On most stringed instruments (violin, bass, etc) playing positions are counted by scale degree and not half-steps. On Guitar, you count frets and this makes for 12+ positions to play in, each with limited use.

It would be much simpler if positions were counted by scale degree. So for example, if your first finger is on G (on low E string), that would be second position - whether it's flat, sharp or natural. And in turn, if your first finger is on A, it would be third position. This way there's fewer positions, and you can play in any key in each position.

Why is the convention on Guitar to count playing positions by fret number?

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    What do you call it when you’re playing at the second or fourth fret? Isn’t that system more confusing if you’re playing in different keys? Like F# minor? I suspect the reason for the difference with other string instruments is because you’re more likely to play chords on guitar. Oct 17, 2018 at 5:10
  • FWIW, on the cello we have a "half-position" . All other positions are "whole" but based on the notes in the major scale of the string in question. Oct 17, 2018 at 14:45
  • @ Todd Wilcox. You don't count frets (half-steps). If you're playing a G on the E string with the index finger it's second position - irrespective of the quality(sharp, flat, nat). This system makes much more logical sense when you're reading. The whole fret board is then divided into just 7 positions, and you can play each position in any key.
    – William
    Oct 17, 2018 at 16:23
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    I don’t think at all about positions when I play guitar, either when reading or not, so I don’t have a strong opinion. Seems confusing to have “second position” refer to three different possible frets though. Oct 17, 2018 at 20:20

3 Answers 3


A guitar is tuned in fourths. You can assign a finger to each fret and are still able to play most (western, one should add) scales (on the first fret: all of them, on higher frets you are missing one finger ;) but then you can stretch the hand a bit and reach up). On a guitar, the logical (or "obvious") unit is the fret (maybe also because one does not (ok: is not forced to) finger as exactly as on a fret-less instrument).

A violin is tuned in fifths. You need to move your fingers up and down the fingerboard in the same position to play a scale, even if the hand stays in the same position! Thus on a violin (viola, cello, etc.) the positions are assigned to a note's base position, or (as I prefer to think about it) to where the "n-th finger" would usually rest: 2nd position is (on the A string) where the c lies, and on the G string where the b lies. Note that the latter is a bit further up the fingerboard (the equivalent spot would be b flat), but the hand position along the neck is pretty similar (depends on the key and what comes next in the melody, though). So to us violinists it is natural that we need to move our fingers (and even the hand position) a bit within one position to account for the different intervals in different scales in the same position. We also have what is called the "half position", in which you move the entire down the fingerboard below first position (note you can indeed play this in first position - in principle, but some transitions or double stops would no longer work as well). This distinction actually matters because it is now virtually impossible (or very difficult, it is quite a stretch, I hate it when I have to do it) to reach the full fifth wrt. the string (so, the e on the A string). However, as you move higher up the fingerboard (towards the regions of perpetual colophonium cover) you can reach bigger intervals and this no longer matters.

As the comment above hinted at: this - together with playing chords being much more common on the guitar - also leads to guitarists thinking more in keys and violinists thinking in scales (if that makes sense?).

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    The cello is tuned in fifths like the violin, but an ascending major scale starting on an open string could be played without shifting the hand or fingers up and down. A two-octave C-major scale, for example, would be played 0-1-3-4-0-1-3-4-0-1-2-4-0-1-2. The notes on a violin are close enough together that the third finger is used where the cello would use the fourth and the second finger can take the role of either the cellist's second or third finger as needed.
    – supercat
    Oct 19, 2018 at 22:21
  • Being in fifths is significant, however, because the first finger is usually positioned a whole step up from the open string; it's usually easier to think of that as being one whole step above the open string than two half-steps.
    – supercat
    Oct 19, 2018 at 22:22

I think you are saying 'if index finger is on G, it's second position'. But that second position has three places in this case - 3rd fret for G, 2nd fret for Gb and 4th fret for G#. How that helps, I cannot work out. A lot of guitarists already know which note is on which fret, and the frets themselves can be counted easily - there are even markers on some of them!

The fact that violins and the rest of their unfretted family use 'positions' is because they don't have frets to follow. Thus hand/finger positions, relative to each other, are more simply called first, second, etc.

Playing a scale on each instrument needs the same pattern idea, (Ab major is the same pattern as G major, but a little higher). it's just that on guitar there are more obvious landmarks.

There is also the ubiquitous if it ain't broke, don't mend it. Each system works independently, and if your suggestion was put the other way, how would that improve life for violinists, etc?

  • Well, we have the "half" position already ;)
    – Joe W
    Oct 17, 2018 at 7:59
  • It makes more sense when looking at staff paper. You only have to think about what note you're playing with what finger as opposed to counting frets. It logically divides the guitar up into fewer positions (7 vs 12). And you can read each position in any key. It's actually much simpler than the tablature-based logic of fret numbers, which makes for too many positions with limited use.
    – William
    Oct 17, 2018 at 16:51
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    @William - once I establish a start place on guitar, there's little or no counting of frets going on. It's all relative after that. Agree that tab isn't that good - if only for telling us which string and fret to play on - when there are often better options!
    – Tim
    Oct 17, 2018 at 19:16
  • @William Interesting. I can’t play thinking about which finger, I think about which frets, but in a relative sense. Sort of. Some frets are absolute landmarks and then other times I know I’m going up one or two or six frets so I decide very quickly whether to just put my next finger down or go up a string or leave a finger in between or whatever. I am thinking about fretboard positions not fingers when I read. Oct 17, 2018 at 20:34

I'd look at it the other way and ask why do violins have the position method that they have and my answer would be because they don't have frets that they can use to identify a position on the fret board. It just seems logical to me.

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