I'm trying to learn guitar. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and learn sheet music at the same time as scales. I've got a PDF document that has a bunch, but I am confused by these numbers above the notes. What are they?

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  • 4
    Is it not which finger to use?
    – Invariant
    Jan 6, 2021 at 1:45
  • 3
    i thought that but then i saw the zero Jan 6, 2021 at 1:53
  • 3
    "i decided to kill two birds with one stone and learn sheet music at the same time as scales" excellent idea. Jan 6, 2021 at 14:15
  • can't you see any logic in the numbers? what are telling the zeros specific strings? Jan 7, 2021 at 11:08
  • This particular example could be either finger or fret numbers. Other posters with more experience in notation are saying the convention is that they’re finger numbers, and I have no reason to dispute that. But if you could post another example or two, it might help confirm one way or the other.
    – wabisabied
    Jan 7, 2021 at 19:59

7 Answers 7


That's the fingering for the piece, starting from the index finger as 1. The 0 just means an open string (no fingers on the string as you pluck).

  • 2
    How can you tell from that that it's not the fret numbers (with 0, again, meaning open string)?
    – gidds
    Jan 6, 2021 at 19:08
  • 4
    @gidds, simply because that’s the widely accepted standard for notating fingering in guitar scores. It’s not something you can “deduce” per-se. Note that in simple beginner exercises, fingers often match frets because we want the student to keep the hand in one place as they learn to place fingers properly. That won’t last long though. Jan 6, 2021 at 19:31
  • 4
    Note also that guitar scores don’t normally notate frets. They will notate fingerings (most fingerings for beginners, less so in more advanced scores, until you basically only get a fingering suggestion when the author or transcriber decides a non-obvious fingering might be helpful). When a non-obvious location for a note is intended, we notate the string (via a number inside a circle), which combined with the note pitch will unambiguously give you the fret. Jan 6, 2021 at 19:37
  • 2
    Finally, just for completeness: in most guitar scores you will see a “fret number” only to indicate a “bar” (that is, laying the index finger flat over a fret so that it presses two or more strings). The fret of a bar is spelled with uppercase Roman numerals. Jan 7, 2021 at 2:40
  • @gidds - the '0' could well mean 'no finger needed' - as in play the open string and keep fingers off.
    – Tim
    Jan 7, 2021 at 11:37

The numbers are the fingers you use on your left hand (if you’re right handed) to play the notes. The index is 1, middle-2 ring-3 pinky-4. Open strings are 0.

Fingerings and/or TAB are often provided in instructional material especially for beginning and intermediate players. At this point I would follow them exactly but in general and in the future fingerings are not always provided and are suggestions offering an easy and logical way to play a piece or exercise. Guitar is an instrument that has more than one place where you can play the same note or series of notes so you will find over time there are usually options available for playing the same thing different ways.


From what you have there it could be either fingers or fret numbers, because you would often use the first finger on the first fret, etc. The zeroes make me think fret numbers are more likely. If you have anything later in the same book that shows numbers higher than 4, then it must be frets.

  • 1
    This is the answer I'd accept, as it leaves it open whether these are fingers or frets. Jan 7, 2021 at 11:11

It's simply the fret numbers, but no indication of which strings - that needs to be guessed. Although it's a sequence, starting with 5th string (next to fattest).

0 means an open string, therefore no fingers (on fretting hand) involved. The 1, 2 and 3 are fret numbers, and can also be used as finger guides - beginners often use 'one finger per fret' meaning 1st fret pressed with index, 2nd with middle, 3rd with ring, and 4th with pinky.

So, for the time being, regard them as both, but it would't have taken much guessing to come up with that solution so far. Later in the book, the numbers could mean either. Worth checking - it might even mention the fact somewhere - it really ought to!

EDIT: while it's generally the accepted way in classical guitar music to suggest which fingers (on the fretting hand) to use, there's nothing to suggest the OP's example is actually classically based. It could just as well be a method the writer has decided upon. Coincidentally, at the beginner stage of learning to play from dots, students usually use one finger per fret, thus the numbers could well correspond to both fret and finger number. Who knows - and at this point, why should anybody care? The outcome isn't going to change. The tell will be when more advanced music from the same source is available for interrogation.

  • 2
    No - in classical guitar this is always telling you which fretting finger to use. "0" is rarely used, but can be if you want to disambiguate between open or fretted versions of the same note. Classical scores do not use tab - if you need a specific hand location, the note has a string number next to it (not above it), but not a fret number.
    – Graham
    Jan 7, 2021 at 10:29
  • @Graham - having dug out the classical guitar music I used about 50 yrs ago, I find you're correct. The single numbers generally do represent fingers. However, that's not to say the OP's sample follows that rule! It may well do, and in the early stages, those numbers will actually reflect both finger and the fret that finger's on.
    – Tim
    Jan 7, 2021 at 11:36
  • 1
    Sure - early on they will. We shouldn't tell the OP that it's frets and not fingers though, otherwise that's going to trip them up in the very near future when their hand starts moving around the neck a bit. Or when they start playing chords - C and Fmaj7 have fingers and frets coinciding of course, but most don't. :)
    – Graham
    Jan 7, 2021 at 12:28
  • @Graham - who knows? The whole of the OP's course may well be based around numbers for frets!
    – Tim
    Jan 7, 2021 at 13:15

Just adding a visual for @Annie's answer.

The OP's original scale with both tab and fingering...

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To make clear that fingerings go on top of notes here is another scale starting with same notes, but different fingering and position, for two octaves...

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I'm not trained to read guitar from staff, but I know there is at least a general principle of one finger per fret. With a bit of practice and experience you can start to tell (without tab) the finger groupings and changes per string.

Ex. the beginning of the scale has fingering 2 4 1 2 4 1 3 4... If you know where C is on the fretboard and basic scale shapes, you can tell the finger grouping per strings are [string 5: 2 4][string 4: 1 2 4][string3: 1 3 4].

Sometimes the score will give string number explicitly like this...

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...where the numbers below in circles are the string numbers.


killing birds? that's really bad!

(we say killing fleas, ok!)

Of course these numbers are the fingers, but here identical with the frets (0=open string). Now you've killed 3 fleas at once.

(If you look at the open (=0) strings: they are D,G,B!)


> FINGERINGS Fingerings are indicated with small numbers and letters in the notation. Fretting-hand fingering is indicated with 1 for the index finger, 2 the middle, 3 the ring, 4 the pinky, and T the thumb.


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  • A lot of us would question whether T (thumb) would be used for fretting. And - the '0' for open strings (or no finger..?) is all very well, but why would a beginner know which string is which from the sample?
    – Tim
    Jan 7, 2021 at 11:57

Something that hasn't been mentioned so far is position

With fretted (and unfretted stringed instruments such as violin), we talk about first position, second position and so on.

Your scale is to be played in 1st position. When you are are in 1st position, the fret numbers are the same as the finger numbers. You place your first finger on the first fret, second finger on second fret and so on.

If you move to fifth position, your first finger goes on the fifth fret, second finger goes on the 6th fret, 3rd finger goes on the 7th fret and 4th finger goes on the 8th fret.


In the scale you show, you are to play in 1st position and so the finger number coincides with the fret number! The numbers mean both!


Search YouTube or similar for guitar first position you will find lots of explanations. Similarly you will find videos for other positions (e.g. guitar fifth position)

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