What do the dots on a guitar really mean?
Guitar Noises #24: January 19, 2022
There are a couple of things about playing guitar that have puzzled me for years. The first is figuring out what to play in a guitar store. I’ve written about that before (in Guitar Noises #15) and the ideal answer still eludes me.
Another unsettled point for me is: what do the dots on a guitar mean? I’m not confused by their usefulness, but the reasoning behind their positions mystifies me. There are no accidents, right? Everything should mean something.
Most acoustic and electric guitars have fretboard markers at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th and 12th frets. This pattern repeats beyond the 12th fret: 15, 17, and 19 are just 3, 5, and 7 respectively. These markers are helpful for finding your way around the fretboard, but it’s confusing because there’s an apparent pattern at work, which mysteriously ends after the 9th fret. The 12th fret is probably the most significant fret on the neck and merits a special double dot. But why put a marker on the 9th fret and not the tenth or eleventh fret?
Fretboard markers go by a few different names. A lot of people call them inlays. To me that makes them sound like decorative accoutrements. There is more to this than aesthetics and stylistic conventions. I think of them as position markers. A Position Marker is like a point on a map that helps us navigate and find our way. For beginners, the markers are indispensable.
If you’re a beginner, or intermediate for that matter, and haven’t memorized the fretboard yet, I strongly urge you to get to work on that today. The position markers are a great tool for quickly learning the notes up and down the neck.
It’s hard to memorize the entire fretboard when you start with an open string and count up note by note. The process is quicker if you memorize the notes at the fifth fret. Before cheap clip-on tuners most guitarists used the fifth fret to tune their guitars. The note at the fifth fret of the E string is A. The 5th fret of the A string is D. You follow this pattern making an adjustment for the G and B strings and you can quickly commit to memory all the notes at the fifth fret.
Similarly, you can tune your guitar using the seventh fret, making it the next logical area to memorize. Play the 7th fret of the A string. It’s an E, the same note as the open string right above it. The seventh fret of the D string is an A, just like the string above. Knowing that your guitar is tuned EADGBE makes learning the notes at these two frets a more productive starting point than counting up however many frets it takes to work out a note.
What is significant about the marked frets?
It turns out that there is something significant about each of the frets with markers. There’s no dot at the first fret, otherwise you’d expect to see one at the 13th fret too, and that would be out of place next to the double dotted 12th fret.
So we start with the third fret, which happens to be the minor third of the open string you’re playing. On the E string the third fret is G.
The next marker is at the fifth fret, which is a perfect 4th from the open string. It’s generally the fret we use to tune by ear. But it’s also a good fret to know all the notes on for quickly figuring out what chord comes next in a chord progression. If your friend starts jamming on a I - IV - V chord progression, you can quickly check the note at the fifth fret and that will be the IV you need to play next.
The same happens at the 7th fret. The note at the 7th fret will be the root of your V chord. Knowing all of the notes at the 7th fret can be super handy for tuning as well. It’s a perfect fifth of the open string which is pretty significant interval and useful to know.
So far we have:
Open string - I
Fifth fret - IV
Seventh fret - V
So, what does the 9th fret add to this? The note at the 9th fret will indicate the relative minor (minor sixth) of the open string. This is useful if you’re into pop chord progressions like I - V - vi - IV.
Do the chords D - A - Bm - G sound good together? Yes, they do.
If you know a song with these chords and the singer says change it G how do you quickly figure out the what that third chord should be? Grab the note at the 9th fret of the G string and voilà, transposed to: G - D - Em - C. It sounds like “Let It Be” but it could just as easily be “No Woman, No Cry.”
A quick word on harmonics. The ninth fret is really good for harmonics - it produces the same notes as those played at the fourth fret: G# C# F# B D# G#. Harmonics can be produced easily at the 5, 7 and 12 fret. Maybe the fret markers are also saying you can play harmonics here.
How to use the position markers?
It’s okay to occasionally look at the neck while practicing guitar. But that’s not how we perform music. As you get your bearings you should avoid leaning over your guitar to check the markers. (There are small dots on the side of the fretboard anyway.) It’s a good idea to get in the habit of doing a portion of your practice standing up. This will help you spend less time looking at the fretboard.
It’s worth noting that classical guitars don’t have position markers, although they may have the small dots on the side of the fretboard. Watch a classical guitarist perform. They are always looking at their fingers while they play (unless they were conservatory trained!). In most other styles of music it’s bad form to always be looking at the instrument. You’re either looking at the audience you’re entertaining or the other musicians on stage for subtle musical cues.
To be extra confusing, some guitars have a position marker at the 10th fret instead of the 9th. These are typically Gypsy Jazz guitars. The reason for the change seems to be the guitars were based on mandolins, which have a fret marker at the 10th fret. It’s a helpful alteration for gypsy jazz players as a lot songs in the genre have D, G and C bass notes. (Those are the 3 lowest strings at the tenth fret.)
My main problem with fret markers is that there are too many explanations for them. Like a lot of things related to guitar there are too many possibilities. The guitar has been around for a few hundred years. But our “rules” for tuning and sense of what sounds “good” has been around for thousands of years. No doubt some important stuff has been lost along the way.
I haven’t overcome my confusion about the dots by writing this. Overthinking it has just made it so deep it’s meaningless.