Finding the middle C on a guitar should be easy, right?
If you know where the notes are on the fretboard, you know which strings to fret where, in order to get the middle C.
Even if you don’t know where the notes are on a fretboard, you can easily look it up.
But since you find yourself here, you probably realize the answer is not quite so simple. That has to do with the notation of the guitar.
We’ll explain it all below. First, we’ll give you the short answer to the question “Where is middle C on the guitar?” That way you won’t have to read everything else if you just want a quick answer. After that, we’ll go into a more detailed explanation.
Table of Contents
- 1 Where Is Middle C On Guitar: Quick Answer
- 2 Middle C On Guitar: Detailed Answer
- 3 Where Is Middle C On Bass Guitar?
- 4 Middle C On Baritone Guitars
- 5 Middle C On Guitar: Final Thoughts
Where Is Middle C On Guitar: Quick Answer
The middle C, or the C4 note, can be played on 2nd string 1st fret, 3rd string 5th fret, 4th string 10th fret, 5th string 15th fret, or 6th string 20th fret.
However, the notation for guitar is always written one octave higher, so the C3 is traditionally written as C4 and C4 as C5. This complicates things.
While guitar might be simple to learn, it’s really difficult to master. There are some pretty weird and confusing things about it, especially with the notation.
Technically, guitar notation should be written in bass clef. To make things simpler, the standard notation for this instrument is taken one octave higher.
As a result of this, the answer concerning the location of middle C on the guitar is quite a bit more complicated. It requires a more elaborate explanation.
Middle C On Guitar: Detailed Answer
As you may already know, most notes on the guitar can be played in more than one place on the fretboard. But before we get into that, let’s first define what exactly the middle C note is.
Also referred to as the C4 in scientific pitch notation, it’s the note with a pitch at around 261.626 Hz in the standard A440 tuning. The exact frequency varies depending on different pitch standards, which have changed over the years.
The “C4” name also comes from this note’s position on standard 88-key pianos, being the 4th C note from the bottom. If we were to find this same exact note on the standard 6-string guitar tuned to E standard tuning, then there are four places on the fretboard where you can play it.
Let’s start with the beginning of the fretboard. You can play it on the 2nd string 1st fret, 3rd string 5th fret, 4th string 10th fret, 5th string 15th fret, and for the 6th string you’ll need to go all the way up to the 20th fret.
As you can see, this particular note, with the pitch of 261.626 Hz, is nowhere to be found on the 1st, or the high E, string. The 5th and the 6th string are also rarely ever used for the middle C.
You might want to play it on the lower strings for some very specific lead sections where you can’t reach the C4 note on the 4th, 3rd, or the 2nd string, but that’s about it. The note sounds noticeably “muddier” when played this high up on the 5th or the 6th string, sometimes even struggling to cut through the mix.
There are perhaps a few other reasons why you’d want to play the note in these areas of the neck, mostly if you’re looking for an intentionally smoother tone in some riffs or specific parts of some songs. Of course, there are no rules, but it’s rarely ever the case that you see guitar players using the 5th and the 6th string to play the middle C.
Common Alternative Answer
However, officially (a pretty vague term in this case), the middle C on the guitar is played elsewhere. If you look at guitar notation, the middle C, or the note that’s written with a ledger line below the standard 5-line staff in the treble clef, is played on the 5th string 3rd fret and the 6th string 8th fret.
Why There Are Two Different Answers?
The real reason there are two different answers to this question might seem a little weird. In fact, it is something many guitarists overlook and some may not even be aware of.
Yes, it’s a little confusing, but the standard notation for guitar is written one octave above. So let’s take the middle C as an example, or the note that’s written with a ledger line below the 5-line staff in the treble clef.
On the guitar, you’d play it either on the 6th string 8th fret or the 5th string 3rd fret. But technically, according to the general rules of standard notation, this particular C note is pitched at 261.626 Hz as we already explained. The “middle C” on the guitar is actually C3 and is pitched at 130.813 Hz.
Why Guitar Music Is Written An Octave Higher
To put it simply, it was much more practical to write guitar notation this way. Although it may cause some confusion, it’s a lot easier to have everything written in the standard treble clef rather than bass clef or the C-clef (which is pretty uncommon these days).
This way, things get much easier to write and understand, both for beginners and advanced musicians. If you were to actually write it in the treble clef, it would be a real mess.
