One of the first battles you face on the way to being a more competent ukulele player is learning the notes and where they are located on the fingerboard. Not just: [pause] “…there’s F”, but BOOM! You want to be able to instantly find the nearest location of that one note you are looking for. It takes time, and you can always be faster, but familiarity with your ukulele will take you a long ways.
Of course you can’t just be expected to know the notes (but I hope you know the names of the strings by now). It should be a pretty easy concept to get because half of it is the beginning of the alphabet.
There are 12 notes in Western music – an octave is divided into 12 pieces. An octave is the distance from one note to the next highest note of the same name (you pass all 12 notes to get to the next note in the next octave). A piano is the easiest way to see this because it is all laid out in a repeating fashion (each time the pattern of keys repeats, you are in a new octave) Different styles of Eastern music (such as Indian music) have many more notes because of the way they divide the octave. But we are playing the ukulele, a “Western” instrument, so it makes sense to tune it to the Western scale.
The 12 notes are:
A - A#/Bb - B - C - C#/Db - D - D#/Eb - E - F - F#/Gb - G - G#/Ab
This is the chromatic scale – all the notes.
Out of the chromatic scale we can find 7 natural notes:
- A B C D E F G
They are considered “natural” because they are not altered with sharps or flats.
A sharp (pound sign in musical notation – #) raises the pitch of the note a half step. A flat (squashed lower-case “b” in musical notation) lowers the pitch of the note a half step. A half step is one fret on the ukulele.
These flat or sharped notes are called “enharmonics”and each has two names. There are 5 enharmonics:
- A# C# D# F# G#
…or the second name would be (same pitch, just a different name):
- Bb Db Eb Gb Ab
An enharmonic is just one of the 7 natural notes altered with a sharp or flat (raised or lowered one half step – or fret). You can look at enharmonics from either side – as a sharp or as a flat. Usually in a piece of music only one of the two will be used, depending on the key.
Out of these 12 notes, scales are created. And from the scales come chords. For more on both topics check out:
They will make the most sense if you read them in that order.
Learning the Fretboard:
Here is a fingerboard chart with the names and locations of the notes:
I suggest starting by learning the natural notes up to the 3rd fret. Since the C major scale is made up of only natural notes, it is a great place to begin. Here is a page with a video and tab of how to play the C major scale: The Scale Files (it’s at the bottom). That covers the bottom three strings, so all you have to add is the open G string and A on the 2nd fret (to get the full run of notes on the bottom string, add the B note, 4th fret).
You should be able to see from the chart that notes start to overlap as you move up the fretboard. That should make it easier to make your way up to the next destination: all the natural notes up to the 5th fret. That just adds all the notes on the 5th fret and two on the 4th fret, G and C strings.
Work your way up the fretboard (by frets or by string if you like) and learn the rest of the natural notes. It’s all just a big C scale.
From there, you just need to fill in the blanks with enharmonics. Because the name of an enharmonic is pretty much a road map right to the location of the note, it’s pretty easy to find them. For example: what’s in between C and D? Hmm… C#/Db. Pretty simple. And C#/Db is in between all Cs and Ds. Any enharmonic is surrounded by it’s two namesakes. You should see how the process goes from here, so learn the location of all enharmonics. Practice is the best for learning this (and anything else) but here are some ideas to hopefully speed up your fingerboard-memorization process:
Scales probably make the most sense for learning the fingerboard because you are learning notes anyways. Just like the C scale familiarizes most people with the natural notes inside the first 3 frets, any other scale can teach you the notes that live in between and higher up the neck. Here is a tab of major scales and a page of video lessons with tab:
Just play and think about the notes. Simple, but once you learn a song, do you really think about the notes or just where your fingers go? If you run through the names of the notes as you play them you can kill two birds with one stone. This is especially important if you learn just from tabs as there is nothing forcing you to even care about the notes.
Find a note in all locations. If you have metronome, put it going slowly, if not, just practice this evenly (and slowly) by counting in your head or tapping your foot. Choose a note and locate it on any string. Once you find the note, play it on a click (metronome or virtual – “1 2 3 4…”). Find the note on the next string and play it on the next click (I said go slowly right?). And the next and the next until your cover all the strings. There are some strings (depending on how many frets you have to work with) that will have two note locations. I suggest you practice playing those too. Then pick another note to find the locations of. Try doing this with all the different notes (enharmonics too!). For example, to do this exercise with the G note it would look like this:
- Open G string – “click/pick”
- 12th fret, G string – “click/pick”
- 7th fret, C string – “click/pick”
- 3rd fret, E string – “click/pick”
- 15th fret, E string – “click/pick”
- 10th fret, A string – “click/pick”
Write it out. Print out some copies of a blank fingerboard chart and fill in the blanks using whatever order you like (natural notes first, string by string, fret by fret, etc…). Study the location of those notes!
Use your head. “No waste time!” as my teacher, Keoki Kahumoku, likes to say. Practice the fretboard in your head when you are bored. Try any of the above exercises mentally.