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By: Ben Fraser

Fretted string instruments can be very complicated to learn and teach. Whether we are discussing guitar, electric bass, ukulele or even lute, there are many approaches one could take.

Unlike the piano, on fretted instruments you can play the same note in the same octave in several different places on the instrument. This can be very confusing and hard to grasp for new students, but it’s an important concept to understand. There is only one Middle C on a piano, but Middle C can be played in five different places on most guitars. In standard tuning, it is on 1st fret of the B string, 5th fret of the G string, 10th fret of the D string, 15th fret of the A string, and 20th fret of the E string.

This reveals that one can play the same melodies and chords in several areas of the guitar neck which begs the question: Where should one choose to play any given melody or chord? There are many answers to that question. Certain melodies are easier played in certain areas of the neck. Also, certain chords have different tones and timbres when played on different frets. Some players become partial to certain parts of the neck. There are countless ways to look at it but again, it is an important concept to understand.

This brings us logically to a common debate around fretted instruments. Should one be reading notation or tablature? Notation uses the A-G note methodology by placing different types of notes on the staff. Tablature uses a numeric methodology by placing fret numbers on a diagram of the strings. Notation is important because it provides more information. One can analyze elements like rhythm, dynamics, intervals, and musicality with greater effectiveness through notation. Tablature is important because it tells us exactly where to play a piece of music. It is also much easier to interpret for beginning students.

The bottom line is that both are important and both should be used in the music education of fretted instruments.