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Is there a way to find out which fret position would be optimal? Or is it a matter of personal choice? (When no additional info is given in the sheet music)

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  • Are you asking generally or is your query slanted to a particular guitar style - classical vs rock for example? Feb 12 at 23:24
  • Jonny Atma of GaMetal game indicates in jonnyatma.com/you-will-know-our-names that, if you're good enough, changing the tuning of your guitar and then determining strings and fret positions is also a distinct possibility.
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 13 at 13:48
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In a word, no!

You'll start to find your way round, and realise that certain positions are better than others. It also depends on the sound you want. Playing up the 'board on higher frets and lower strings will give you a different sound than playing exactly the same notes lower, on higher (thus thinner) strings. At any given place, you can encompass two octaves without moving your hand up or down, so that's a good premise to start with.

Once you start playing this way, you'll realise that some people who write out tab haven't much of a clue, really...

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  • I've always considered Gilmour to be the absolute master of "where on the neck"
    – Tetsujin
    Feb 12 at 15:41
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    @Tetsujin - Brian May's not at all bad either. At a live concert he broke a string, so moved all necessary note placings, and no-one was any the wiser. It sometimes pays to actually know your way round, rather than merely being able to play your solos in that same old position!
    – Tim
    Feb 12 at 15:53
  • Indeed, there are quite a few over the years who 'don't suck' as they would say;)) My Gilmour ref is really for the times when you think he didn't just swap pickup, he swapped guitar.. or simply shifted 10 frets. I think I probably first noticed it in 'Shine on...'
    – Tetsujin
    Feb 12 at 15:56
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    Worth mentioning might be that no hand in the world is the same. I can see my friends fingers do what my fingers can't, and they're equally baffled how I still make it happen with different fingering and do stuff they can't. That alone will make "auto-fingering" a non-option. I'd give an extra +1 for "...some people who write out tab haven't much of a clue..." and the cool Brian May line: That's just awesome (from my humble point of view) Feb 12 at 17:30
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    @WillemvanRumpt, I think some of your comment is misguided. Regardless of different hand shapes etc. to develop exceptional sight reading skills a default fingering is very helpful and highly recommended. It may be a different default for each person, but I'd suspect that a large swath of the human population will be able to use the "standards" in most books. And there are only a finite number of variations.
    – user50691
    Feb 12 at 19:45
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There is some logic behind how we are taught to read and relate what we read to the positions on the guitar.

Most good method systems in classical or modern guitar, e.g. Carcassi, Mel Bay, Levitt, just to name a few, focus lessons on specific patterns and positions. Those are drilled for years until they are in muscle memory, and the mind immediately correlates what you see on the sheet music with a movement. That being said there is still some ambiguity and freedom of choice.

In the standard guitar notation we have special decorations (in the form of numbers, numbers in circles, and roman numerals) to tell the guitarist, (1) what finger to use to fret the note, (2) what string to use, and (3) what position to be in. This is usually the result of another guitarist arranging the piece in a way they thing is best for "easy", clean, meaningful performance.

Based on all the training if a piece of music tells you what position to be in the options for fingering are somewhat reduced. If the piece can be played in a single position, i.e. only goes through one or two octaves. They many players will peruse the piece and, based on experience, get a position and stick to it. But in reality that is not the best approach. With experience you learn to make smart choices quickly but if you are sight reading a very complex piece with no guitar arrangement chances are no matter how good a reader you are you will need to take some time to strategize.

Some of this strategy comes from understanding the CAGED system and the scale patterns associated with each chord in the system. Levitt's approach follows this to a good degree. Mel Bay focuses a lot on open position scales for many books, and follows Carcassi's classical method. In fact there is a lot of overlap in exercises between the two.

At the end of the day there is no rule for this. Just like on the piano, you could use one finger and keep shifting around. But there are some logical and illogical approaches to making a decision. One of the most common patterns in classical guitar is the standard Phrygian mode which corresponds to the C form of the major chord related to the key. There is no shifting in this mode and one can pretty much stick to the 1 finger = 1 fret rule for reading single note lines. Levitt adheres to this in the beginning and then introduces the "Finger Stretch" (fs) for deviating out of the 4 fret neighborhood. Once learnt you'll find that you can read through material pretty fast.

Chords are a bit tricky. There is more than one fingering for each chord but their use is not random. A choice usually requires understanding how to connect them to the chords around them for optimal movement. This requires previewing the music to make a decision. Using a "standard" form for a chord every time you see it can lead to getting locked into a position you can't get out of in time and just losing your place.

Not only is there more than one way to finger notes in a fixed position, there are several placed to play the exact same notes doe to the repetition on the guitar. The only real guideline there might be that you usually play melodies on the upper strings to be bright (but that's not a hard and fast RULE).

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  • The chord section of the answer doesn't ring true for me. The fingering of a chord can be, but isn't necessarily important for reading chords. I'm far happier reading a chord chart cold than reading dots. Probably as it's easier to second guess what may come next.
    – Tim
    Feb 12 at 20:07
  • I was referring not only to charts but sight reading chords in smn.
    – user50691
    Feb 12 at 21:08
  • Ah, the cluster of dots! True, the shape of the cluster usually gets translated as a particular chord, but then that will work best with certain fingers, but not with others?
    – Tim
    Feb 13 at 9:02
  • Or translated into tones in the minds ear. I hear the cluster of dots as the chord, rather than translated to a chord.
    – user50691
    Feb 13 at 11:43
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Personally, I haven't learned classical guitar technique. But I understand it works with formal positions. When you learn the positions, the fingering and fret/string choices are supposed to become intuitive. I imagine that "intuitive" sense of fret/string fingering only holds up when the music is in the classical style, when the music is based on the patterns learned in classical training. Classical guitar notation does have markings to indicate strings. So clearly there can be passages where fret/string aren't obvious without a fret or string marking of some kind. It just doesn't necessarily need to be fully tabbed out.

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  • @WillemvanRumpt Yes. Fingerings are given in guitar methods. Alternate fingers are often given in methods too. Why are you implying that fingerings when given are some absolute, inflexible "rule." No one said or implied that. You're sidetracking the main point. Lot's of guitar notation works with a sense of standard fingering, occasional string numbering, and without tab. Feb 12 at 17:55
  • Bill Levett has a similar approach in his modern method. Once you learn the specific set of scales and their fingerings you default to that. It makes sight reading a bit easier but is still not set in stone.
    – user50691
    Feb 12 at 19:40
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    I am not sure why WillemvanRumpt had such an issue with the answer. You are essentially on the mark. The problem is that there is a difference between developing fast sight reading skills (which requires a default choice for all fingerings), and learning a solo piece (which needs to be arranged and rearranged for each case).
    – user50691
    Feb 12 at 19:42
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    @ggcg. I don't understand it either. It's just basic info. Same could be said about the whole string family (violins) and notation. Positions are trained. In rock oriented guitar teaching - at least the teaching I received - does work with formal positions. Feb 12 at 22:49
  • Guitar is essentially a positional instrument, playing wise. I take little notice of suggested fingerings, and often consider them as red herrings. In fact, I'd be happier if they weren't included. A tidier presentation.
    – Tim
    Feb 13 at 9:06

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