This is a great question.
When I first got my guitar, I just sat there looking at the fretboard imagining all of the different notes I can play.
Frankly, it got a bit overwhelming. Were there really "hundreds" of possibilities?
Well, we're about to find out!
Let's look at every single guitar note possible on a standard 6-string, 12-fret guitar; we'll start with open strings and moving on to the rest of the notes on the fretboard.
Notes of Open Guitar Strings
If you look at your guitar's fretboard from the top, these are the notes you'd play if you play each string open (starting from the thickest string and going to the thinnest):
The illustration above should help you visualize this a little better.
A good acronym (or phrase) you can use to remember the notes of open strings is, "Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie."
To this day I still can't figure out why Eddie decided to eat dynamite, but hey, it's memorable.
These notes (E, A, D, G, B, E from thick to thin) are what the strings on your guitar are tuned to in standard tuning. It's like this for any six string guitar (whether that's strings for a 6-string acoustic, or a 6-string electric).
Whenever you're tuning a guitar, whether you're doing it by hand or using a guitar tuner, you'll notice that this order stays consistent. The only time it doesn't is when you're using alternative tuning to transpose your notes up or down (by manually re-tuning the strings instead of using a capo).
As you get more and more familiar with what each in-tune open string should sound like, you'll start developing your musical ear. Over time, you'll be able to tell if a string is slightly out of tune just by listening to it.
I firmly believe that everyone who picks up the guitar should try to learn at least a few songs by ear at one point or another. It's a great exercise and carries across to any instrument, and virtually any genre of music. It's not specific to just the guitar.
And now it's your turn: go ahead, get out there, and remember how Eddie ate dynamite! Use that phrase to memorize standard tuning.
Practice listening to each string open (E, A, D, G, B, E thick to thin), and remembering which string is which note.
Getting familiar with standard tuning is an essential, necessary step to learning guitar, one that'll help you progress into reading tabs and sheet music soon.
Guitar Fretboard Notes
At first glance, it might seem like a standard 12-fret guitar has hundreds of notes as I mentioned earlier.
But in reality, this isn't the case. Not even close!
A 12-fret guitar can only play 37 notes maximum. There are 12 notes, multiplied by 3 octaves, plus the first note. (12 x 3) + 1 = 37.
This means that a 12-fret guitar has 3 octaves of the E chromatic scale across all of its frets - no more, no less.
Since the guitar is a two-dimensional instrument, there are a significant number of notes that repeat more than once.
Compare this to a one-dimensional instrument like the piano. On a piano, there is only one way to play any single note. No matter how hard you tried, you couldn't come up with any other combination to play 'C4' other than hitting the 'C4' key on your piano. [Check out our buyer's guide to Digital Pianos]
Each of the three strings inside of a piano is tuned to a specific note's frequency.
On guitar, it's a little different.
With multiple strings tuned only several notes off (with the primary difference being octaves), as soon as you start going up on the frets you immediately notice a lot of note overlap.
Take a look at the image below showing every single note on a standard 12-fret guitar:
What do you see?
The first thing I noticed was the clear distinction of the three possible octaves (you can play every note on the guitar in one of these three octaves).
I also noticed the frequent repetition of notes inside of each octave.
To sum it up, the most important takeaway here is that a 12-fret guitar can play 37 notes across 3 different octaves.
You can play each note in multiple different ways (there's overlap), and you can cover every single one of the 37 notes your guitar can play by going through an E chromatic scale, note by note, up three octaves.
What Are the Notes on a Bass Guitar?
Compared to acoustic and electric guitars, the notes on bass guitars are a little bit different.
Before we push ahead, there's an important distinction to make: 4-string bass guitars vs. 5-string bass guitars.
A 4-string bass has a standard open string tuning of E, A, D, G (thick to thin).
A 5-string bass has a standard open string tuning of B, E, A, D, G (thick to thin). This is typically the standard tuning for five string bass guitars since it provides a lower note range.
There are also 6-string, 8-string, and 12-string bass guitars, but we won't be covering those here.
If you take a look at the illustration below, we show the note positions of a typical right-handed 4-string and 5-string bass, along with all of the possible notes across 12 frets.
4-String Bass Note Positions
5-String Bass Note Positions
And that's all there is to it.
The most significant difference in bass guitars, when compared to an acoustic or an electric, is the alternative lower tuning (such as the standard B, E, A, D, G tuning in 5-string basses).
If you're picking up and learning how to play bass, make sure you remember the standard tunings for 4-strings and 5-strings (depending on the model you have).
Once you've got those memorized, you'll be much more comfortable tuning your guitar and have the ability to branch out further and learn more and more every day.
How to Remember Notes on a Guitar
If you're a beginner and just picked up your first guitar not too long ago, you've probably figured out by now how important it is to memorize your basic, open string notes!
Luckily, there are quite a few acronyms people came up with just for this purpose.
We'll start with acronyms for standard tuning on 6-string acoustic & electric guitars, and then move onto 4-string and 5-string bass guitars.
Ready? Let's get to it!
Easy to Remember Phrases for 6-String Acoustics & Electrics:
(Standard Tuning, Thick to Thin: E, A, D, G, B, E)
Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie
Eat A Dog, Get Big Ears
Every Amateur Does Get Better Eventually
Elephants And Dogs Got Big Ears
Every Apple Does Get Bitten Eventually
Eat All Day Get Big Easy
Even Average Dogs Get Bones Eventually
Easy to Remember Phrases for 4-String Bass Guitars:
(Standard Tuning, Thick to Thin: E, A, D, G)
Every Asteroid Destroys Ground
Eating Apples Does Good
Elephants And Dogs Graze
Eat A Dead Grasshopper
Eat A Dry Garlic
Eat A Delicious Grape
Easy to Remember Phrases for 5-String Bass Guitars:
(Standard Tuning, Thick to Thin: B, E, A, D, G)
Brazil Expects A Daily Goal
By Eating Ants Dogs Grow
Billy Expects A Dangerous Game
Betty Eats A Dry Grapefruit
Bob Expected A Delicious Grape
Wrapping It Up
Congratulations - if you read this far, you've learned quite a bit about all of the possible notes on an electric, acoustic, and bass guitar (we looked at standard 12-fret diagrams).
I hope that you're feeling a little bit more confident about knowing where each note is on each type of guitar.
Even though it's slightly different for bass guitars, acoustics and electrics are reasonably straightforward (practically identical).
And as a suggestion for going forward, I'd recommend that you look over the acronyms above (based on the type of guitar you play) and either choose an abbreviation that stands out to you the most or creates your own!
I pulled some of those acronyms out of thin air by just thinking of words that would fit, and voila! Some new, original acronyms came out of it.
Once you know your strings backward and forwards, you'll have a much easier time playing from guitar tabs and sheet music.
Not to mention, you'll be able to tune your guitar significantly faster.
I wish you the best of luck with your guitar and learning all of the open/fretted notes - good luck, and don't give up!