In today’s article, we’re going to take a closer look at fret markers, also known as fretboard inlays or position markers. We’ll discuss what they are used for, why they are seen on particular frets and not others, the materials they are made from, and why some guitars don’t have fret markers at all. So, if you’ve been wondering why there are dots on your fretboard:
Fret markers allow the guitarist to orientate themselves on the neck of the guitar without needing to count frets. Fret markers are usually located on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, and 17th frets, and the 19th fret on some acoustic guitars. Electric guitars also feature inlays on the 21st fret.
In some cases, a fret marker will also be seen on the 1st fret (more often on guitars with block or split parallelogram inlays e.g. The Gibson Hummingbird), and in some cases, there may not be a marker at all on the 3rd fret.
Some Selmers (Gypsy Jazz guitars) feature a position marker on the 10th as opposed to the 9th fret (indicating the notes of the Minor Pentatonic scale), and while less common may skip the 12th fret altogether as per the image below.
Regardless of these small differences, for the most part, fret marker position is standardized, otherwise, it might be difficult to adjust to playing different guitars.
This is clearly useful for playing in key e.g. if you know the third fret on your E string is G (first fret marker), or the 5th fret A (second fret marker) it’s much easier to orientate yourself on the fretboard.
But, that still leaves questions. For example:
Why are there two dots on the 12th fret?
The two dots signify the next highest octave.
The 12th fret of the guitar (regardless of the string) is always the same note as the open string at the 12th fret, just one octave higher. This is the most useful fret marker on the fretboard as this is where the notes begin repeating.
It’s also useful if you happen to be working on your guitar. For example, if measuring scale length it’s handy to have a quick visual reference indicating where the octave begins.
Why are fret markers placed on some frets and not others?
While there are no rules dictating the position of fret markers. There are a number of theories, some simple, some a little more sophisticated.
For example, some believe the position of the markers is loosely based on the intervals of a perfect 4th (5th fret), perfect 5th (7th), and octave (12th fret), but this fails to explain the 3rd fret (minor third) and 9th fret (major sixth) frets.
Others believe it is based on the order of natural harmonics, but again this fails to explain why the 3rd and 9th frets have inlays.
While it’s unlikely anyone will be able to offer a definitive answer, in my opinion, it’s almost certain tradition has played a role along with balance and aesthetics.
For example, the most important fret to mark is the 12th fret. From there the position of the fret markers appears as equally distributed as possible taking into account how the frets are divided up.
For example, placing the fret markers on additional frets aside from the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th frets would lead to a less evenly distributed spacing (as the frets become narrower higher up the neck) and look unbalanced.
Are fret markers always shown as dots?
No. In my previous business, we offered a number of different options when it came to fret markers, including no fret markers at all (if that was your preference), dots, block inlays, and shark fin inlays (it looks exactly like it sounds), trapezoid, and split parallelogram inlays.
In most cases, acoustic guitars will be seen with dot inlays but there are exceptions including PRS which utilize their instantly recognizable bird inlays on both electric and acoustic guitars.
In other cases, such as in the electric guitar world the Ibanez Jem features a stunning vine inlay known as the tree of life.
What are fret markers made from?
More expensive guitars most commonly feature genuine Abalone or Mother of Pearl (both taken from seashells) or may also come with semi-precious gemstone inlays. Wood has also been used from time to time along with fret marker stickers, which we’ll discuss shortly.
Do fretboard markers affect tone?
Seriously? can the shape, size, and material used affect tone?
In theory, one could mount an argument for it being possible e.g. Rosewood fretboards are often described as sounding darker than maple which is often credited with offering a brighter, more defined top end. So, it stands to reason that inlays, especially larger block inlays embedded into a rosewood fretboard may also have an impact on tone.
But the truth is inlays are only very thin (approx. 2mm depending on the material used) and in all seriousness, unlikely to alter the tone of a guitar in any discernible way. Even if so, the difference would be so minuscule that most of us wouldn’t hear any difference.
Why do some guitars not have fretboard markers?
Why do classical guitars not have fret markers?
Classical guitars (as a rule) typically do not have fretboard markers. This is also the case for other stringed instruments used in classical music such as the Violin and Viola.
Much like the debate on the position of fret markers, there is no ‘settled’ reason as to why fret markers do not appear on classical guitars but it is possible that due to classical musicians being required to sight-read, they rarely look at the fretting hand and therefore don’t require fretboard markers, although many do feature side dots.
What are side dots?
Side dots are just another point of reference for the fretting hand and are the only point of reference on the majority of classical guitars. You can see an example of them in the image of the classical guitar above.
They are placed on the same frets as fretboard markers (if the guitar has fret markers) and provide a visual reference for looking down at the guitar’s neck, as the fretboard is more difficult to see when playing in a standing position.
What are fretboard inlay stickers?
Fretboard inlay stickers are decals (decorative stickers) that can be applied to the fretboard (if your guitar doesn’t have fretboard markers) or you want to add some additional design elements to accompany your standard dot inlays.
They come in a range of options from basic dot and block patterns to more intricate designs featuring skulls and floral elements. They are also available for truss rod covers and headstocks and are even used for teaching the notes of the fretboard.
Most guitarists probably don’t give much thought to fretboard markers. But as you can see, they serve a useful purpose and I suspect many of us might be a little lost without them.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check my other articles describing how acoustic guitars work.