SMG Guitar Lesson #4: The Note Wheel

If you’re like most guitarists who have learned to play by ear and movable shapes, you may not be as familiar with the music theory stuff as you wish you were. Your path to guitar mastery starts with getting to know the chromatic scale and knowing all the notes on the fretboard without hesitation.

My teaching system involves using something I refer to as the “note wheel”, the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, arranged in chromatic order within a circle. In the “Hello Guitar” Method, this system is used quite a bit because it makes it a whole lot easier to understand how to construct various scales, chords, observe intervals, and even transpose music from one key to another.

Below is an example of the note wheel. Take a look at just the names of the notes for now:

( Note; occasionally in this document,  you see a lower case “b” next to a note name. This means that the note is “flat”.)

Take a moment to make the following observations

  • The 12 spaces represent the 12 notes of the chromatic scale
  • Each division on the wheel is one-half step apart, the same interval distance as one fret to the next on the guitar neck.
  • The names of the notes come from the letters of the alphabet A through G.
  • When we move up in pitch (as notes get higher) we are moving clockwise around the wheel. Similarly, as we move down in pitch, we are moving counter-clockwise.
  • Moving twelve spaces around the wheel means that you have moved one entire octave, yet the names of the notes remain the same regardless of octaves.
  • The “#” symbol means that a note is “sharp”, or raised up one half step from the previous note. For example, the note “C#” is one half step above the note C.
  • Similarly, the “b” symbol means that a note is “flat”, or lowered one half step from the previous note. Please note that in this book I have frequently used a single lower case “b” to indicate where I mean “flat”. So instead of thinking of the “letter b”, just think “it’s flat”. For example “Ab” is read “A flat”, “mb5” is read “minor flat five”, and etc.
  • Notes that are neither sharp nor flat are referred to as “natural”.
  • Notes that occur in between natural notes have two names. For example, C# is the same note as Db. This is because, traditionally, each key is written and notated in either all sharps or all flats. For example, the key of E Major consists of the notes (E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, and D#) while the key of Db consists of the notes (Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, and C) – F#, G#, C#, and D# are the same notes as Gb, Ab, Db, and Eb.
  • There are five notes that have two names, C# = Db, D# = Eb, F# = Gb, G# = Ab, and A# = Bb.
  • There are no sharps of flats between the notes B and C, nor E and F. In other words, B# = C, Cb = B, E# = F, and Fb = E.

Now for the moment you’ve been waiting for. Drum roll please!


(right click on image for large printable version. Print five copies and do the note-labeling exercise at least once a week until you’re able to fill it out by memory in less than a minute and a half!)

You can use the note wheel to label the notes on the fretboard. Start from the notes of the open strings and move around the note wheel clockwise to find the notes as they move up in pitch on the fretboard from left to right. Be sure to use a pencil in case you need to erase. Each space on the wheel represents one fret. So, for example, from E to F is only one fret, while F to G is two frets.  When you move all the way around the wheel  twelve spaces, it’s the same as moving up twelve frets on the guitar; you’ve reached an octave and the note names repeat. Only label the natural notes; A, B, C, D, E, & F. If you are able to find these, you’ll know where the sharp and flat notes will fall. The fretboard is depicted as if you are looking down at the guitar while holding it, so the string on the bottom is the low E string, and the string on top is the high E string and etc. The dots below correspond to the fret markers on your guitar on frets, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, and etc.

How to Learn; Repeat this exercise at least every other day as you learn the fretboard in stages. First, make it your goal to memorize all the notes on the fretboard within the first five frets. Then, as you begin to internalize the fretboard more and more, memorize the notes on the fourth, fifth, and sixth strings all the way up. Lastly, memorize the higher notes on the first, second and third strings. Time yourself. You won’t be finished repeating and learning from this exercise until you are able to label all the notes on the fretboard without second guessing in under one minute and thirty seconds!

How to Check for Mistakes

  • Make sure that the top and bottom strings are always the same note name.
  • When you get all the way to the twelfth fret, (the double dot marker) you’ve gone up one whole octave from the open strings, so make sure that the note names are the same as the open strings (E, A, D, G, B, & E). If the notes on the twelfth fret don’t match the open strings, you’ve made a mistake somewhere and will need to retrace your steps.
  • Use your knowledge of the five octave positions to make sure that the notes you’ve labelled fit in where they are supposed to.

This has been an excerpt from e-book “The Hello Guitar Guide to Getting Started.”

To get your copy of my ebook, go here;
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  • Johnny Lee (No BS Guitar)

    Hey this seems like a pretty unusual way to learn the fretboard. I’m wondering if it may be a bit complex for something as simple as learning the notes of the fretboard. Because basically, you just have to remember your ABCs, and the fact that there will be no sharps or flats between BC and EF. Do you really need a wheel to tell you what comes after A? or B? or E? etc. Then again, this might be totally valid once you try it 😛


  • Hi Johnny,

    The focus of this lesson is on learning the notes of the fretboard as well as becoming more familiar with the 12 notes of the chromatic scale.

    The note wheel can be used for many many things (such as figuring out which notes are in a particular chord or scale, and even relationships between chords in a key), and is an invaluable tool for a musician like yourself. We’ll discuss more about this in an up-coming lesson.

    Thanks for following and stay tuned!

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