Open Strings vs. Fretted Notes

Lesson summary: Define melodies, harmonies, and countermelodies by deciding where to play notes on the guitar neck. With video and tab. By Alex De Grassi

ON THE GUITAR, THE SAME PITCH can often be played on several strings in different positions on the neck, and in some cases you have a choice of playing either a fretted note or an open-string note. Look at Example 1 and play each of the open strings and then the equivalent pitch as a fretted note (these are the same pairings you use to tune your strings). Logically enough, there is no fretted equivalent for the open sixth string.

The decision to use an open string or a fretted note might be based simply on convenience. Which one is easier to play? Another consideration is note duration— should each note end before the next begins, or should they overlap? Let’s look at how these considerations affect the choice of an open or fretted note in a musical phrase.

Example 1

fret example1

Many of the notes in Example 2 are played open for convenience; it is less work for the fretting hand, and the notes fall comfortably under the picking hand. Play through the example allowing the open strings to ring, and you’ll hear that it has a pleasing sound.

However, if the nature of the music suggested that we maintain strict quarter-note durations, it would be necessary to stop the open strings with the pickinghand fingers. Play the exercise again very slowly, releasing the fretted notes after their written values, and stopping the open strings with the finger that plucked them as you pluck the succeeding note. This makes the passage considerably more challenging.

An alternative way of controlling the note durations is to play the passage in second position and replace the open-string notes with fretted notes, as shown in Example 3. This eliminates the need for stopping any strings with the picking hand, and makes it easier to maintain strict quarter-note durations simply by releasing the fretting-hand finger as you play the succeeding note. It is a more “discreet” way of playing the line. However, it is more work for the fretting hand.

Example 2-4

lesson example 2-4

Musical Intention

Most fingerstyle guitar arrangements are polyphonic, meaning that they consist of separate lines, such as a melody, a bass line, and perhaps a third line in the form of a countermelody, harmony, or rhythmic pattern. These individual lines are called voices, and they are most clearly shown in standard notation. The choice of a fretted note or an open string can help define which notes belong to which voice.

Example 4 has exactly the same sequence of notes as Examples 2 and 3, but it has been rewritten to change the intention of the music. Some of the individual note durations have been lengthened, and the sequence has been split into two separate voices: an upper voice, with stems up, and a lower voice, with stems down. In the process, the melody (stems up) has been modified, and a counterpart (stems down) has been developed.

Notice that many of the open strings have been restored, as in Example 2. However, some notes that could be played open, such as the pitch B in measures 2, 4, and 6, are played as fretted notes. The new fingering has been arranged so that there is no need to stop strings with the picking hand, and so it is relatively easy to hold and release the fretted notes to obtain the correct note durations.

As you play through the example, try to hear the two voices as separate parts. Play the notes in the upper voice loudly and the notes of the lower voice softly to emphasize the effect of two voices being played.