Guitar Terms and Symbols

There are quite a few terms and symbols in order to effectively communicate information from one guitarist to another. We have to be able to distinguish between four fingers on our left hand, five fingers on our right hand, six strings, and lots of frets (the metal inlays that travel along the neck of the instrument). We have special terminology and symbols for each of these to help us to be as clear as possible when communicating with another guitarist. 

In this lesson, we will focus on becoming familiar with the fundamental terms we need for the guitar and will go over some general tips for approaching technique on the instrument. In each technical category you will find a video with one of our instructors (Dr. Pile or Dr. Wolf) going over the most important things you need to know.

Numbers and Basic Technique

To refer to left-hand fingers we number the fingers beginning with the index. Index is 1, middle is 2, ring is 3, and little is 4. We don't use the left-hand thumb in standard guitar technique so it does not get a number. One other important fingering number you will come across frequently is a 0, this means that no left-hand fingers are used to press down the string while it is plucked. This is called playing an "open string". 

The general rule for left-hand technique is to keep fingers curved, press with the tip of the finger, keep nails short, and the thumb should be on its pad (don't point the thumb). Dr. Wolf will demonstrate all of these in the video.

left hand with fingers numbered

Naming and Basic Technique

To refer to right-hand fingers we use the first letter of each finger's name in Spanish (Spain is the guitar's birthplace after all). Therefore thumb is pulgar, index is índice, middle is medio, ring is anular, and little is chico (technically it is meñique  but that would conflict with medio, sometimes you see an "s" used too, it is not consistent, we will stick with "c" ). Keep in mind, you don't need to memorize the Spanish words, just the letters "p, i, m, a, c". 

There are three main techniques we need to learn for right-hand technique: rest stroke, free stroke, and rasgueado. Dr. Pile's video will introduce you to each of these.

right hand with finger letters

Letters and Numbers

The strings of the guitar are numbered from smallest (1) to biggest (6), or you might think from the ground up. Since both strings and left-hand fingers use numbers, it is important to note that string numbers are always circled, and finger numbers are not.

Each string is tuned to a particular pitch as well. Typically, we tune starting at the lowest, largest string (6) and work our way across each string until reaching the highest, smallest string (1). For this reason, we often memorize the letters of the strings beginning at the sixth string. Currently our favorite mnemonic for the string letters beginning at the sixth string is Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears.

guitar showing string numbers and letters
guitar with frets marked with roman numerals

Frets are metal ridges that cross the fingerboard and are numbered beginning at the head of the guitar towards the body. Traditionally frets numbers are written using Roman numerals. But these Roman numerals also indicate the playing position. Positions have to do with using our left hand in the most efficient way possible, which is to minimize horizontal (left and right) movement. We call this playing “in position”. The general rule for playing in position is that we stay in one area of the neck for as long as possible and only shift the hand left or right when necessary. We refer to the current position with a Roman numeral. The Roman numeral refers only to the position of the left-hand first finger, but it is implied that the remaining three fingers will each be responsible for the next higher fret until four frets have been accounted for. For example, playing in first position means the first finger plays fret one, second find plays fret two, third finger plays fret three, and fourth finger plays fret four. Here are a few more examples:

  • Second position: 1st finger at 2nd fret, 2nd finger at 3rd fret, 3rd finger at 4th fret, 4th finger at 5th fret
  • Third position: 1st finger at 3rd fret, 2nd finger at 4th fret, 3rd finger at 5th fret, 4th finger at 6th fret
  • Fifth position: 1st finger at 5th fret, 2nd finger at 6th fret, 3rd finger at 7th fret, 4th finger at 8th fret