Just imagine how many ledger lines below the grand staff there’d have to be, if you wanted to do it all the “right way.” Practicality was the main key, so the music establishment decided to do it this way to make things simpler.
But the guitar is not the only instrument with differing notation. In fact, there’s even a name for these types of instruments. They are called “transposing instruments.”
Other transposing instruments are the double bass, which is written one octave higher and the piccolo flute, different recorder variants, xylophones, and others that go the other direction, with notation written one octave below their real pitch.
There are also transposing instruments where the middle C is a completely different note. This is often the case with a Bb clarinet and a soprano saxophone. These cases can sometimes make things a lot more complicated as the sheet music needs to be written especially for these instruments.
Where Is Middle C On Bass Guitar?
As you may already know, bass guitars are exactly one octave below regular 6-string guitars. Despite that, bass guitars use the same principle for the notation. It is also written one octave below the actual pitch.
We won’t go much into the history behind this, since it would take a lot of time to fully explain everything. In short, bass guitars were derived from standard double basses.
Back in the old days, double basses were new instruments and composers and arrangers just used the same notation that you’d expect cellos to play. Instead of writing everything again, it was just simpler to use the notation this way, while playing everything one octave lower.
This practice continues to this day, simply because that is how it has traditionally been done, the same as with guitars. Besides, things get pretty complicated if you want to add a lot of ledger lines.
Anyhow, on bass guitars the real middle C, with a pitch of 261.626 Hz, is played on the 1st string’s 17th fret. This isn’t exactly a note that you hit very often on a bass guitar, but it is the real middle C.
Of course, this is only the case if we’re talking about standard 4-string or 5-string basses in the standard tuning, where the 1st string is tuned to G.
If you’re looking at the “traditional” notation for bass guitars, then you’d play your middle C one octave below. So that means it’s the 1st string 5th fret, 4th string 10th fret, and the 3rd string on the 15th fret in the standard tuning.
Middle C On Baritone Guitars
Baritone guitars are a somewhat wide term. They feature longer scale lengths of 27 inches and more, allowing players to use lower tunings. However, they can use different kinds of tunings so it’s hard to say where exactly their real and “traditional” middle C notes are located as it depends on the tuning in question.
But for the sake of this guide, we’ll take the standard B tuning as an example, since it is the most common tuning for baritone guitar players. Going from the bottom to the highest string, it goes B, E, A, D, F#, B.
As you can see, this is exactly one perfect 4th interval below the standard E tuning. Using this particular example, the real middle C (or C4) can be played on the 1st string 1st fret, 2nd string 6th fret, 3rd string 10th fret, 4th string 15th fret, and 5th string 20th fret. If you’re playing in standard A tuning, just move everything two more frets ahead.
But as we already know, the standard middle C in guitar notation is one octave lower. That means, in the standard B tuning, you could also answer that the middle C is played on the 4th string 3rd fret, 5th string 8th fret, and 6th string 13th fret.
Middle C On Guitar: Final Thoughts
Things can seem a bit unusual when it comes to notation and the different use of it on guitar. While things are pretty simple with the piano, where every note is written according to the real pitch, the guitar’s notation is written one octave higher than the real pitch heard.
Therefore, if you’re remotely interested in properly learning music theory and how it applies to your instrument, it’s important not to mix up the real C middle C and the one written according to the regular notation for the instrument.
It’s not clear from your explanation whether BASS guitar is written TWO (2) octaves above the real pitch heard. Is it? (We know from your explanation that REGULAR guitar is written ONE (1) octave above the real pitch heard.)
This Is Still Clear as Mud.
You could write statements that are more clear.
Such as: While things are pretty simple with the piano, where every note is written according to the real pitch, the guitar’s notation is written one octave higher THAN THE REAL PITCH HEARD.
This is a good suggestion, thank you! I’ve updated the article accordingly.
Chas Shaw says
I want to thank you for making this as clear as you have. In trying to read and write music for bass guitar, I was in a mental disconnect regarding Middle C. The rest of the world was an octave off? No, way, must be my ear.
I’m a learning bass guitarist and wondered what special secret society I had to join to get to the bottom of this.
OK, you’ve done a great job on this one. Now with just one more answer I can die happy: Why can’t the Maple Leafs win the Cup?