• Michal Šinka

How To Write For Guitar So That Your Guitarist Loves You - Part 2

Scoring for guitar has its specifics given by the anatomy of the instrument and the way it is played. In Part 1 of this series, we have talked about the fact that guitar sounds one octave lower than written. Today, we are going to discuss the layout of the fingerboard and the limitations it imposes on scoring for guitar.

Electric guitar with focus on the fingerboard

The Layout

In all of the following, we assume a six-string guitar with standard tuning.

The open strings of the guitar are tuned in 4ths, except between the second and third strings, which are a major 3rd apart. The pitches of the open strings are E, A, D, G, B and E. The highest string in pitch is actually the lowest physically in relation to the floor and vice versa.

Notation of the open guitar strings
Open strings in standard tuning (sounding an octave lower than written). Zeros stand for open strings, numbers in circles denote the strings.

Each fret on the fingerboard represents a half-step (semitone). The higher the fret (i.e. closer to the guitar body), the higher the pitch. Since most of the strings are tuned in 4ths, i.e. an interval consisting of five semitones, we can play the pitches of the open strings as fretted notes in the fifth fret on the subsequent lower strings. The exceptions are the G string - here we have to fret the fourth fret in order to obtain the B - and the low E string which, being the lowest string, cannot be played in any other way than as an open string.

Every note above the written A3 can be played in more than one way. The number of possibilities to fret a particular note is higher for higher pitches, since there are more strings available below the string on which that pitch is originally produced. Examples:

Fretting pitches in various positions on a guitar neck
Roman numerals stand for fret positions.

In the twelfth fret of every string, the pitch sounds one octave higher than the open string (because there are twelve semitones in an octave).

In this article by the Guitar Player Magazine you will find a nice fingerboard diagram as well as a much more in-depth explanation of how to find different notes on the guitar fingerboard.

Left Hand

Pitches on the fingerboard are fretted by four fingers of the left hand (fingering symbols in parentheses) - index (1), middle (2), ring (3) and pinky (4). Generally, the largest stretch that most guitarists can comfortably play is the span of five frets between fingers 1 & 4. Larger spans may occasionally be possible but I would only recommend using them if you know that your guitarist has big hands. In the following pictures, you can see that these stretches are possible but the flexibility of the other fingers is thereby very limited.

Guitar fingerboard with a finger stretch of five frets
Fingers 1 & 4 with a span of five frets, fretting the interval of a minor 2nd (E and F). Alternatively, the E could be played as an open string and the F fretted in the sixth fret on the B string.

Guitar fingerboard with a finger stretch of six frets
Fingers 1 & 4 with a span of six frets, fretting the interval of a perfect 4th between Eb and Ab. The low Eb could be played in the first fret of the D string instead.

The higher the fret, the smaller the distances between frets. It is thus easier to play large stretches in higher positions (above the seventh fret) than in lower ones. By all means, avoid long passages of large stretches in low positions.

Stretches between fingers 2 & 3 are very limited due to the anatomy of the hand. Fingers 1 & 2 and 3 & 4 are a bit more flexible, especially in higher positions. Fingers 1 & 3 as well as 2 & 4 should generally be able to cover the span of four frets (the latter safely only in higher positions) - again though, for short passages only.

Guitar fingerboard with a finger stretch of four frets
Fingers 1 & 3 are flexible enough to stretch over four frets even in low positions.

Guitar fingerboard with fingers 2 and 3
Fingers 2 & 3 are much less flexible. In low positions, only neighboring frets can generally be fretted comfortably.

Guitar fingerboard with fingers 2 and 3 in a high position
In high positions, fingers 2 & 3 are somewhat more flexible. Still not very comfortable. Avoid, if possible.

Guitar fingerboard with fingers 2 and 4 stretching over four frets
Fingers 2 & 4 can comfortably stretch over four frets in high positions.


The most obvious limitations is that we can only play six notes at once (six strings). Contrary to popular belief though, the above is possible not only as a strum or arpeggio but also as a non-arpeggiated chord, even though only four fingers of the right hand pluck the strings (assuming finger-style playing technique as opposed to playing with a pick). The execution requires the right-hand thumb to very quickly strike three strings in succession, so that they sound non-arpeggiated.

More importantly, because of the potential difficulties with finger stretches, pay attention when scoring harmonic intervals of major and minor seconds. Unless open strings are involved, these may be demanding to play. Their playability depends greatly on what other fingers are fretting at the moment of the finger stretch. And vice versa - when a major or minor second is to be fretted (especially the latter), fretting possibilities of the other fingers may be limited. A few more examples:

Fretting a minor 2nd on guitar
Minor 2nd (G# and A) in a low position.

Fretting a minor 2nd on guitar
Minor 2nd (A# and B) in a high position. The stretch is a bit smaller and the other fingers are somewhat more flexible.

Fretting a major 2nd on guitar
Major 2nd (F# and G#) in a low position. Not that hard to play but the other fingers may be harder to use with a smaller hand.

Fretting a major 2nd on guitar
Major 2nd (Db and Eb) in a high position. This should be fairly easy even for smaller hands.

All of the above has huge implications for chord voicings which we will talk about in more detail in the following parts of this series.

Remember, if you need any advice on whether or not your guitar part works well, you can always sign up for our free one-on-one guitar playability feedback.

I hope you have found this article useful and that it will help you create better guitar music. Please, let us know how you like this series or what you would like us to cover by sending us a message on Facebook or Instagram.

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