Session 2. Sharps and flats

For a video explaining this lesson, click here or scroll to the end

Session 1 looked at how to find the natural notes on the fretboard. As a reminder, the distance between adjacent natural notes is two frets, except between E-F and B-C, where the distance is one fret. Here’s how that looks on the second string.

Natural notes on the B string

Instead of talking about the “distance” between notes, it’s usual to call it the “interval“.

It’s okay to think of intervals as a number of frets if you’re a guitarist. But that’s not much use when you’re talking to other musicians who don’t play the guitar. To describe the interval between, say, C-D or between G-A to a non-guitarist you don’t talk about “two frets” – the agreed label for that interval is a “tone“. What about the interval of one fret? That’s called a “semitone” – literally half a tone.

Ex2_150216_tone and semitone

So to redefine our observation from Session 1 there’s an interval of a tone between most adjacent natural notes, and a semitone between E-F and B-C.

Where there’s an interval of a tone between natural notes, there are notes we don’t yet have a name for.

Ex3_150216_sharps and flats

These notes take their name from the neighbouring natural notes. You can think of them as a semitone (i.e. one fret) higher than the natural note immediately below. They take the name of that natural note with the word “sharp” added. So you can call the note on the second fret of the second string “C sharp“. You can call the note on the fourth fret “D sharp” and so on.

There’s a special sign used as a short cut for the word “sharp“. It looks like a hashtag: Ex5_150216_sharp signThe missing notes can now be filled in:

Ex4_150216_sharps and flats

But those five notes each have an alter ego, an alias, another name. That’s because you can also think of them as one fret lower than than the natural note immediately above. Now they take the name of that natural note with the word “flat” added. So you can also call the note on the second fret of the second string “D flat“. You can call the note on the fourth fret “E flat” and so on.

The special sign for the word “flat” is a bit like a lower case “b”: Ex6_150216_flat sign

Here are those notes now spelt as flats:

Ex7_150216_flats

It may seem strange that each of these “between” notes can have two names, and you might feel uncertain which one to use. Usually only one version is correct, and it depends on things such as the key the music is in. But when you simply want to refer to one of these notes out of context it really doesn’t matter which name you use.

Try this

What is the note at the 3rd fret of the G string?

We know from Session 1 that we have A at the second fret and B at the fourth fret. But the third fret isn’t one of the ‘natural’ notes:

3rd fret G

We now know that the name of this note can be A# or Bb, depending on circumstances. And we can now work out the names of all the notes on the G string:

G string chromatic notes

We’ve looked at the notes on the B string and the G string. Try working up to the twelfth fret and back down on the remaining strings, naming every note. You can use the ‘sharp’ name going up and the ‘flat’ name coming down to keep things manageable.

Here’s a tip that might help. Remember from Session 1 that B and C are only one fret apart, as are E and F? Because of that, in this exercise B won’t have a sharp version and nither will E (i.e. we won’t have B# and E#). And C and F won’t have a flat version (i.e. we won’t have Cb and Fb).

Notice I said “in this exercise…”. We’ll see in  a later session that we will sometimes need to use those names – we just don’t need to right now. Like knowing whether to use the ‘sharp’ name or the ‘flat’ name, that’s mostly driven by the key that the music is in. And the key of music is something we’ll start to explore in the next session.

Check out the video

Conclusion

Provided you first orientate yourself to identify the natural notes on the guitar, identifying the sharps and flats is easy. If you’re a semitone (one fret) higher than a natural note you know, use that note name and add sharp. If you’re a semitone (one fret) lower than a natural note you know, use that note name and add flat. Right now don’t worry too much about which of the two names you use.

Get a FREE sheet of quick reference notes summarising this session.


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