Key Signatures and Accidentals

A key signature is a set of sharps and flats typically written at the beginning of a composition. Key signatures let musicians  know what notes are to be played as sharps or flats throughout the composition or for a specific section. If a key signature is placed anywhere else other than at the beginning of the composition, then it signals a key change or modulation to a different key (tonal center) until a new key signature is reached.

Key signatures simplify notation by allowing the composer to specify a default value for notes without having to write an “accidental” (explicit sharp or a flat symbol) in front of each note. For example, in the following illustration, the second and last notes are played as F# because the key signature indicates this with a single sharp on the F line:


If the key signature had been omitted, then the composer would need to use a separate sharp in front of each note to represent the same note values:


Key signatures reduce the amount of symbols that performers have to read and interpret while playing at tempo.

The following illustration shows all of the key signatures and the corresponding number of sharps or flats that defines each key.



An “accidental” is a symbol for a sharp or a flat written in front of a note. Its purpose is to temporarily modify the note value specified by the key signature for the rest of the measure.

A natural is used to cancel a previous accidental within the same measure. In the following example, the first note is a C natural; the second note is raised by a half step because it is preceded by a sharp symbol so it is played as a C sharp (C#). The third note is still played as a C# even though it is not explicitly preceded by a sharp symbol because the previous sharp is still in effect. The fourth note is lowered back to a C natural because the previous sharp symbol is canceled by the natural sign.


When the end of the measure is reached, then it terminates any accidentals (sharps or flats) contained in that measure. Notation rules do not require that any explicit natural symbols be written to cancel accidentals at the start of a new measure but some composers will include a natural to remind performers that the previous accidentals are no longer in effect. These are sometimes referred to as courtesy or cautionary accidentals and are usually surrounded by parentheses, for example:


Other notation symbols for accidentals are the double sharp (double sharp) and the double flat (bb) and the natural (natural). The double sharp is used to raise a note by two half steps (a whole step) and the double flat is used to lower a note by two half steps (a whole step).

Guitar Range

The following diagrams illustrate the range of the guitar compared to the piano keyboard.  Although it should be noted that guitar is notation is written one octave higher than it sounds. So if you are tuning the guitar to a keyboard, the high E string on the guitar is tuned to the E key above middle C on the keyboard .

High E string:


B String:


G String:


D String:


A String:


Low E String:


Copyright © 2015 Luis Rojas. All Rights Reserved.

Fretboard – Part 1

The following diagrams show the names and positions of notes on the guitar. One of the challenges of learning to play and read music on the guitar is that the same note can often be played in several different positions on the fingerboard.

We will cover more on where to play specific passages on the fingerboard in a future post. For now it’s more important to develop a thorough knowledge of the fingerboard and memorize the note names and positions.

This can seem like a daunting task at first but it will become easier as you progress. Like with anything new and unfamiliar, start by breaking the task up into smaller chunks and don’t try to learn it all in one go.

Diatonic* notes and positions:



The corresponding keyboard diagrams are:


*Diatonic notes are ones that are unaltered by sharps or flats. You can think of these as the white notes on the piano keyboard. The next post will cover the chromatic notes that include all note names and positions.

Note: The stacked notes in the tablature notation above should not be interpreted as chords but in this case, as alternative positions for the same notes.

Note: You can click on any of the images above to display them in full size or right-click and select “Open Link in New Tab” or “Open Link in New Window”

Copyright © 2014 Luis Rojas. All Rights Reserved.

Notation Styles

There are a number of ways to notate music for the guitar. The most useful one to learn is the standard musical notation that is used by all musicians universally regardless of what instrument they play. For beginners and intermediate players, it’s also useful to be familiar with tablature notation (abbreviated as tab) and fretboard or chord diagrams.

The biggest issue with tab and fretboard diagrams is that they are not specially helpful for sight reading music, in other words, to be able to read and play in time with a group of other musicians or with a recording. However, they are good visualization tools for representing scales or chord diagrams.

Before we begin, we need to cover the standard string names for guitars: E, B, G, D, A, and E starting from the thinnest string towards the thickest string. The strings are sometimes also referred to by number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 from thinnest to thickest. See diagrams below.


Tab notation is a graphical format where each horizontal line represents a string, with the  high E string at the top and the low E string at the bottom:


Numbers located on a line indicate the fret position to be held down at that string. For example, a 3 on the second line from the top means to hold down the B string at the third fret. A zero on a line means to play an open string for the indicated string:


When numbers appear one after another, this indicates that they are played in sequence from left to right. If two or more numbers are stacked together, then this indicates notes that should be played together at the same time, for example, as a chord (more on this later).

Fretboard Diagrams

Fretboard diagrams are similar to tab notation. Each horizontal line represents a string, with the  high E string at the top and the low E string at the bottom. Vertical lines represent frets. The leftmost vertical line represents the nut. White circles outside the diagram on the left indicate that an open string should be played. Black circles between two frets indicate that a string is to be held down at that position on the fretboard.

The diamond symbols below represent typical fret marker positions on the fretboard; however, not all guitars have fret markers or may have them in a different position. In most guitars, fret markers are located at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, 15th, and 17th frets.


Putting both examples together, we get:


Standard Musical Notation

Standard musical notation uses a staff consisting of five horizontal lines to represent the pitch for notes. Pitch is the frequency or relative “highness” or “lowness” of a note.


A clef sign at the beginning of a staff indicates the range of notes that are represented on the staff. Guitar notation uses a G clef (also known as a Treble clef) to indicate the range of notes. The vertical position of a note on the staff indicates how high or low that note is to be played. So a note appearing lower on the staff will have a lower pitch than notes appearing higher on the staff.


If necessary, ledger lines are placed below or above to extend the range of the staff. Notes are played from left to right indicating a sequence of notes. If two or more notes are stacked vertically on the staff, then those notes are played together at the same time. For example, as a chord or a harmony (more on this later). Putting together the three systems of notation described above, we get:


In the coming posts, I will cover guitar musical notation in more detail.

Copyright © 2014 Luis Rojas. All Rights Reserved.