Fretboard marker dots - explain please

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by axelicker, Oct 5, 2008.

  1. axelicker

    axelicker Member

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    Been playing 12 years and get around a guitar pretty well. However, it occurred to me the other day when a family member asked "Why are the dots where they are?" that I had no clue....aside from the obvious 12th fret octave...
    Embarrassing. A search on a couple of forums did not turn up this discussion either. Anyone care to enlighten me?
     
  2. stevel

    stevel Member

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    I wouldn't be embarrassed. I doubt anyone really knows - if there even is a reason.

    I have a book called "Guitars: From the Renaissance to Rock".

    Baroque Lute and early 5 course guitars often have very ornate decorated fingerboards, some with an "every-other-fret" checkerboard-like pattern, but I wouldn't consider any of them to be position markers.

    Classical type guitars don't ever have them, until the modern era (some Macferri's in the 1930s).

    But with Steel Strings:

    The earliest one I can find is an 1860 Martin with dots at 5, double at 7, single at 10, and the neck joins the body at 12 (but no dot there).

    A Martin from 1867 owned at the time of printing by John Pearse. It has what look like position markers, but they are in the wood beneath the fret - I mean literally - the fret bisects the dot. The dots are at the 5th, 7th and 9th frets. The neck joins the body at the 12th fret as in Classical Guitar tradition.

    An 1889 Martin, and one from 1898 don't have dots at all. But some from 1902 have frets at 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 12 - and go single, double, triple, double, triple - and at the 12th looks different (picture is hard to see).

    So obviously it appears there was a lot of experimentation going on.

    A Howe-Orme guitar from 1897 has a single dot at 5, 7, 9 - 12 joining the body (no dot).

    The next are Gibsons from 1898 with dots at 5,7, 10, double at 12, 15, 17, and one with a double at 20 (20 being the last fret at the soundhole).

    The next two are from 1918 and 1920 - the 20 being an L-4. Both of these have 5,7,9,2x12 and 15 - there are higher frets but they are unmarked.

    A Washburn from 1920 has 7,9 and different shape at 12.

    A Macferri from 1932 has a similar scheme, though the 12th is just a single dot.

    There's a Gibson L-50 from 1932 and that's the first one in here with a dot at 3.

    An Epiphone from a year later includes a marker on fret 1.

    In and around 1932, they include the first ones with a name ("Arkie" and Tex Fletcher) inlaid in the fingerboard (nit historically the first, just the first in the book).

    So, based on this one limited resource, I would say that:

    1. The first fret markers appear on frets 5 and 7, and maybe 9 and 10. 12 is unnecessary since the neck usually joins the body there at that time, and higher markers are rare.

    Position markers help visually divide the neck into smaller "no marker" portions and make it easier to find one's place within an otherwise "markerless" 12-fret span. My assumption is, 5 and 7 were initially chosen becuase they represent scale degrees 4 and 5, and the roots for the IV and V chord, which generally are, and probably were considered the most musically important positions.

    2. Markers at 9 or 10, and then 12 - and maybe higher if the guitar supports then appear.

    It's funny to me, but It seems unlikely to me that many guitarists would play past the 9th position in those days. You either have Jazz being played by compers, or open string stuff being played by folkies (Cowboy songs). So it's interesting that 9 or 10 and 12 would happen before 3 - but, on the other hand, 3 is pretty easy to sight - you don't really need it to find a G chord - so maybe they felt in unnecessary.

    3. Position markers on 3 appear later.

    Why? Maybe for symmetry with what seems to by then be the well-established 9 - so 3 - 5, 7, - 9

    Seems to make sense aesthetically - but from my previous remark, you really wouldn't need one at 3 - so seems more for looks or "consistency".

    4. This then establishes the "modern" 3 5 7 9 12 puls octave duplicates pattern found on most guitars.

    5. The first fret marker then really seems to be an anomaly (that is, until it becomes standard on Gibsons by the 1930s) but I think in most cases it's mostly decorative - it seems to be found on the higher quality and nicer guitars only, especially those with more than just simple dots for the markers. 2 would be more musically relevant IMHO, but 1 at least gave an "every other fret" pattern for up to 9. I can't find a single one though that has one at 13 if it has one at 1 also - which makes sense, but it's interesting that 1 is included.

    6. One other observation is that in the earlier guitars, without many position markers, something special is done at 5 or 7 - like double dots on one or the other. As more frets are included, 5 because the "standard" one to be doubled if something other than 12 is to be doubled. Of course there are also all kinds of single-double-triple schemes, or other special distinctive markers (different shape, etc.) for 12, 5 and 12, etc.

