (most of this post is recycled from one I made on Reddit a while ago).

To find a specific note on the neck that you don't know, you just have to find the nearest note you do know. I've listed the notes on the frets below that I consider easiest to memorize.

Open string notes (low to high):


Fifth fret notes:


Seventh fret notes:

B E A D F# B

Twelfth fret notes:


What makes them easier? Different things. I'll assume you know all the open strings by heart -- If not, start there! Once you have those memorized, the twelfth fret is easy. The open string notes are just an octave higher.

The seventh fret is next easiest. Each note on the seventh is an octave higher than the previous open string. The seventh fret on the fifth (A) string is an octave up from the sixth (E) string. The seventh fret on the fourth (D) string is an octave up from the fifth (A) string... get the idea? For reasons I'll get to later, this doesn't quite work for the second (B) string.

Now, the guitar is normally tuned in perfect fourths. Each string is a fourth higher than the previous. How many semitones are in a fourth? Five. Each fret is one semitone. Moving five semitones (frets) up the neck is the same as moving one string over. So the notes at the fifth fret are just the same as the open-string notes on the next string over. Fifth fret of the sixth string is A, fifth fret of the fifth string is D. Again, this breaks down at the B string.

So what's the problem with the B string? It's only tuned a major third above the previous string. Everything I've already said applies just the same to the B string, but it's shifted up by one fret.


Want to see something that will amaze you? Play an E-major chord. Now play an A-major. Now play a D-major. Each chord has the same interval pattern since they're all major chords. Each chord is also a perfect fourth higher than the last one - each root note is one string over from the previous. Examine the shapes of the chords - each shape only differs by one semitone from the last one - and that moved semitone only occurs on the B string. Each chord is the same shape, it's just been shifted when it crosses over the B string to compensate for the different tuning. If you had a guitar tuned in all fourths, you could play those three chords using the exact same chord shape. But I digress.


More tips: Learn the notes on the E strings first. Why? Because if you know all the notes on the low E string, you know all the notes on the high string, just two octaves up. Know how to play an octave from any note. You probably already know it, but the most common octave shape is easy to remember - it's a capital 'L'. Two frets up, two strings over. If you know how to play a note on any of the strings, you can find it an octave up without moving your hand along the neck. This needs to be changed when you cross over the B string, but you can figure that out.

Also worth noting: Every note on the D string is a major ninth (octave + major second) above the same fret on the low-E string. That is, to find any note on the D string, just go down two strings and two frets (an octave) lower.

Hope this is helpful.


I'm pretty sure I read this in the bass guitar handbook, or something. But it's certainly helped me learn the fretboard (both for guitar and bass guitar).

Play either a scale starting at some random position of the fretboard, or simply move up and down the fretboard, playing uniformly. When you hear some noise outside - someone talking, or a car revving - then stop playing and try to say what note you've just played.

It is also very useful to learn where the open strings EADGB correspond to on the actual fretboard, both up and down strings.


Ok, it might sound odd, but I used to take an old hymnal, no longer used at a church, and start reading the scores from it.

They're clearly laid out, and designed for people who are not classically trained musicians. The harmonies vary from straight-ahead classical, to some pretty cool chord structures.

Mostly though, those will be a decent basis for harder reading tasks that don't have tablature, written out chord changes, etc. In other words they're a dose of reality. I'd analyze the scores and add my interpretations of the chord changes too.

You can find lots of used hymnals at used book sales. Or, go to your local church, and ask if they have one that is trashed and nobody uses any more.


I'm going through the opposite problem from you. I can sight read guitar and have recently started learning piano. I think the difference is that when sight reading the guitar, I pretty much have the notes and possible locations memorized. Thus, when I see a high A, I know it's either the 5th fret E String or 10th fret B String (rarely 14th fret G String). In other words, my memory recall is in absolute locations. Sight reading with this approach is only possible because over time you learn to feel where your hand is at on the guitar. Thus, it is possible to quickly transition between positions on the guitar without looking rather easily.

On the other hand, now that I'm learning piano, I am struggling because there is no sense of feel of location on the piano. Any piano key feels just like the rest. Sure, I could look at the keys and tell the difference but that defeats learning to sight read. Anyways, the one thing you have going for you on the piano is that you can look at the note and know exactly how many keys away the next note is from the one you just played (ie. you know the relative distance). Over time, I'm sure that becomes natural (I haven't gotten there yet). Thus, I'm struggling to adjust my thinking to playing a note 3 keys away (on the piano) instead when I am intuitively thinking of a specific location (ie. the A Note). The problem is that I have no frame of reference to transition to a specific note since all the keys on the piano feel the same and if I forget where my current hand positions are at, the absolute thinking invariably gets me to play the wrong notes.

Anyways, I hope that made sense. What you need to do is memorize the fretboard and be able to transition to any note without looking. Think in terms of absolutes when on the guitar. Relative when on the piano.

  • I'm in the middle of learning sightreading on the piano and I'd say that both absolute and relative thinkings are possible (at least that's how it goes for me). Sometimes I read relatively: "the next note will be 2 tones lower", and sometimes absolutely: "the next note is an A, and I remember where my hand is right now, and I can say that A will be right there". It's helpful to develop muscle memory for the intervals, so that you can play a tone for example one octave higher with no brain effort.
    – Kos
    May 30, 2011 at 10:42

I learned my notes by learning all (as many as I can find) moveable barre chords and what each note is across the strings. As I move the barre up and down the neck I would note how each note changed on each string. Example:

The venerable Gmajor barre chord is 3 5 5 4 3 3 or G D G B D G

By sliding that up a fret(1/2step) you get Ad 4 6 6 5 4 4 or Ad Ed Ad C Ed Ad

By the time you learn to visualize: Major/Minor/Dominant/Minor7/ Barres starting on 6th string then you will begin to get a sense of the entire neck and what other chord shapes and scale forms are hidden within and adjacent to the Barres.

This can be carried over to Barres starting on the 5th string and other moveable type triads starting on any 3 string set. Eventually you will begin to notice things on a different level. Learn to think of scale degrees as numbers instead of letters.....or even Solfegio syllables. Moveable DO solfege is probably easiest to absorb.

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