Many guitarists learn to play the guitar only in first position (open strings and the notes on the first four frets). Learning to play in other positions, a guitarist benefits himself in a number of ways.
Closer Fret Spacing in Higher Positions
Playing in higher positions, such as fifth position or ninth position, is easier because the space between frets is closer in higher positions. For example, on my classical guitar, frets 1 and 2 are 1 1/4 inches apart; frets 6 and 7 are 1 inch apart; and, frets 9 and 10 are 13/16 of an inch apart.
The closer spacing in higher positions makes learning to play the guitar easier in those positions because even a guitarist with relatively short fingers is able to cover more frets in those positions without having to move his hand. What’s more, various fingerings of multiple notes played at the same time are very hard (or even impossible) in first position, but they are often much easier in higher positions.
Variety of Timbres for the Same Note
Playing only in first position, a guitarist limits himself to playing a given note on only one string. By learning to play the same note on multiple strings, he is able to play that note with several different timbres.
For example, the open string E on the first string can also be played at the 5th fret of the second string, the 9th fret of the 3rd string, and the 14th fret of the fourth string. Although the pitch remains the same, the timbre of the E played varies widely from the fourth string to the first string.
Knowing the different timbres available on the guitar, a guitarist can create striking variations for playing the same melodies and chords of songs. Using this technique, a guitarist can accompany singers or other instrumentalists with an appealingly different texture of his accompaniment for each stanza of a song.
Playing in Certain Keys is Much Easier in Certain Positions
Advanced guitarists who take the time to learn where all the notes are on the fretboard discover that playing in certain positions makes playing the melody of a song much easier than it is in other positions. For example, seventh position is excellent for playing many songs in the keys of C, G, and D that are more challenging to play in lower positions.
Playing in Multiple Keys and Transposing Using a Movable Major Scale
By learning to play a movable major scale that spans two octaves, a guitarist who knows his positions well can play the same melody in multiple keys. This skill is especially valuable for songs that feature modulations in them.
What’s more, many songbooks have music in flat keys that are difficult for many guitarists to play because they do not take the time to learn to play songs in flat keys. By understanding how to use a movable major scale in different positions, advanced guitarists are able to play these songs both in these keys and in other keys by transposing them.
Chord Melody Solos
Playing a song in chord melody style provides a guitarist with a vital skill that increases his playing ability greatly. A guitarist can play both the chords and the melody of a song at the same time by using this style!
For example, listen to My Country ‘Tis of Thee played as a chord melody solo. Because this song is in 3/4, the guitarist plays a chord on beat 1 of every measure while playing the melody throughout:
Knowing where the notes are in multiple positions is essential for playing this style. Learning various chord shapes also makes learning the short chords that are the heart of this style much easier.
Learning to play in multiple positions on the guitar is valuable for many reasons. I have been teaching myself this skill for some time now and have found it to be very helpful in enriching my guitar playing!
I am also in the process of teaching a number of my students these advanced techniques. It is rewarding to see the progress that they are making!