    7. One might conjecture that 5 and 7 were also initially the frets most likely to have a capo placed on them, and 9 and 3 are not uncommon as well. But I think this is reaching.

    8. However, going back to my I, IV, V thinking - it's also possible that for slide guitar players using open tunings, 5 and 7, and then 12 would be the most important positions to "aim for" while playing. Those early Martins are made kind of early for that, but it could have had an influence somewhere down the line.

    9. I'd be interested to know if guitar borrowed this from Mandolin or Banjo, etc. - it's very likely it picked it up from some other instrument. But I think the same I-IV-V reasoning for frets 5 and 7 seem pretty logical, if not proveable.

    HTH,
    Steve
     
  3. re-animator

    re-animator Senior Member

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    I always thought they had to do with harmonics?
     
  4. axelicker

    axelicker Member

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    Wow, Steve thanks for the lengthy response. Never imagined there was such a variation throughout history. So it seems the evolution of the dots may have more to do with tradition than with logic. As for harmonics, the marked frets certainly indicate harmonic nodes, but then there are many more (e.g. from frets 2 to 3, and 4) that have harmonics too...
     
  5. stuagu

    stuagu Member

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    ive always wondered myself, so even though nothing can be proved i found this really interesting... thanks
     
  6. mike walker

    mike walker Supporting Member

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    Steve,
    A great thankyou. I think i'm in agreement with Jamie harmonics wise. But i would love a definitive. I initially thought markers were just navigators etc. But i'm starting to think that's rubbish.

    Mike
     
  7. decay-o-caster

    decay-o-caster Member

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    A friend of mine made his own banjo and did his own inlaying on the fretboard. And the frets he chose to "mark" were almost totally random - drove me nuts trying to figure out how to play the damn thing, but he was used to it and just liked the markers for the looks.

    I suspect there is no reason for the (1) - 3 - 5 - 7 - 9 - 12 other than to make navigation easier and because, over time, it just became a standard because everyone sort of settled on those positions. Not too many, not too few, easy to remember.

    Like why do violins have scroll heads? They just do.
     
  8. drfrankencopter

    drfrankencopter Member

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    I don't think it's an accident...

    why?

    3rd fret notes: (G,C,F,Bb,D,G) (only 1 flat, all diatonic to F and Bb), and 2 open string notes are available (D,G)

    5th fret notes: (A,D,G,C,E,A) (no sharps/flats, diatonic to C, and G, and F), and 4 open string notes are available

    7th fret notes: (B,E,A,D,F#,B) (1 sharp, all diatonic to G, D, and A), and 4 open string notes are available

    9th fret notes: (C#,F#,B,E,G#,C#) (3 sharps, all diatonic to E, and B), and 2 open string notes available.

    12 fret notes...important for obvious reasons.

    Think about the markers, and what keys are guitar centric. Just a thought.

    Cheers

    Kris
     
  9. darth_vader

    darth_vader Member

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    I was just thinking earlier in the week how its funny that if you think just in terms of keeping the root on the low E string, all but one (D) of the guitar-centric root notes fall on frets with markers on them - 3(G), 5(A), 7(B), 10(D), and 12(E).
     
  10. stevel

    stevel Member

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    While that may be true, we need to remember that guitar-centric keys are more of a modern convention - it's sort of the "un-schooled" rock players (and those looking for the big open chord sounds) who fell into the E, A, D, and G trap. Earlier players - especially through the Jazz era when the dotting was becoming standardized, were more likely to play in other keys than rock players today.

    Granted, the Martins I mentioned were far enough back that they were probably used in "mountain music" and other folk traditions, which would be mostly open string chords - not past the 3rd fret so markers wouldn't be all that important.

    So it seems to me, while a case could be made from a modern perspective that the reason we've maintained the tradition is because of common 6th string roots or common keys (and in fact, the dots could have even *caused* a predilection for certain keys!), I think (IMHO) a stronger case can be made for the visual symmetry and "every-other-fret" pattern as a matter of course.

    But hey, if the first fret marker helps you remember where F is, then it certainly doesn't hurt anything!

    Steve
     
  11. stevel

    stevel Member

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    Well - one thing everyone needs to remember - harmonics are "over" the frets whereas position markers are between the frets. That one early Martin I mentioned with the dot "under" the frets (frets bisecting the dot) would be more reasonable for explaining a desire to show where harmonics were.

    But I think we must also remember that harmonics were probably treated more as an "exotic" effect - even to this day they're still used as a color variation moreso than actual "note content" (though of course there are pieces that are harmonics only). So my opinion is that they would be far more likely to want to show where notes are, rather than harmonics.

