I have read quite a number of articles that teach you how to detect the key a song is in. What I am able to do now is not only detect the key, but also detect all the notes/chords of a guitar part in a song by ear.

What I'd like to understand is that how do I judge the most optimal first fretboard location of a song? For example, if I were to learn Stairway To Heaven's (by Led Zeppelin) intro guitar, how could I be sure that it starts from the seventh fret of the fourth string? How do I arrive at this conclusion?

Any help will be appreciated. I apologise if this is a duplicate but I couldn't find anything pertaining to my question in my search results.


The information that I would be able to glean from the answer to my question would be helpful in deciding subsequent positions for notes on the guitar fretboard.


I would like to thank all the people who contributed to this fruitful (at least for me :) )discussion. As far as the answer is concerned, I would like to thank desertdogv for their great and elaborate answer. It's a must read for beginners. However, I have accepted the answer given by Dr Mayhem, with gratitude.

How is the accepted answer relevant to me?

Since the accepted answer focuses on developing listening skills by judging the timbre of the guitar, I believe that this approach is going to be helpful in the long run since it would narrow down my choices for choosing ideal fretboard locations for a song even before I attempt to play it, helping me enhance my overall technical ability.

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    It's mostly about identifying the key. If you can figure that out, most songs begin on the I chord or at least the root note. So if you can identify it's in A minor, you just have to start on an A natural. Singers are good at listening and identifying keys, so practicing singing is a good way to become more familiar. From there, it's just trial & error to play corresponding notes & chords in that key to make it sound like the song coming out of your speakers.
    – desertdogv
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 20:02

2 Answers 2


For something like Stairway it becomes fairly obvious from the tone of each note - you can tell which notes are on open strings etc.

You can also learn the difference in sound between a wound and an unwound string.

More generally though, if you can't tell, then it doesn't matter - learn the piece through so you know the transitions and then play it wherever feels comfortable and allows you to get to the next note/chord.

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    That does make sense. Please correct me if I am wrong, but what I understand from this is that one can judge the initial fret based on the timbre of the sound emitted from the guitar in the song.
    – sri
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 9:27
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    @sri Pretty much, yes. Higher frets have quieter upper harmonics than lower frets. But you can also learn the timbre differences between different strings and the combination helps you guess where a note was most likely played. In the case of Stairway, once you learn the first five chords with the descending bass line, it starts to make sense that you would start at the seventh fret and then move downwards from there, so a lot of times the pattern of the notes is very helpful in finding the best playing positions to use. Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 16:21

So correct me if I'm wrong: you're saying you can identify the key and the intervals of the notes by listening (& presumably playing it back to yourself on your guitar), but you'd like to figure why it's best to start in a certain position?

If you know the music (either through listening or you have the music in front of you), it becomes a question of how to finger it most efficiently. Let's take a look at the example you came up with. From a quick Google search, Stairway to Heaven appears to be commonly is arranged in A minor & starts off like this (lots of different arrangements use this same opening lick):

First two bars of Stairway to Heaven

So, just looking at these two measures, I see two ways of playing this: the easy way and the hard way (assuming we're not looking for crazy, exotic fingerings on the 12th fret).

The Hard Way

Let's say you start off the first arpeggio in the first position (A on 3rd string, 2nd fret; C on 2nd string, 1st fret; open high E), but then you have to go grab the high A (1st string, 5th fret). And then a B with a G# harmony. The easiest way to do this is with your pinky or ring finger on the high B, and your middle finger on the G# (4th string, 6th fret). Then comes another lower C a beat later, before having to go back up to get the high C on the 8th fret. If you insisted on playing everything you could in the first position, that would be 4 or 5 different times you would move your whole fingering hand in one measure (i.e. a lot of work).

The Easy Way

I would start off with a barre (or half-barre) on the fifth fret (fifth position). Reach down with my ring finger to get the A (4th string, 7th fret like you mentioned in your question) and I can play the whole arpeggio without moving my fingering hand, because the C, E, & high A are all under the barre. The next arpeggio starts with that high B & G#; we can finger that like I described in the last section but the difference is you're already in position. And if you keep the barre down, you already have the rest of the arpeggio fingered. Instead of moving the whole hand around to different positions, this way we only have to move two fingers the entire measure.

The Answer

So to answer your question, the method is to be lazy (kind of). Think about where the notes can be played to minimize moving your hand. I would suggest start learning where certain notes can be played on the fretboard (for example, I know I can find a high E on the open 1st string, 2nd string 5th fret, or 3rd string 9th fret). Play something through and if it seems your fingering hand is moving all over the place, try to see if you can find the same notes closer together on different strings. This usually works really well with arpeggios with a high note on the first string; instead of trying to jump up the fret board in the middle of a phrase, find a way to utilize the higher frets on the lower strings. Not only will you save yourself work, but the music will sound less like a bunch of individual notes smashed together and more like a cohesive piece. And don't worry if it doesn't come to you right away. It's a skill that takes lots of practice & revision. Even advanced players have to revise their fingerings from time to time.

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    Wonderful! What I understand from your beautifully elaborated answer (you have my gratitude for the same) is that there is no definite formula to determine the position of the first note on the guitar fretboard for a song. Subsequent notes need to be analysed and some hit and trial should be performed in order to achieve the most efficient combination. Also, your answer has actually prompted me to mention the purpose of my question as well. An edit is underway :)
    – sri
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 11:47
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    Additionally, if you find the "easy" way then it's that much more likely to be closer to what the original composer came up with while noodling around.
    – user18706
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 15:48
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    Also : not using any open string makes it easier to transpose the song when you play with others, e.g. if you need to match their tonal range. Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 19:27

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