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Mastering Guitar Positions: Knowing the Fretboard

As a guitarist, you will encounter many techniques and concepts that are essential to understanding the instrument. Among these foundational elements lies the fascinating realm of guitar positions. Imagine the fretboard as a vast landscape, with each position serving as a vantage point from which you can explore different chords, scales, and melodies. In this guide, we'll delve deep into the art and science of guitar positions. From understanding the core principles to refining advanced techniques, our aim is to equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the fretboard with confidence and precision. So, prepare to embark on an illuminating exploration of what guitar positions entail, how to choose and transition between them, and the various possibilities they offer. 



Understanding Guitar Positions

At its core, a guitar position denotes a specific hand placement on the fretboard. This placement determines the range of notes accessible to the player at any given moment. We can define a position by the fret number played by your index finger. Typically a position includes 4 frets, one for the index, middle, ring, and pinky finger. The 5th position would imply that your index finger is on fret 5, middle on 6, ring on 7, and pinky on 8. It may seem like a simple concept at first, however there are a few important points to take note of.


Firstly, the index finger may slide back 1 fret while the other fingers remain in position. If we are in the 5th position, this means that the index finger can also grab notes on fret 4 without shifting the hand. We can also do this with the pinky finger, by reaching up to the 8th fret. In this case, we typically move the middle, ring, and pinky finger up one fret while keeping the index finger in the same place. Please check out these 3 examples to get an idea of the hand positions in the 5th position.


Left Hand Positions

  1. 5th Position (basic) - Frets 5,6,7,8

  2. 5th Position (low extension) - Frets 4,6,7,8

  3. 5th Position (high extension) - Frets 5,7,8,9 


By incorporating these extensions into our positions, we can play all the notes of the chromatic scale in over 2 octaves. This also means that the high extension of the 5th position is the same as the low extension of the 6th position. It can be a little confusing, but don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter whether you call it the 5th or 6th position. As long as you are able to play the passage and know where to place your fingers, you can name the position whichever you want.


The Open Position

This is the position we spend the most time playing and the place where most people start their guitar learning journey. The Open Position refers to the position where the open strings are able to ring. We can play our open chords here. Technically, the open position includes the open strings as well as frets 1-4. However, we often find ourselves playing in 2nd position (frets 2-5) while also incorporating open strings. Some people like to refer to this as Open Position as well even though it is technically the 2nd position.


Determining Which Position to Play

Each position offers unique advantages influenced by the key of the music, chord progression, and desired tonal quality. The open position, for instance, is a foundational starting point for many guitarists. It capitalizes on the resonant, open strings to create a rich, harmonious sound. Songs in keys that prominently feature open chords or utilize open strings often find a natural home in the open position. This position not only facilitates the comfortable execution of open chords but also allows for easy access to the lower register of the instrument, lending a warm and inviting timbre to the music.


Conversely, higher positions on the fretboard offer a different sonic landscape. Here, guitarists have the opportunity to explore more complex chord voicings and access higher notes, expanding the range of musical possibilities. Shifting to higher positions may be advantageous when seeking to achieve a brighter, more articulate sound or when navigating intricate chord progressions that require a broader range of frets.


In navigating these considerations, guitarists are empowered to make informed decisions about position selection, tailoring their approach to suit the specific requirements of the music at hand. Whether embracing the warmth of the open position or venturing into the higher reaches of the fretboard, understanding the nuances of each position allows guitarists to unlock their full creative potential and craft compelling musical narratives with finesse and precision.


Knowing When to Change Positions

While playing a piece of music, there are several telltale signs that indicate when it's time to change positions on the guitar. One such indicator is reaching the limit of the current position's range. As the musical passage ascends or descends beyond the scope of the current hand position, transitioning to a new position becomes necessary to access the required notes comfortably. It is best to plan accordingly and gradually change positions as you ascend or descend the neck. Running out of fretboard and suddenly jumping to a higher position leads to poor technique and broken phrases.


Another cue for position change arises when encountering a passage that demands a different hand position for optimal execution. Certain phrases or chord progressions may present ergonomic challenges within the current position, requiring a shift to a more suitable hand placement to navigate the fretboard efficiently. Recognizing these difficult positions and exploring alternative fingerings will help ensure that the music flows seamlessly without interruption or strain.


Furthermore, the quest for a desired tonal quality may also prompt a change in position. Whether seeking a brighter, more articulate sound in higher positions or a warmer, mellower tone in lower positions, adjusting the hand position allows guitarists to sculpt the sonic landscape according to their artistic vision. By harnessing the full range of tonal possibilities offered by different positions, musicians imbue their performances with depth and expressiveness.


Learning to Play in a New Position

Expanding one's repertoire of guitar positions involves stepping out of familiar territory and venturing into new areas of the fretboard. To master a new position, it's essential to acquaint oneself with its unique characteristics, including the fingerings required to execute chords, scales, and melodies effectively. Here are some ways to familiarize yourself with a new position on the guitar:

Certainly! Here are focused activities specifically tailored to help guitarists familiarize themselves with a new playing position:


1. Fretboard Mapping Exercise: Spend time visually mapping out the new position on the fretboard, identifying the placement of fingers for different notes and chords. This helps in developing a mental image of the position before physically playing it.


2. Scale & Arpeggio Exploration: Practice playing scales within the new position, focusing on understanding the fingerings and note relationships. Start with simple scales and gradually progress to more complex ones, exploring the full range of the position.


3. Chord Progression Practice: Work through chord progressions that utilize chords within the new position. Each position offers different chord voicings, so it may be challenging to find new chord shapes that are playable in the position.


4. Melodic Exploration: Experiment with creating or playing melodies within the new position. Focus on exploring different melodic patterns or play familiar melodies with new fingerings that the position allows.


6. Transposition Practice: Take familiar songs or musical passages and transpose them into the new position. This exercise helps in applying the new position to practical musical contexts and reinforces understanding of its application.



Exploring the Diversity of Positions

The fretboard of the guitar is a vast landscape brimming with possibilities, offering countless positions to explore and master. Beyond the commonly used positions, there are lesser-known positions that offer their own distinct advantages and challenges. By embracing experimentation and creativity, guitarists can uncover new sounds and expand their musical horizons.


Mastering guitar positions is a journey that requires dedication, patience, and a willingness to explore. By understanding the fundamentals of positions, knowing when to change positions, and embracing the diversity of the fretboard, guitarists can unlock a world of musical possibilities. Whether strumming chords in the open position or shredding solos in higher positions, the mastery of guitar positions enhances musical expression and creativity. So, pick up your guitar, explore the fretboard, and let the journey begin!


-Ryan

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