Root Notes On Guitar (what they are and how to find them)

Root Notes On Guitar (what they are and how to find them)

If you’ve found this page, it’s probably because you’ve heard someone talk about root notes and you want to learn more about them. The truth is, root notes are important for every guitarist whether you just play chords or you want to improvise a melody over the chords. So keep reading to find out exactly what root notes are, where to find them, why they’re so important and how to use them.

What Is The Root Note?

The root note of a chord is the lowest note or bass note of that chord. All major and minor chords start with the root note and it’s an easy way to identify which chord you’re playing. For instance the chord of G major starts on the third fret of the low E string. The note found on the third fret of the low E string is G.

Likewise the chord of Em starts on the open low E string which is the note of E. It is a good idea to get familiar with the position of the notes on the strings of the guitar, and in particular the notes of the lower three strings.

String Note Of The Lower Three Strings

Open stringLow E (6th string)A (5th string)D (4th string)
Fret 1FA#/BbD#/Eb
Fret 2F#/GbBE
Fret 3GCF
Fret 4G#/AbC#/DbF#/Gb
Fret 5ADG
Fret 6A#/BbD#/EbG#/Ab
Fret 7BEA
Fret 8CFA#/Bb
Fret 9C#/DbF#/GbB
Fret 10DGC
Fret 11D#/EbG#/AbC#/Db
Fret 12EAD

As you can see the notes return to their open level at the twelfth fret. These notes at the twelfth fret are the same note just one octave higher. But knowing where the notes are on these lower three strings will help you to quickly identify the root note of the chord.

The chord of C major uses the notes C, E, and G, the lowest note is C and that is the root note. 

In the chord of Cm, the notes are C, Eb and G the lowest note is again C and that is the root note. 

This theory works with all open chords and barre chords. However you will notice on some chord charts that there are strings that should not be played when playing open chords. This is because the note that string sounds will clash with the chord you are playing.

In most cases the root note and the bass note are exactly the same note. Which means simply by identifying the note on the lowest string of a chord will make identifying which chord it is simple. However there are some variations on this…


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Chord Inversions

Chord inversions allow you to play a version of a chord in a different position of the fretboard than it is more commonly played. This aids the guitarist by keeping hand movements at a minimum. For instance in the key of E, the chord structure would be E (root chord) A (4th chord) and B (5th chord). However it would be simpler to play a B7 chord in place of the B chord as this would create less hand movement. 

So What Is A Chord Inversion?

Chord inversions give you 4 options to play the  chord to allow ease of playing. The 4 options are:

  1. Root Chord
    The root chord is the same as a standard chord, the triad is made with the lowest note being the root note. For example the chord of E major has the open 6th string as the first note which is a low E.
  2. 1st Inversion Chord
    In the first inversion, the chord has the third note as its lowest note. Using the E major chord as our example, the first inversion would have G# (3rd note) as its lowest note. With the E (root note) and the B (5th note) sounding above the low G#.
  3. 2nd Inversion Chord

In the second inversion, the chord has the fifth note as its lowest note. Using the same example of E major, the B (5th note) will be the lowest note of the chord. The E (root note) and the G# (third note) will sound above the B (5th note).

  1. 3rd Inversion Chord
    To make a third inversion chord, it needs a fourth note to be added to the triad. Which will be either the 6th note or the 7th note. Using the E major chord as our example, a D (7th note) would be the lowest note and all the other notes of the chord will sound above that D.
Playing The Guitar

How Can You Identify The Root Note Of A chord?

The basic rule of thumb is to take the lowest note and assume that it’s the root note. This will give you a good starting point as to which chord it is. 

But to distinguish between a major chord and a minor chord you need to identify the third note for instance, if the root note is an E and the 3rd note is a G#, the chord is likely to be E major. 

However, if the 3rd note is a G, then the chord is likely to be an Em (E minor) chord. So as long as you know the root note and the third note of any chord you can identify which chord it is.

Going back to the root note again, once the root note has been identified, it doesn’t matter if it is a major, minor, diminished or augmented chord. The root note will always be the same, for example all of the following chords have the same root note;

  • E major
  • Em (minor)
  • E major 7
  • Em7  (minor 7)
  • E+ (augmented)
  • E dim (diminished)
  • Emaj7sus (major 7 suspended)

Which is the note of E. As you can see it doesn’t matter what the actual chord is, the root note is the same.

How To Find The Root Note

We now know that in most cases the root note is the lowest (or bass note or thickest string note) of any major or minor chord. The root note creates the title for the chord and helps us to find the rest of the pitches in the chord. 

Once we understand that a basic chord has 3 notes (root, third and fifth) it allows us to make the chord from just the root note. If you’re looking at a chord chart and the chord has the name of Cm7 we can identify the root note as C. 

Root Strumming

Root strumming is where you start strumming on the first note of the chord. For instance when playing E major, you would start strumming on the open 6th string which is a low E. If you were strumming an A major chord, you would start strumming on the open 5th string which is a low A and not play the open 6th string at all, and so on. 

The idea is that you never play notes lower than your root note when strumming. If you were to play a C major chord but strumming the 6th string it would sound muddy. Similarly playing the 5th and 6th strings when strumming a D major chord would sound equally as bad.

Root strumming is common in bluegrass and rock songs, with many bluegrass and heavy rock singers singing in tune to the low root notes. They rely on the root bass notes to sing along with.

 Why Do We Need To Understand Root Notes?

The majority of songs use chords, and looking at a piece of sheet music you will see the list of various pitches used for different parts of the song. The letters used to signify the chords start with the root note of each chord. If you don’t understand the root note, you won’t know what chord to play.

It’s Not Just Chords

Root notes are not only used to identify chords, they are also the starting point for all scales, arpeggios and solos. Unless you can get a good understanding of root notes you won’t be able to understand the concepts for melodies and solos.

To Play Lead Guitar You Need To Know Where The Root Note Is

When engaged in a solo during a performance, it is possible that you will forget the 3 notes that make the triad for the chords you are soloing over. If this does happen, as long as you can remember the root note, you can keep the tune relevant and in pitch.

Root Notes Form The Beginning Of All Guitar Playing

Without root notes, scales, chords or arpeggios would be worthless. The root note is the most important note of any scale, chord or arpeggio because it defines the key of the music. If you don’t have the root note, you can’t get the key, and your guitar playing will never sound any good.

Finding The Next Root Note

To find the next root note (which is an octave above your starting position) move up two frets and over two strings. This will take you to the next pitch of the note you are playing. To find the same note another octave higher, go up another three frets and over two strings.

You can use this method for every root note on the guitar. 

For example, the root note for E is the open 6th string, the next E is found two frets down and two strings over which is the 2nd fret on the 4th string (D string). Slide up three more frets and across another two strings (B string) and you will be playing another E note another octave higher.

Knowing the position of the root note of the chords you are soloing over will greatly enhance your playing. 

SEE ALSO: The Very Best Apps To Learn Guitar

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you find the root note of a chord?

To find the root note of a chord you should identify the lowest note. This works particularly well in triads. The lowest note in a triad is usually the root note. Also if you have the name of the chord, the letter it starts with is usually the same as the root note. Cm7 for example begins with the letter C which is also the root note of the chord.

Does a song have to start on the root note?

Songs do not have to start on the root note but they very often do.

Why is it important to know the root note of a song?

It is important to know the root note of a song especially if you intend to play a solo in the song. This is because if you lose your way, you can bring yourself back into line by playing the root note.

What are root notes in music?

Root notes in music are the lowest notes of a triad which also coincide with the letter the chord is named after. Every key has a root note, for example the root note of the key of A is A and so on.

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