Guitar Specific Notation: Fingering Indications for the Right and Left Hands

Guitar specific notation is super handy. If you see little numbers and letters in the treble staff, it usually means someone (the composer or arranger, a teacher, or the editor) has gone through and thoughtfully provided you with the suggested, the best, or even the only possible working fingering indications.

Fingering is the term guitarists use for the choice, or assignment, of specific fingers to play a given note or passage of notes. In classical guitar, the issue of fingering comes up a lot.

Numbers without circles appearing next to or near note heads tell you which left-hand fingers to use, as follows:

  • 1 = Index finger

  • 2 = Middle finger

  • 3 = Ring finger

  • 4 = Little finger

You almost never use the left-hand thumb in fingering. Letters above or below notes indicate right-hand fingers, with the letters signifying the Spanish words for the thumb and the index, middle, and ring fingers:

  • p = thumb (pulgar)

  • i = index (índice)

  • m = middle (medio)

  • a = ring (anular)

Except for some special percussive techniques and in flamenco style, you don’t use the right-hand little finger. Check out this passage of music with some left- and right-hand fingering indications.

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Sometimes you have to use the same left-hand finger to fret two consecutive notes on the same string at different frets. This requires you to actually move your left hand up or down the neck. Keeping your finger in contact with the string as you move to the new fret helps to guide your left hand.

The guide finger is indicated in notation with a short, straight line appearing to the left of the second of the two finger numbers, slanting in the direction of the left-hand movement (up or down). Here is the 1st finger acting as a guide finger moving down one fret from A to A♭ó.

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Unlike the piano, where each note on the staff indicates one and only one piano key, the guitar often provides more than one place to play a given note. For example, you can play the second line G on the open 3rd string or on the 4th string at the 5th fret.

If the music requires you to play a note or passage of notes on a certain string, you see a number inside a circle, which indicates the string. If you must play a second-line G on the 4th string (instead of as an open 3rd string), you see a 4 inside a circle. This passage is playable only if you take the downstem G on the 4th string, 5th fret.

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