The Guitar Fretboard Explained
Hello, all. Welcome to the introduction to the Guitar Fretboard.
Occasionally you’ll hear the term Fingerboard too, but essentially Fretboard and Fingerboard are the same thing. (Geeky note #1: Violins and Cellos have ‘fingerboards’ as they utilise a smooth board (usually ebony) and the note is sounded via your finger as it presses the string onto the board. Guitars and Banjos have ‘fretboards’ as they utilise a board (usually rosewood or maple) that has metal frets slotted into it and the note is sounded via your finger as it presses the string towards the board until the string meets the fret.)
We live in an exciting time where the limits and boundaries of what are possible with an electric guitar are being pushed, twisted, and advanced. Even in the last couple of years we have seen an explosion in manufacturers meeting the demands of modern players by offering 7 and 8 string guitars, extended scale and baritone guitars, and even multiscale guitars with fanned frets. Have a look on the internet for multiscale guitars and you’ll see a crazy cafeteria of odd looking instruments to choose from.
For today’s topic, however, we are going to take a look at a standard guitar fretboard as it has been for the last few hundred years – or certainly since the earliest classical guitars started to appear around the 17th century. All six string electric and acoustic guitars you buy today will have a fairly ‘standard’ guitar fretboard and will be strung and tuned in the same way. The only fretboard choices to consider when selecting a guitar are:
- The number of frets. Electric guitars will typically have either 21, 22, or 24 frets. Acoustic guitars will typically have 19 frets but often only the first 12 frets are clear of the body.
- The radius of the fretboard. Electric guitar fretboards are shaped to make it comfortable for the natural bend in your fingers. Earlier guitars, like the Fender Telecaster from the 1950s, had rounder fretboards (often as round as 7.5”) than many modern instruments, like Ibanez, where the boards are flatter (often 12” or more). This is personal choice and will often be dictated by the style of music you enjoy playing. Acoustic guitars have flatter boards and a radius of 14”to 20” is common. Classical and flamenco guitars will often have a completely flat fretboard.
- The width of the fretboard. This is also personal choice and will often match the size of your hands or the style of music you play. A Gibson Les Paul, for example, has a much narrower fretboard than an Ibanez RG. There is less variation with acoustic and classical guitars.
- The type of wood. Whether you like the look of a dark ebony, the deep chocolate brown of rosewood, or the creamy yellow of maple, it is all personal choice. The all sound slightly different but I would suggest you go by what you think looks the best.
- The shape of the neck. Although this is slightly deviating from our topic of the fretboard, it is worth a quick mention. Guitar necks come in many different shapes and sizes all of which are down to personal choice and what suits your playing style.
The standard pitch that we tune six string guitars to is A(440). 440hz is what we refer to as an A note. All guitar tuners are matched to A(440). For reference:
The standard tuning of all six strings (from thickest to thinnest) is: E – A – D – G – B – E. (Geeky note #2: The intervals between each string is a ‘perfect fourth’ except for the interval between the G and the B string, which is a major 3rd. This provides a nice compromise between playing scales (which would be easier if the interval between G and B were also a perfect fourth) and chords (which are a lot easier thanks to the major 3rd interval).
The guitar uses the same twelve notes as the piano and, like the piano, repeats in octaves the higher up you play:
As guitar players we have a slight advantage over pianists in that we don’t quite have a linear system of notes in the way the piano does. Whereas a piano has one long line of keys, we have multiple strings, all of which slightly overlap their notes, which means our fingers don’t have to travel so far up and down in order to reach our desired note. For example, if a pianist wishes to play a C note in one octave and then a C note in the next octave above, their hand must travel 8 keys to the right. If a guitar player wishes to play a C note on the 3rd fret of the A string and then a C note in the next octave above, he need only play the 5th fret of the G string, which can be done without moving the hand at all – just a different finger.
A quick bonus note on fretboard markers/dots. It can be confusing as to why the fret markers are typically positioned at frets 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 15, 17, 19, 21, and 24. The reason is that each one of these positions marks a harmonic position based on the division of the string into a pure major chord. For example, the 12th fret has double dots because it is exactly half way between the nut and the bridge and so the harmonic of the string will give you an octave over the root note of the string. The 9th marker will give you another harmonic position (double octave + major third over root); the 7th marker (perfect 5th + octave over root); the 5th marker (double octave over root); and the 3rd marker (double octave + perfect 5th over root).
I hope that all makes sense and you found it informative – even if that last part was a bit puzzling. It certainly got me thinking, which is kind of the point. As always, have fun with this and I’ll see you next time.