Sight Reading for Guitarists: Fretboard Position Playing

Updated on December 29, 2019
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Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.

Sight Reading for Guitarists: Position Playing
Sight Reading for Guitarists: Position Playing

Sight Reading for Guitarists is a series of articles that focus on a single aspect of standard music notation. In this article, the focus is on fretboard position playing.

Many guitarists are content to stay around the nut position of the fretboard when reading standard notation. They tend to avoid what they think of as the dusty end of the fretboard, i.e., the part that gathers dust through never being touched, as it seems so unfamiliar and uninviting. That, of course, means that a good amount of notated music will be unavailable to them. Don't let that be the case. This article takes you fret by fret to the higher regions, where, if you persevere, and follow the practice advice given, you can become increasingly comfortable and confident playing in them.

Playing in a particular fretboard position basically means that your index finger controls that fret and the other fingers each take a fret above that. Your 4th finger can also stretch one fret higher when that note is needed. It's usually preferable to do that than to change position. Sometimes, your 2nd and 3rd fingers may be on the same fret, especially when playing chords, so it's not always a case of strictly one finger per fret. It all depends on how the music is arranged.

In this article, you can try the various positions featured in the exercises. Use the tab to help you find your bearings and to check that you're hitting the right notes, but as soon as you can manage it, you should ignore the tab completely. The point of the exercises is to recognise the notes and know where to find them within the given fretboard position.

Note that open strings can still be used when playing in any position. Playing an open string doesn't take you out of position. It's only when playing full six-string barré chords that open strings aren't available. However, just because an open string has the note you need, it doesn't always mean you should use it. That's because, even though the pitch is correct, the tone is slightly different between strings, so, you often need to decide whether to go for consistency of tone or ease of playing.

2nd Fretboard Position

This position is very common and often used for music in the keys of D major and B minor. This exercise is an extract from the anonymous Elizabethan tune: Kemp's Jig

Position II
Position II

3rd Fretboard Position

This position favours flat keys such as C minor and E flat major. This exercise in C minor is from 'The Hall of the Mountain King' by Edvard Grieg.

Position III
Position III

4th Fretboard Position

The 4th fretboard position is commonly used in the key of E major, as in this case. The exercise is an extract from Mozart's 'Eine Kleine Nacht Musik'.

Position IV
Position IV

5th Fretboard Position

This is a commonly used fretboard position as all notes on the 5th fret are natural notes. This exercise is from Scarborough Fair in the key of C minor.

Fretboard Position  V
Fretboard Position V

6th Fretboard Position

This position favours flat keys such as Bb and Eb major and their relative minors. Here, the exercise is outlining chords: B flat major and E flat major. This shows a deviation from the finger-per-fret rule in the 2nd bar (the E flat chord). Finger 1 is in position while fingers 2, 3 & 4 share the eighth fret in order to hold the chord shape. An alternative is to place your 3rd finger across that part of the eighth fret.

Fretboard Position VI
Fretboard Position VI

7th Fretboard Position

The 7th fretboard position favours guitar-friendly sharp keys, so it's more popular than the 6th position. The exercise is Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' theme from his 9th symphony. The key is G major.

Fretboard Position VII
Fretboard Position VII

8th Fretboard Position

Not as popular as the 7th, but sill more frequently used than the 6th position. The exercise is a blues cliché 'boogie woogie'.

Fretboard Position VIII
Fretboard Position VIII

9th Fretboard Position

The 9th fretboard position favours sharp keys so it's quite commonly used as the guitar itself favours sharp keys (i.e., keys that contain sharps rather than flats). This exercise is from Beethoven's 6th symphony. The key is A major. For this exercise, the '½ IX' means a half barré - i.e., place your 1st finger across the first three strings on the 9th fret. In guitar music, Roman numerals are used to indicate fretboard positions. Often the fretboard position isn't indicated unless a barré chord or half barré is needed as is the case here.

Fretboard Position IX
Fretboard Position IX

10th Fretboard Position

Fretboard position 10 is high enough on the fretboard that it starts to cause problems for acoustic guitarists playing chords. If you play a nylon string classical guitar, you're limited to melodies and simple chords unless your guitar has a cutaway. Steel string acoustics are still fine but getting near the limit. Electric guitarists can carry on without problems. This exercise is Silent Night in the key of B flat.

Fretboard Position X
Fretboard Position X

11th Fretboard Position

Fretboard position XI is nicely placed for a full two-octave scale in E major starting with your 2nd finger. Here it is.

Fretboard Position XI
Fretboard Position XI

12th Fretboard Position

This is as high as we go as one fret more takes us to an octave higher than the 1st or 'nut' position. To play in positions higher than this, you can think of it as playing the same position an octave lower. The 12th fret then becomes the new nut.

Here's the F major scale starting on fret 13 with your 2nd finger. It's the only position where you can play F major starting from string 6 without using open strings or stretching an extra fret.

Fretboard Position XII
Fretboard Position XII

Audio tracks of all 12 exercises

How to Practice Position Playing

The 12 exercises in this article serve as an introduction to the higher positions. To become a fluent sight reader in those positions, you need lots of practice playing lots of music you've never seen before. Any music will do regardless of whether it's played in the same fretboard position or whether it was even written for guitar at all. It doesn't matter. As the music wasn't designed for the positions that you choose to play it in, you'll often find notes that are unreachable in your chosen position. Ignore them. The point of the exercise is not to play the music but to have access to lots of notes that you can practise in any position. Play anything. You could even play them backwards and out of time - it doesn't matter. All you need is an endless supply of notes to practise in any position you choose.

More in this Series of Sight Reading for Guitarists

Sight Reading for Guitarists: Simple Time Signatures

Dolmetsch Music Theory Terms (off-site) - This site is a good dictionary resource for any music theory terms used in this article that you're not familiar with.


All content in this article is by chasmac with the exception of music examples in the Public Domain.

© 2014 chasmac


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