What Are Fret Markers For: Decorative or Functional?

Fret markers, or those dots you see on the fretboard of a guitar or bass, just always seem to be there. Often, they become a part of the neck that we don’t even really see unless we’re actively inspecting them. But, what are fret markers for? How important are they to everyday bass or guitar playing?

Fret markers actually “mark” specific frets on the fretboard of a guitar or bass to help quickly navigate as you move up and down the neck. They’re especially helpful when learning how to play, or when playing faster or more intricate songs or solos. They can also be used as a major design aspect.

So, fret markers are both functional and decorative. They aren’t always just basic dots along the neck. Some luthiers use incredibly beautiful shapes and outlines as inlays to mark frets. Also, fret markers are made from many different types of materials as well.

Fret markers as function

Often, you’ll see very advanced musicians playing with their eyes closed, never even looking at their fretboard once. They seem to know the neck of their bass or guitar so well that fret markers might as well not be there at all. And, for them, it’s very true.

However, there are plenty of advanced musicians who still glance at the fretboard from time to time and use the markers to locate where they want to be. But, for players at these very high levels, the fret markers do take on more of a decorative function.

When you’re starting out though, we all need as much help as we can get. Being able to quickly see where a certain fret is can make the learning process much easier and faster. It can also help you to focus on notes and technique rather than where fret seven actually is.

Learning something like basic music theory for bass guitar can be challenging enough on its own for some players. A bit of help is always welcome, right?

I found that, on bass, the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 12th frets were most important when it came to using the fret markers to locate my position. As I got more comfortable with moving around and not always looking at the neck, I tended to use the markers on frets 9 and 12 mostly.

While fret markers are super helpful, the importance of learning patterns and how to find frets by feel can’t be overstated.

Where do you find fretboard markers and why

Typically, you’ll see fret markers at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 17th, 19th, and possibly 21st frets. As you can see, they land on the odd-numbered fret spaces aside from the 12th fret, which is where the octave is marked.

The octave is possibly the most helpful for beginners and more experienced players alike. Moving larger distances quickly can be difficult, and knowing where the octave is can be crucial for not losing your bearings while playing.

That twelfth fret is especially important as it marks where you start the notes over on each string. Since there are twelve tones in a chromatic scale, and each fret gives you a different tone, by the time you get to fret twelve, you start all over again. This is why you’ll usually find two fret markers on the 12th fret.

Fret markers as decoration

Luthiers, or stringed instrument makers, are complicated, amazing creatures. They have to know a lot of science regarding how wood sounds and reacts with other types of wood. They have to understand the physics of acoustics and how to coax amazing sounds out of hard materials.

But, luthiers are also artists. They craft beautiful things. So, sometimes, a fret marker in the hands of a skilled luthier is going to be something amazing. It could be a bird, a flower, or some shape designed to fit the personality of their client perfectly.

Often, fret markers are designed specifically for the type and color of the wood on the fretboard. They can be made from many different materials. Common choices are shell (such as abalone), mother of pearl (or cheaper pearloid), wood, clay, gemstones, and even plastic.

Fretboard stickers

There are a number of different choices when it comes to stickers for your fretboard as well. If you need a bit more help while learning the fretboard, or if you’re giving a bass or guitar as a gift to a younger player, you might think of trying some fretboard stickers for a little while.

My advice is to use them for as short a time as possible. Let the new player get their bearings, and then encourage them to learn the neck without the help of the stickers as soon as they’re comfortable. 

What are fret markers for: Final thoughts

There are some incredibly beautiful designs out there when it comes to basses and guitars. And, the aesthetic aspect of fret markers can’t be denied. The classic look of the pearl dot inlay, used by many builders including Fender, is simple, straightforward, and wonderful.

However, the skills of a master luthier are something special when it comes to intricate inlays up and down the fretboard of a custom-made instrument. It provides functionality for learning and playing, and gives personality to something that someone will be happy to play for years and years.

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