Home » Module 1 | Preparing to Learn Guitar » Introduction: How to Fret a Guitar

Introduction: How to Fret a Guitar

allan holdsworth fretting notes

The 6 Second Summary:

“Fretting” notes on the guitar is the act of temporarily changing the guitar string’s pitch. 

For ideal sound clarity and dexterity, fretting notes is best done by placing your fingertip upon the string, closely behind a given fret, and depressing the string, such that the string makes solid contact with the fret.

Introduction

Alright, you’re at the exciting stage of starting to really play the guitar! Know that, when it comes to fretting notes, you’ve arrived at the first chapter of quite a boundless facet of guitar technique.

(Eddie Van Halen performing with Van Halen in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984)

As simple as fretting a note might seem, you’ll constantly be challenged to evolve your fretting technique for the years to come, but it’s a beautiful adventure of balancing sound clarity with dexterity. 

Also, by reading until the end, you’ll learn the fundamental technique of how to go about fretting notes!

The Mechanics of Fretting Notes on the Guitar

Perhaps unsurprisingly, everything about your left hand (if you’re a right-handed players) revolves around the central purpose of fretting notes; your shoulder position, cascading down through your forearm, wrist, and hand shape are together constantly trying to form highly efficient fretting positions for given situations, optimizing for that sound clarity and dexterity.

Detail of a guitarist playing an open D chord on an acoustic guitar, taken on November 24, 2016. (Photo by Olly Curtis/Total Guitar Magazine)

Onto the fundamental technique of fretting notes, it’s actually quite simple at its base level; put simply, fretting notes is the act of temporarily changing the string’s resonant pitch when plucked.

There are two aspects of fretting notes: firstly, what your guitar “sees”, and secondly what you “see”.

a. What Your Guitar “Sees”

For what your guitar “sees”, it’s quite straight-forward; essentially, it wants the string pressed down against the fret, so that the fret shortens the span about which the string vibrates.

Thus, vibrating with that shorter length, the resonant frequency of the string changes, which in turn changes the string’s pitch!

So, really, your prime focus should be to press the string with sufficient pressure against the fret, so that physics can work its magic and alter the string’s pitch.

b. What You “See”

For what you “see” (or, in other words, what you’re dealing with), it’s also quite straight-forward, though it takes practice to maximize efficiency (in finger pressure) and dexterity when fretting notes.

Please Use Your Fingertips!

Perhaps most importantly, you must fret notes with your fingertips, not your finger pads. With the exception of “barring” techniques, which you’ll learn at the intermediate stages of learning guitar, there are few (if any) instances where you should fret notes with your finger pads.

Imagine your fretting hand is like the Kung Fu tiger claw, with each finger arched. With that shape, you’ll be able to use your fingertips (rather than your finger pads) and more efficiently exert finger pressure upon the strings.

On that note, using your fingertips provides you with two crucial advantages. Firstly, since your fingertip covers less area, you don’t need to exert as much force to apply an equivalent pressure; basically, it’ll make your fingers fatigue less quickly! Secondly, by arching your fingers in that Kung Fu Tiger Claw way, you create more space, making it easier to fret multiple notes, such as chords, while allowing the notes to ring out fully.

Fretting Technique Is a Mainstay of Guitar Playing

At nearly all stages of learning guitar, from beginner, to intermediate, to advanced, to pro, to even generational talents, you’ll be revisiting and continually honing your fretting hand technique.

In other words, don’t “fret” if your fretting hand struggles to form good arched fingers to play with your fingertips; but, crucially, keep at it, because it will come gradually with time.

In fact, even masterful guitarists such as Dan Wilson still focus on their fretting technique! He mentions that, in the year of 2020, he was practicing mightily to cleanly catch his notes, and allot each fretted note its optimal time value, almost so that the effect is that his guitar sounds like it has a natural sustain effect. 

Fretting Your First Notes

Okay, now, try fretting some notes at total random! By starting with fretting some notes, even if it’s some crazed string of notes, improvised with no intent, you’ll get a sense for soon what it means to fret notes, preparing you for upcoming songs.

On a Single String

Try fretting a note on, say, the thinnest string (called the 1st string); remember to use your fingertip, and place your fingertip closely behind a given fret, then hold it down. After that, try plucking the string. Then, try repeating that process on other strings. 

Experiment With Bad Technique! (So You Know Why to Use Good Technique)

Also, test and see what happens if you move astray from the ideal techniques.

Try fretting the note far from the fret (so that’s it’s not closely behind the fret, but further away) – notice how it still produces a sound, but it just make lack as much clarity of tone; then, try fretting the note directly on top of the string, and notice how it’s more muffled and less resonant. 

Conclusion

Once you’ve started fretting lots of notes at random, pat yourself on the back! You’ve not only gotten a sense of what it means to fret notes, but you’ve also composed your first, free-form improvisational music!

Thus, you can see that fretting notes is fundamentally quite simple, though it just takes some muscle memory and repetitions to steadily balance your note clarity and dexterity. Know that fretting notes will surely take time, in fact many years, to continuously hone, but, by focusing on the core techniques of using placing your fingertips closely behind the frets, you’ll be well on your way in no time!