Please take a look at this arrangement:

enter image description here

Why does the arranger/composer play

  • an E on the B string, 5th fret
  • and a B on the G string, 4th fret

while he could just play

  • an E on the open E string
  • an B on the open B string

They are the same notes, they sound the same and are easier to play opened. What advantages brings it playing them fretted? Can someone tell the intention?

  • 4
    Or - you could turn it around, and ask why in bar 3 the composer didn't use the low A fretted on the bottom string...
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 15:17
  • 2
    Just a small comment, but on bass, I personally hate the way open notes can sound depending on the preceding notes and rhythm. It may not be noticeable to a listener, but when playing it can be a night and day difference. Playing on the bigger string and fretting can give you a mellower and more normalized sound.
    – TyCobb
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 21:35

4 Answers 4


Two big factors affect the decision to play open versus fretted:

Sound: Open notes sound brighter and tend to sustain longer. They are great to use for pedal tones for this reason. But that means they can sound too loud or otherwise stand out next to other fretted notes.

Playability: In certain cases, open notes are actually harder to play than fretted notes.

  • With an open note, you have to affirmatively mute the string when you want the note to stop. Fretted notes can usually be muted by releasing the fret just enough to stop the note.
  • You cannot pull-off from an open note, nor hammer-on to it.
  • if the other notes you are playing are fretted, sometimes it's easier to continue a fretting "pattern" than it is to open your fretting hand and pick an open note.
  • Sometimes it's easier to stay on the same string and play the fretted version of a note on the string you're on versus changing your picking to another string to play the open version of the note.

Specific to the piece in question:

  • In the first quoted measure, fretting all the notes prevents string skipping (the G string) with the pick.
  • In the second and third quoted measures, keeping the B and E fretted as they are mean you have those two fingers anchored while the other fingers change the lower notes. This makes it easier to change chords and reduces the amount of fret noise (squeaks).
  • In the last quoted measure, you couldn't play both the high E and the high F# (second fret on the E string) at the same time, or let them ring out together, so you have to fret that E. Also not shown but implied is that in that last bar you would barre the second fret with your first finger to take care of the A string and high E string. Once you barre, you can't play open any more.

  • Taken all together, the E having to be fretted in the last measure and the elimination of string skipping in the first measure are enough to justify playing the notes that don't change through all four measures fretted, so you don't have to move your hand just to play the same notes. Also it will sound different if you don't move your hand since those two notes can just ring through all four measures. I would absolutely play this passage as notated if I were playing it, and I routinely change how things are played to fit my style.

Which brings up an important large point: Try it both ways for yourself and play it whichever way works better for you. I think I've explained why fretting the notes can often be a better choice, but in the end it's going to be you playing it so you decide how you play it.

  • Taking your 1st 'playability' point, often, and I think in this case, each bar would sound better with all notes left ringing out. But rarely do I see dots which reflect this. I inherited a student who had been taught an exam piece which was written in similar vein, and his previous teacher had taught him to play each note with its correct value. Sounded awful. Let ring - sounded awesome.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 15:22
  • Any idea what specific reason it could be in this particular arrangement? This is the original song.
    – arminb
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 15:46
  • Which sounds to me like top string open is being played.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 16:07
  • @Tim: I like to arpeggiate chords letting notes ring, because I use a tuning that facilitates that. In Standard Tuning, the fingerings required to let notes ring will often be very different from what would be needed otherwise, and consistently damping notes will often yield better-sounding results than arbitrarily damping and ringing notes depending upon what fingers they use.
    – supercat
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 16:27
  • 4
    Another big advantage to playing a 'fretted' note is that if you do not use open strings - you can very easily transpose the entire arrangement to a different key. Some genres take advantage of open strings more than others.
    – Paul
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 20:49

Here are two factors to consider, which would determine why a player would decide on an open string, v/s a fretted note.

Convenience - If the passage you are playing is fast, you won't have time to move to a less convenient part of the neck. If speed is not an issue - it could be that it's simpler to allow the note to ring open than to move your hand.

Tone - Each note played in different positions has a different timbral quality. Listen to the same note played at every possible position on the neck. They all sound unique. An open string can also ring, while a fretted note will only sustain as long your finger is applied.

Adding to Tim's answer below: playing an open string with vibrato can be achieved by moving the hand you use to fret the note behind the nut at the top of the neck. Jimmy Page uses this technique when playing Black Mountain Side in a live Led Zeppelin video. Pretty cool technique - but more effective for showmanship than practicality.

  • Page also does the same thing for the intro natural harmonics on “Dazed and Confused”. Randy Rhoads would actually grab the headstock of his Flying V and bend the whole neck slightly to get vibrato on his natural harmonics. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 4:03
  • Vib. on an open string is fine as you describe - but not when there are fingers that need to stay fretting other notes. It is possible to use the other hand to perform this - I often do similar on bass, holding a couple of chord notes, and hammering a lower 'pedal note' further down the neck, r.h.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 7:40

Adding to Todd's answer - fretted notes can always have vibrato applied, to make them usually sound better - not easy on open string notes! However, here, with a beginner piece, it's probably not the reason. I thought maybe to play consecutive strings, but the subsequent bars put paid to that theory.


I think it is done so that each note can ring out as long as possible. To let all the notes ring out in the final bar requures the given fingering to give one note per string. Changing the hand position for the last bar would kill all the currently sounding notes and create a noticeable glitch As it is you can plant two fingers on the 2nd and 3rd string and leave them there for the duration.

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