Dot positions on a guitar fret board

I’ve been trying to find a coherent and factual answer to this for some time. The typical guitar fret board has dots located on the 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 15, 17, 21 frets. One would think that this coincides with the major scale. One would be wrong. In this configuration they designate G, A, B, C# (Db), E, and repeat, as the 12th fret is the octave. It would seem to make more sense to have 4th dot on the 8th fret and another dot on the 10th fret, designating C and D, but I’m probably way out in left field on this.

Now, it’s quite possible that I’ve seen a factual answer and just didn’t understand what the hell it was telling me. I’m far from having any meaningful education in music theory. Answers online range from “it’s just tradition” to confusingly technical answers.

Can anyone point to a definitive answer, or provide a factual answer to this?

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Since this is about how music is made, even though it is a factual question, it is better suited to Cafe Society.

Moving thread from GQ to Cafe Society.

I don’t have an answer for how this became the standard for dot positions, but I will note that if you play a major scale starting with the open string, the dots on the 5th, 7th, and 9th frets 4th, 5th, and 6th notes of the scale, respectively. The first dot on the 3rd fret does not fit this pattern though.

It should also be noted that over the span of one octave, the dots are symmetical (3-2-2-2-3) which some may find visually pleasing at least.

Hey Chefguy, I did a quick search and came up with this on stack exchange. It makes sense to me…sort of.


The spacing is designed to offer useful milestones on the fretboard. Take the notes on the 6th string (in standard tuning), for example:

Open (0th fret) is E.
The F is only 1 fret away, why put a marker on the 1st fret? It's already marked by being the first fret
The G is on fret 3, so put a marker there.
The A is on fret 5, which is a perfect 4th from the open string, so it deserves a marker.
B follows on fret 7, which is a perfect 5th from the open string, so another marked fret.
Why there's a mark on fret 9, I'll never know, I wish it was on 10 for D instead of 9 for C#
But you need a marker on 12, for certain - it's the octave!
The 15, 17, and 19 are just 3, 5, and 7 + 12 (an octave), respectively."

The theory here is that they are the locations of significant harmonics: 3rd, 5ths and octaves.

I’ve been poking around on google a bit trying to figure out when the current layout became the standard. Most of the guitars from the late 1800s and early 1900s on a google image search do not follow the current layout, though some do. Some have no dot inlays at all. I found an 1890 Martin guitar with dots in 5, 7, and 9, and that’s it (no 3 or 12), another guitar from 1890 with dots on 5, 7, 9, and 12, and a guitar from I think 1920 or so with two dots on 5, one on 7, and two on 9, and that’s it.

So going back 100 years, the “standard” doesn’t seem to be quite so standard.

Here are five Richter guitars from the 1920s to 1940s:

The first looks like it has one dot on 7, the second has one dot on 5, two on 7, one on 10 (not 9), and two on 12. I don’t see any dots on the third. The fourth has the modern layout, and the fifth guitar has dots on 5, 7, and 9 only.

It may only be in the last 50 years or so that the standard has really become completely dominant.

This. How else are you supposed to play “Red Barchetta”?

I saw this site, but he/she basically says the same thing: no idea why there is a dot on #9. I also saw mention of these being harmonic frets, but #9 is not a harmonic.

It is a harmonic, two octaves plus a major third above the open string. Not as loud as 12, 5 and 7, but a harmonic all the same.

Someone with better skillz than I have could probably coax a tone out of that, but I sure can’t. :smiley:

There are harmonics over almost every fret. I’m not buying harmonics as the reason for the placement of the dots.

Heh. I don’t consider myself as having anything even close to mad skillz on a guitar, but I was able to coax out a harmonic over every fret except #11 without too much difficulty.

I can play Red Barchetta, for what that’s worth.

The more I research it the more I’m convinced their placement has no intended meaning, other than “that’s just where they go.” Everything I’ve found is conflicting, completely uncited, and reads a lot like people talking straight out of their ass.

On my banjo the 10th fret is marked. This seems this is standard for most every banjo manufacturer, particularly the 5-string standard like mine and the 4-string plectrum and tenor banjos.

Interestingly enough, it looks like the 6-string banjo, developed primarily to allow guitar players to directly transfer their skills to the instrument and likewise uses the same guitar tunings, have the mark on the 9th fret. It’s the only kind of banjo I’ve ever seen that does that, presumably to not throw off the guitar players used to the standard guitar fret markings.

Other than just tradition, maybe there’s another reason for the difference. Most 5-string banjos are based around open tuning, usually G or A (especially for bluegrass), and 4-string banjos are usually tuned to a circle of fifths. Perhaps the difference between marking the 9th or 10th frets evolved from those differences to the 6-string standard guitar tunings? I’m not immediately seeing it, but maybe some more advanced music theorists here have some thoughts.

Though I’ll bet the primary reason for all the instruments is “that’s the way it’s usually done and nobody wants to change from what’s familiar”.

I play almost no lead guitar, so I’m probably going to get some theory/terminology wrong; bear with me:

You play a scale on, say, the first fret and want to use the same fingering further up the fretboard; the dots help to become oriented quicker. Source (sorta): Article I read on Roger (Heart) Fisher back in pioneer days; he had LEDs put in his fretboard (I believe on the side) so he could find his fingering in the dark and/or during an on-stage light show.

Feel free to clean this up.

If you take those dots, and you also include the metal frets themselves as dashes, it reads “This is a guitar” in Morse code. In Norwegian. But it’s slang Norwegian, so it’s hard to make out the spelling. :slight_smile:

I agree with your last sentence, for sure. It just doesn’t seem like it would be done this way purely for aesthetics, though.

I only futz on the guitar, for the most part, but play a couple musical instruments. I never really thought about how those dots are laid out. My guitar has it on the 5, 7, 9, 12 fret. Twelfth fret seems obvious, because it tells you where the octave is. The others I just always thought of as just being easy to identify and see your way around the fretboard. 5 and 7 are the fourth and fifth, so that makes sense to me. Ninth fret is, well, I just figured it’s there as a guidepost so you don’t have too much a leap from the 7th to 12th fret, and it happens to be a sixth, so a major scale tone.

For guitars that have a dot on the 3rd fret, I assume it’s, once again, because it gives you an easily visually recognizable guidepost. I suppose you could have it on the second fret, as well, and it would work just as well. I don’t think there’s any deep meaning behind it.

This has been beaten to death on guitar message boards for many years - the “it’s just tradition” answer is correct.

(You mention “the” major scale - apparently thinking about C - there are ~12 major scales, depending on how you count them, and guitarists are much more likely to play in something like G or D or A or E than C…)

I’m not buying the “it’s just tradition” explanation.

I mean, sure, tradition certainly plays a role, but as has already been pointed out above, it’s not like the dots fall on random notes. Forget about the C Major scale (or any scale actually) and think of it in terms of intervals. Like pulykamell has said : 5, 7 and 12 are the 4th, 5th and octave, in other words : notes that are absolutely essential to 90% of all music. 3 and 9 are the minor 3rd and major 6th respectively. Less essential notes but still pretty useful and frequently used. The only thing that bugs me is the fact that they chose the minor 3rd and not the major 3rd but that may be explained by the neighbouring 4th, which is already marked. No real need for a dot, there.

The distribution is far from random, all the notes marked by a dot have some real importance. Notes that are more difficult to work into a melody, or a solo like the minor 2nd, augmented 4th and major 7th are not highlighted. Surely, that can’t be a coincidence.

This. It might be time to just accept it as is.

In other words, fret not.