Chris Padilla/Blog / Music

Learning the Neck on Guitar

Guitar has hands down been the hardest instrument I've played as far as getting familiar with the notes.

Saxophone, admittedly, is one of the easiest. You really only have to learn 20 different finger combinations, and then you know most of the instrument.

Piano is even easier!! You learn 12 notes and you can apply that to all 88 keys. Maybe you could say it's more like 24, since you're also reading bass clef.

Here's the thing about those instruments: They are two dimensional. You play up the piano, and gradually go up. Same with sax and most wind instruments.

Guitar, though, is three dimensional. You can go up the instrument by following a string up or by hopping to another string.


If you're like me, you can go surprisingly far on guitar without knowing too many notes, too. A trained ear and know that a scale is a series of whole and half steps does wonders.

But! It doesn't take me far enough. So here's how I'm going about actually learning where every single note is on this instrument:

1. Reading Sheet Music over tabs.

For bettor or worse, I learned to read music from the page.

If you're learning and you don't already read music, I'm not sure it's that necessary depending on what you want to do. If you already do, making the notes visual is a pretty great first step

2. Barre Chords

A two for one: Once you can play barre chords, there's no better way to get familiar with the thickest two strings than with playing this across the instrument.

3. Hardcore Memorization

The least sexy, but the most effective. A professor of mine from undergrad, while learning Portuguese, said it plainly: "There's a lot of romanticizing around immersive learning. While that's all fine and well, nothing beats buying a dictionary and memorizing the words."

The point isn't one is better than the other, you need both, but guitar players (especially me) can be guilty of only playing and putting off learning the notes through a more rote approach.

Thankfully, it's infinitely easier in 2023 with apps and online tools.

At the risk of this blog sounding like a sponsored post: My favorite is Justin Guitar's Note Finder App. It's what you'd expect and a little more: Finding the note on a nice GUI, an option to try and identify what note is being shown. It even feels like a game, so it can be addictive to study the neck this way.

4. Triads

My next step is moving on to playing triads to bridge the theory to actual music making. More improv on it coming soon. 😁