Intro to Music Theory: Octaves



The octave is the musical relationship that represents the same tone in a higher pitch – this enables us to see patterns across our guitar neck which help us play higher up or lower down on our guitar

See the previous article on Music Theory – strongly recommended to read these first!

What is an Octave?

When we play notes on a string moving up one fret at a time, the notes are ascending in pitch. Each note is higher than the last.


One Octave Higher

If you play any open string and then that same string as the 12th fret, you will notice that they sound the same but one is ‘higher’. So one has higher pitch but still they sound very much in tune with each other.


Example: Play that thickest string (E) open and at the 12th fret – they are both “E” but the 12th fret is one octave higher.



Two Octaves Higher

Play the thickest string on your guitar and then the thinnest string on your guitar, these are also both E notes but the thin string is two octaves higher. It should be obvious that this 6th string (thickest) has a lower pitch and the first string (thinnest) has a higher pitch. It should be clear to your ear that they are both the same pitch class (i.e. same note higher/lower)


If this isn’t clear, play both together and hear that they are in unison (i.e. not different to one another)

The Importance of the Octave

Music as a guitarist could get quite boring if we were only able to play in one octave.


The guitar is an instrument that spans four octaves and this enables us to play over a great range. You could play a bass line with the low E and A strings or go really far up to the 12th fret and beyond to do a Jimi Hendrix type lead guitar solo.


In the context of this guide to guitar theory, understanding octaves helps us to:

  • Identify a note on a given fret/string
  • Identify (say) all the E notes on the guitar neck
  • Learn scales and chords higher up the neck
  • Tune our guitar
  • And much more

All the E Notes

One immediate application of octaves is identifying all the instances of a certain note on the guitar fretboard.


Below is a map of all E notes on the guitar fretboard.

Next, I’m going to show you how to use octaves to figure out these notes yourself.


Here are a few rules you can apply.

Rule 1: 12 Frets Higher

Any note 12 frets higher on the same string is an octave higher


We know that we have 2 strings that are both E (thinnest and thickest strings).

If we play those strings at the 12th fret, those notes will also be E




  • The 2 blue notes are an octave apart
  • The 2 red notes are an octave apart

TIP: All the following note pairs are an octave apart

       Playing a string open (not fretted) and then at the 12th fret

       Playing a string at the 1st fret and 13th fret

       Playing a string at the 2nd fret and 14th fret.

RULE 2: Fret 7 & the String above

Play any string at the 7th fret and then play the string above it (i.e. one string closer to your face).  These 2 notes are an octave apart.


One exception – you need the 8th fret on the B string so the (G) string above is an octave below. This is shown in red below

RULE 3: Down & Across

We have a pair of rules:

  • For the 2 low strings (E or A) -> down 2 strings and up the neck 2 frets is an octave higher
  • For the 2 middle strings (D or G) -> down 2 strings and up the neck 3 frets is an octave higher


Let’s take a look at the first rule playing

  • the E string at 5th fret (A note)
  •  the open A string (also an A note)


The red lines show how I go down 2 strings (towards my toes) and up the neck 2 frets. All four of these notes are A notes


TIP: Cross-check your octaves from time to time

In Chapter 1 we saw that G G sharp A so we can cross-check that the G string at the 2nd fret is an A note.

If we take the A notes on the middle strings we can go down and across 3 this generates two more A notes

We have now actually calculated all the A notes on the fretboard (once we add in the A string at the 12th fret)

E Example

Let’s take a look at how to calculate all the E notes on the fretboard.

We have 2 open E strings.


Rule 1: 12 notes higher


And we know that the 12th fret of those E strings will also be E notes.

Here the blue notes are an octave apart and the red notes are an octave apart (all E notes)

Rule 2: Fret 7 and the open string above


Here we can just take the low E string and we know that the 7th fret of the string below is an octave higher. In our case, the green note below is the 7th fret of the A string (the string below).

Rule 3: Down and Across


For our E notes that are located on E and A strings, we can move down 2 and across 2 to get more E notes (the red lines below)


For the E notes on our middle strings (D and G strings), we can move down 2 strings and up 3 frets to get more E notes an octave higher (the purple notes below)


This chapter helped to explain what happens after we run through our cycle of 12 notes.


  • A note 12 frets higher is an octave higher.
  • The relationship between notes is identical but the higher octave notes are higher in pitch.
  • Being able to identify all the places on the fretboard where a given note occurs really helps us to unlock the fretboard. We learned a few simple rules for how to identify notes an octave higher and lower.


Map out all the D notes on the fretboard.

You can download and print out a blank fretboard here.

Hint: start with the open D string and use our octave rules

Further music theory articles

Get the Learn Fingerpicking Book

Register for the newsletter and I will send you this book (105 pages) and a free lesson once a month. 

This is the ideal resource for complete beginners who wish to learn guitar.

Scroll to Top