Playing in Higher Positions

Nearly all beginning guitar method books start in the open position for good reason.  The left hand stays fixed in place, oriented at the first fret.  Students learn up to 3 notes per string, while developing a contextual sense of the fingerboard–e.g. placing 2 on A at (3), enables 1 to easily find C on (2).

When it becomes necessary to use higher positions, many students often resist,  jumping to a higher fret only when absolutely needed, and then returning to the safety of open position.  It’s understandable because higher positions present challenges:

  • a lack of visual symmetry.
  • difficulties finding neck position (vertical distance).
  • note duplication.
  • an illogic string order when playing upper position notes with open strings.
  • Left-hand shifting and stretching.

Traditional approaches to learning the fingerboard include:

Vertical learning on a single string

Memorize the entire fingerboard

CAGED System (learn chords and their notes, then transpose them)

The Fixed-Position Method

While each of the above systems has merits, there is a more methodical approach using scale forms and fixed positions.  Fixed-position learning is cumulative, working in one position at a time, from lowest to highest (Position II to Position IX).  For more on positions, see Beyond the Open Position, & Guitar Keys and Positions).  The method’s immediate benefit (just like open-position learning) is left-hand security, free from distractions of shifting.

Scale forms and Keys

Major Scale Forms

Each new position introduces higher-fret notes, incorporated with notes from the learned lower position, so is overlapping and reinforcing.  Each is organized by a scale-form in a given key.  There are up to 5 major and 5 minor keys in each position.  The scale forms are transposable templates that provide a six-string context for where notes “live” in a position.

In each position, attention is on the typical guitar keys from the standard repetoire:

  • C, G, D, A, E, and F major
  • A, E, B, and D minor

With this filter, there are a limited number of keys to study in each position.  Notice in the table, that Postions III and VIII are missing.   This is because transposing scale forms here makes, B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat, G-flat, and B major–all non-guitaristic keys.

Form more information on Scale forms, see articles— Scale Pattern Recognition and Beyond the Open Position.

Position Major Key Minor Key
II C, G, D, A, F A, E, B, D
IV G, D, A, E E, B
V C, F A, D
VII C, G, D, F A, E, B, D
IX C, G, D, A, E A, E, B

Available guitar keys in each position

How it Works

After open position, students learn Postion  II with 5 major keys available: C, G, D, A, and F.   Let’s look at the G-major scale form, shown in the graphic below and which starts and ends with 2 on (6) (boxed).

Scale form II

Begin by studying the fingerboard graphic and learn just the scale’s left-hand fingering.  When secure, learn them on the staff.  Say and play the notes, vocalizing either letter names or solfege syllables.  Notice the only new notes are at Fret V: A-D-G-C-E-A.  If necessary, play the scale several times per note with i, m alternation.  As you play, visualize the note name and its location on the fingerboard.


Next, is the musical application of the scale.  The Shearer Method: Learning the Fingerboard, Book III is designed to do just that through duets called Inventions.  Each Invention is designed with student playable upper- and lower-register parts.  There are three Inventions per key, organized from easy, to intermediate, to harder.  Their varying rhythm and melody make them effective for position learning, so much more than scale exercises alone.

Following are excerpts from Position II Inventions in G major.

Though it would be easy to read this in open position, all notes should be played in Position II, which applies the G-major scale.  Open strings are to be played, only if notes are fingered with “0.”  As with all music learning, it’s best to first pre-read and visualize.

This invention has been designed in the syle of 3rd species counterpoint which later swaps between parts from phrase to phrase.   Note the increased rhythmic activity, mostly scalar, from Invention No. 1.

As the hardest Invention, No. 3 features 6/8 meter, offbeat accents, and simple chords in the guitar II part.  As with Invention No. 1, open strings are indicated with “0.”

Learning each fixed position, first by understanding its available keys and scale forms, and then applying them to music is an efficient way to become secure with the entire fingerboard.  Ultimately, you’ll work on more advanced music that changes from position to position.

Duet in Mixed Positions IV, V, VII

Tin Whistle Tunes is also available as a solo in another article about legato fingerings.

The Shearer Method: Learning the Fingerboard, Book III and Learning the Fingerboard Supplement, Book V are an excellent resource for developing reading fluency up and down the neck.   Once mastered, you’ll unlock the fullest musical potential of your guitar, increasing your left-hand fluidity to express with alternate fingerings and tone coloring.

For more information on The Shearer Method: Learning the Fingerboard, see the ASF Bookstore or the Online supplement


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