I am playing guitar for around one and a half year now, and am already able to play the most chords (except some extremely strange chords).

Now I wanted to practice a bit of classical guitar on my own. The problem is, I can not convert the notes on the sheet to a suitable fingering position, because I have always several possibilities for example for a 'h'.

How do I know which position is the best for my finger(s)?

On all the other instruments I am playing I have a fixed position for my fingers, but not on the guitar.

  • Figure out the chord, then look up standard finger positions for that chord (usually quite a few) Dec 5, 2014 at 14:58
  • Is that possible for every piece?
    – arc_lupus
    Dec 5, 2014 at 14:58
  • There's no fixed position for fingers/hands/feet for bowed instruments, piano, organ, trombone,... so you're hardly alone here. Dec 5, 2014 at 15:53
  • Fixed position -> in this case: This finger position equals only this note (bijective projection, nearly), and not: This note equals the following five finger positions.
    – arc_lupus
    Dec 5, 2014 at 15:54

4 Answers 4


To some degree it is up to you as an artist to make those choices, but often there is a recommended fingering for difficult sections that the publisher includes in the notation of published classical guitar music. The numbers 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4 tell you which finger you should use for a note that they are near to (usually before, sometimes below or above). Notes that are recommended to be played on a string that is not obvious will have the string number (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6) circled near the note in question. As with other guitar music, Roman numerals may be used to indicate a fret position (usually for a barred fret).

Beginner classical guitar pieces will often have all the notes indicated this way, with strings indicated when you would need to reach outside the open position (which is a fixed set of notes). In practice, this system usually is enough to give you as much information about the note as tablature, even if it is not as quickly learned.

Of course the easy answer could be that many beginner pieces are available in tab form.

See this link for one simple example of fingering numbers in a piece. Also note that (usually) fingerings only get repeated in the notation when there is a different choice than what has already occurred.

There are also symbols in notation for your right hand fingering: pima => p=thumb i=index m=middle a=ring (sometimes (rarely) it is timr instead.)

Typically guitarists talk about positions in terms or which fret our first finger is centred on. Note that learning the scales on the guitar goes a long way toward making good decisions about finger placement.

  • One can derive a formula to choose correct fingerings. Its not be a substitute for the practice and time (in years) you should put in learning the guitar and studying the choices that others have made (teachers, published fingerings, etc). Its a trade secret too. Like a magician not revealing a trick. It also would be a complicated formula. Different pieces suggest different solutions to the same problem, best suited to the entire context of the piece. (Where were my fingers, where are they going? How can I make it similar to other parts?)
    – amalgamate
    Feb 3, 2015 at 14:31

In most case, when choosing which string to use for each note one choice will be easier than the others. So, when first learning a piece I'll usually play that one. It has to do with how the chord-tones map to chord-shapes.

After more familiarity with the piece, the difference in ease between the possibilities may lessen (because you've still been experimenting the whole time) and the choice may be more greatly influenced by the tonal properties.

So for example, there's this piece that I wanted to play (thanks to nonpop for typesetting this image): Paganini's Caprice No.6 first four measures

The first chord is a G-minor, G - B♭ - D. This could be an E-minor-shaped barre on the third fret. Then add the second finger for the E♭, release the bottom of the barre and slide the first and second fingers back 1 fret for the D and F♯. And then release the first finger, slide the second for the E♭ and add the fourth finger for the C.

In chord shapes, this is:

%0/0.0/0.5/3.3/1.3/1.3/1 [G m]
%0/0.0/0.5/3.3/1.4/2.3/1 [E♭/G]
%0/0.0/0.5/3.0/0.3/2.2/1 [D/G]
%0/0.0/0.5/3.5/4.4/2.0/0 [C m/G]
%0/0.0/0.5/3.3/1.3/1.3/1 [G m]

But after some time, I decided that the melody was sweeter (cantabile) higher up the neck. So I now play it in the "second position" (Humpty-Dumpty), so:

%0/0.10/3.8/2.7/1.0/0.0/0 [G m]
%0/0.10/3.0/0.8/1.8/1.0/0 [E♭/G]
%0/0.10/3.0/0.7/1.7/1.0/0 [D/G]
%0/0.10/3.10/4.8/1.0/0.0/0 [C m/G]
%0/0.10/3.8/2.7/1.0/0.0/0 [G m]

This also has the strategic effect, that the next few measures can be played descending down the neck without having to change strings.


Sight reading scores for instruments with controls that are not diatonically organized like the score is, is cumbersome. That is one reason that certain wind instruments are "transposing", writting in a different pitch than played. The problem is exacerbated for polyphonic instruments.

That is the reason that there are instrument specific notations like "tablature" (which were used even in Renaissance and Baroque periods for lute and some other string instruments).

It's also probably the reason that countries with more of an "aural" rather than a "written" accordion music tradition (namely people playing by ear rather than by score) tend to employ chromatic button accordions, while things like "accordion orchestras" use the bulkier and less versatile piano accordion.

Of course, you can ask even a hobbyist guitar player or a hobbyist chromatic button accordion player "can we do this a minor third higher?" and he'll oblige (the former after reaching for a capodaster but so what).

With the more score-friendly instruments, you'll be separating the wheat from the chaff with that question.

So the point is: playing guitar from a score is a non-trivial effort: it is a polyphonic instrument not matched to the diatonically organized score. You acquire it like reading: the chord patterns have to make independent sense on the paper before you form the respective pattern with your fingers. Before the words/vocabulary becomes familiar units that are different entities on paper, in your fingers, and in sound, you'll be stuttering.

Tablature is easier to get accustomed to but less versatile. You can't, say, ask some keyboard player to play two bars for you so that you can listen and get the idea.

At any rate: guitar scores often have fingerings in them (as others mentioned) and if you learn to read them, you at least have the information required to play (even if you can't do it right off the sheet). When fingerings are in the lowest-numbered frets/strings possible, they are often left out.

When there are no fingering/positioning instructions at all, figuring the best out is left as an exercise to the player. Usually you'll play in the lowest possible position since that puts the empty strings in natural places in the scales and tends to work best for assembling chords, but of course not everything works out in that manner.


Sight reading on guitar is harder than on other instruments, due to this. There is sheet music where the fingering is printed. One approach would be to find some and try to learn from that. There is a lot of tablature out there, it should exist for classical pieces too. Then you will have the fingering explicitly available.

Otherwise, the position is determined by your own preferences and the surrounding notes. Not all left hand notes need to be positioned, if one is given, you know which "box" you are playing in, and the surrounding notes should follow.

There are sight reading books for guitar, try to get hold of one of those.

  • 1
    That's a bit biased :-) -- try sight-reading piano, where you might need to position 5 or 6 fingers at once plus a foot! Dec 5, 2014 at 15:52
  • 3
    @CarlWitthoft: Still, for every good guitar sight reader, I would conservatively say there's at least 10 pianists. This has to be due to something. There might be several ways to play each note, but each note maps to one key. And it's one dimension compared to the guitars two. Maybe pianists just are smarter, what do I know... Dec 5, 2014 at 20:22
  • Perhaps guitarists have a culture of skipping sight reading because learning Tablature is so much easier (at first). Other stringed instrumentalists face similar challenges and develop reading music skills just fine.
    – amalgamate
    Dec 9, 2014 at 22:31

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