    Another stike against harmonics is that they can be played past the 12th fret too - in fact, it's been many a guitar student of mine who are freaked out when they find out "but you're going LOWER on the neck, why do the harmonics go HIGHER?" - the ones at 17 and 19 make far more sense pitch-wise.

    Additionally, in Classical Guitar literature, harmonics are not uncommon, and in fact quite common - they didn't see the need to put position markers on for notes or harmonics.

    But really, there's no real proof until we can find some documentation. Though for me, it seems more logical that people would want to point out notes, as that's what people mostly play!

    For me personally, they are just "markers". In fact, I've cheated on my classical - I took some nail polish and put a tiny dot on the top side of the fingerboard (on the neck, not on the fingerboard itself) so I can find my way.

    So let's call Position Markers GPS - Guitar Positioning System:D

    Steve
     
  12. gennation

    gennation Member

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    Harmonic sub-divisions of the open string.
     
  13. JonR

    JonR Member

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    I agree that 5, 7, and 12 are there to reflect the harmonic divisions - but also the I-IV-V scale divisions that derive from that.
    3 and 9 are then simple odd number choices moving out from 5 and 7. Purely for navigation purposes. I see no reason to make it more complicated than that.

    It could have been done on frets 2-4-6-8-10 - or 3-6-9 (both would help in fret counting) - but that's less musically sensible. Once you accept the natural (musical) role of 5 and 7, then how you divide 1-5 and 7-12 is mostly cosmetic. You only need one dot in each 5-fret space to facilitate navigation, and 3 and 9 make for the best symmetry.
    (The reason some guitars choose 10 instead of 9 would be down to a preference to match the 1-3-5 tetrachord pattern with 7-10-12. Just a different way of looking at it.)
     
  14. 909one

    909one Member

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    Sometimes I think the fret markers are annoying when you are playing in certain keys that aren't as common to the guitar. C#, F#.
    The dots actually mess me up visually. I tried putting black electrical tape over all the dots on an old 335 I had once. The fingerboard was ebony, so you couldn't really tell from site, unless you looked closely. It just felt kinda weird and also made it more difficult to play in standard keys cause i was so used to the dots. I bet after a while it would be better with no markers on the fret board though.
     
  15. JonR

    JonR Member

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    Interesting point. The fact that a classical guitar has no markers is a clue. Learn classical guitar, you're free from needing dots.
    I also find the more remote keys less natural to play in - tho I'm not sure if that's down to dot associations, or just because I'm not used to them. Maybe a bit of both...
     
  16. Jazzydave

    Jazzydave Seeker Gold Supporting Member

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    I've always preferred no markers as well but more bc of the looks than playability. I can see them starting to do it when more people began playing in the late 1800s/early 1900s. It makes sense, especially with the major chords being on those markers - E at the nut, G, A, and B. How many pop songs from that era are in those keys?
     
  17. stevel

    stevel Member

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    During the period of time when the pattern was becoming "standardized", Big Band Jazz would have been the primary popular form of music. Keys for those wind-band types of ensembles would be Bb, Eb, Ab, F, Gm, etc. - less "guitaristic" keys. Or, let's say, that keys like Bb, Eb, Ab, etc. would have been more common than they are in today's guitar-based rock band songs - there would have been more equal use of all keys, and not a predilection for "guitar" keys.

    Steve
     
  18. skinnytommy

    skinnytommy Member

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    If you look at a piano keyboard, there are two notes that the rest of the keys are symmetrical around: the white key note 'D' and the black key note 'Ab' which is the tritone of 'D'. The symmetries on the guitar are the double dots on the 12th fret indicating an octave (with 4 single dot frets to each side of the double dot) and the tritone which is located at the 6th fret and has two single notes and the octave to each side of it. The dots relate to string length (octave is half the string) and tritone (half the octave) and the rest of the dots are symmetrical around these two points. Historically, guitar was drop 'D' so the reference to piano symmetry was more direct at the 6th string. Now you can see it on 4th string.... If you play a D-Dorian scale on 4th string you can see this sort of scalar symmetry around 'Ab' tritone center.
     
  19. Road Warrior

    Road Warrior Member

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    I kind of agree with this (hard not to)... To me, as a guitar player, why would I write a song in E Flat when I could write it in E. Especially when I'm playing alone. Why write in G Sharp/A Flat when you can write in G??

    The dots are modern convention as stated previously. I think guitarists know what sounds good to them. Big full chords with ringing notes are loved my almost every guitar player I know. i think the fret markers make perfect sense to me.
     
  20. dlguitar64

    dlguitar64 Member

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    On Banjos,the inlay is always on the 10th fret-and my mandolin has dots at 5 7 10 12 and 15
     

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