In today’s article we’re going to take a closer look at fret markers (aka fretboard inlays, position markers) 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 up and down your fretboard:
Fret markers provide points of reference on the fretboard, helping the guitarist navigate the fretboard more effectively. They are normally located on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 17th, and 19th frets on acoustic guitar. On electric guitar, the 21st fret is also included.
So as we can see, fret markers are a useful tool for navigating the fretboard, allowing the guitarist to orientate themselves without needing to count frets.
In some cases, a fret marker will also be seen on the 1st fret (seen more often on guitars with block or split parallelogram fret markers e.g. The Gibson Hummingbird) and in some cases, there may not be a fret marker at all on the 3rd fret.
Some Selmers (Gypsy Jazz guitars) feature a fret marker on the 10th fret as opposed to the 9th fret (thus indicating the notes of the Minor Pentatonic scale, if counting the open string), and while less common may skip the 12th fret altogether as per the image below.
Regardless of these small variations, it’s important that, for the most part, fret marker position is standardized, otherwise it might be difficult to adjust to playing different guitars once you become familiar with the position of the fret markers.
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, making it easier to play barre chords, power chords and reference different scales.
But, that still leaves questions. For example:
Why are there two dots on the 12th fret?
The two dots signify the octave. E.g. The 12th fret of the guitar (regardless of the string) is always the same note as the open string at the 12th fret, only an octave higher. This is the most useful fret marker on the fretboard as this is where the notes start repeating.
It’s also useful if you happen to be working on your guitar. For example, if measuring scale length it’s important to know where the octave begins again. 24 fret electric guitars often feature two dots at the 24th fret also to indicate the second octave.
Why are fret markers placed on some frets and not others?
While there are no rules dictating the position of fret markers, as to why they appear on some frets and not others is often debated. There are a number of theories, some simple, some a little more sophisticated, and less musical.
In some cases, a theory will almost explain fret marker position but have one or two exceptions. 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 as this divides the octave. From there the position of the fret markers appears as equally distributed as possible taking into account how the frets are divided up to form the octave. E.g. placing the fret markers on any other frets aside from the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th would lead to a less equal spacing (as the frets become narrower the higher up the neck) and be less visually appealing, looking unbalanced. While it’s impossible to distribute the inlays perfectly due to the relative width of frets as you ascend up the neck, this is a decent compromise.
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, shark fin (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, which while perhaps a little less functional than traditional fret markers looks incredible and requires a lot of skill and additional work if the work is done by hand.
What are fret markers made from?
Most entry-level guitars feature plastic inlays (Pearloid, Celluloid), or faux Mother of Pearl, or Abalone (made from Polymer clay). 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.
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 potentially minute 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 proven reason why fret markers do not appear on classical guitars but it is possible that due to classical musicians being required to sight-read that 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 playing when standing up 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 sometimes even used for teaching the notes of the fretboard.
Most guitarists probably don’t give much consideration to fretboard markers. But as you can see, they serve a useful purpose for navigating the fretboard and I suspect many of us (there are always exceptions) may be a little lost without them. As to why they are placed on specific frets and not others? I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments section below.