The First Step: Whole Steps and Half Steps

A step is the smallest distance between two different notes. There are two types of steps, a whole step and a half step. They are played differently on other instruments, but on a guitar they are played as either skipping a fret (whole step) or playing the next fret (half step). See the diagram below and try and play random whole steps and half steps starting on randomly selected strings and frets.

The Musical Alphabet

The musical alphabet uses letters from the English alphabet but only uses 7 of them. The musical alphabet is A-B-C-D-E-F-G. What happens after G? It repeats like so ‘A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G.’ To go from one note to the next is a step, but which type of steps (whole or half) occurs between which notes? See below:

  • A-B whole step
  • B-C half step
  • C-D whole step
  • D-E whole step
  • E-F half step
  • F-G whole step
  • G-A whole step

The easiest way to remember the pattern (which is the same every time) is to memorize that there are half steps between B-C and E-F, and that everything else is whole steps.

A great exercise to practice is to play the musical alphabet on each string. When you play each note say the note that you play out loud to reinforce the pattern. See the diagram below for some visual help.

Why is it important for guitarists to know the musical alphabet? Many reasons. Guitar is an easy instrument to pick up and strum, but using the instrument in more complex ways is tough and one of the first steps to getting there is knowing the musical alphabet. Here are some things you can understand if you know how the musical alphabet applies to the guitar neck:

  • The notes in the chord shapes that you are playing
  • How to find single notes
  • What chord you’re actually playing when using a capo (this is key in communicating key and chords to other collaborators or musicians)
  • How to play scales in different keys/positions and what key the scale you’re playing is in (what is the root of the scale)
  • How to play barre chords starting on different notes

All of these things listed above are crucial in taking the next step to understanding the fretboard and becoming a better guitar player, and they all start with learning the musical alphabet.

Check out this YouTube video with some visual demonstrations of what was talked about here: