Why Are There Dots on Guitar Fretboards? Your Guide To Inlays And Markers

Pick up just about any guitar and you will notice that there are dots on the fretboard and the top of the neck. If you’re a new guitarist, you may not realize what these dots are.

These dots, also known as inlays, are important to the design of the instrument and yet some professional musicians don’t even know what they are and why they’re there.  This quick guide will give you all the information you want to know about the dots on a fretboard and how you can use them to your playing advantage.

What Are the Dots on a Guitar Fretboard?

The dots on a guitar fretboard are helpful indicators for musicians to know which notes they are playing on the fretboard. The dots follow the same pattern for the majority of guitars, so once you’ve learned to work with this pattern on one guitar, you will find them helpful on almost every guitar you pick up.  

Experienced musicians can find any spot on the fretboard from memory, but what happens if you switch guitars? Each instrument has a slightly different feel and in these cases you will find yourself relying on fretboard markers to get accustomed to a new fretboard. 

These dots have many uses for players. Some guitarists rely heavily on these dots to remember where certain chords are. Others use them as a starting point to remember where to begin songs and chord progressions. Still others use them as a touchstone when transcribing music from one string to another. 

Any way you look at it, the dots on a guitar are a useful tool regardless of your playing level or how you use them. 

Guitar Dots vs. Fretboard Markers vs. Guitar Inlays

The dots on a guitar fretboard go by many names. Some musicians call them fret markers, or inlays. Others simply call them dots. These  terms all mean the same thing. 

One reason the name for this guitar feature is different is that some guitars will have shapes other than dots on their frets. The Epiphone Casino and the Gibson Les Paul famously have trapezoid inlays. Jackson prefers to design guitars with shark-fin-shaped fret markers to give them a more heavy metal feel. 

PRS guitars have inlays that are shaped like birds, which make these guitars unique. Each of the nine frets with inlays on a PRS guitar features a different bird, a design specification that dates back to the first guitar Paul Smith designed for Peter Frampton in 1976. This is a cool bit of guitar trivia, but the shape of the actual inlays does not affect the playing experience or the sound of the guitar at all.

Here are a list of several of the most popular types of inlays for guitar fretboards:

  • Dot 
  • Block
  • Trapezoid
  • Shark fin
  • LED inlays
  • Classical (no front fret inlays)
  • Tree of Life inlays

A tree of life inlay is popular in acoustic instruments and features leaves or a tree design that stretches across the fretboard. It’s a very stylish design but not for everybody. 

The important thing to remember is that if you hear a musician talking about guitar dots, guitar fretboard markers, or guitar inlays, they are talking about the same thing.

Why Are Fret Markers Where They Are?  

The pattern for the layout of fretboard markers is the same for the majority of guitars. Most guitars have dots on frets 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 15, 17, 19, 21, and 24 (where available — not all guitars have 24 frets). 

Why Are There 2 Dots on the 12th Fret? 

Remember that frets 12 and 24 usually have two dots. Why give 2 fretboard markers for these frets? The reason is that the note values of these particular frets are noteworthy. 

The 12th fret and 24th frets of a guitar are octaves of the open string you’re playing on. For this reason, having two dots on these particular frets makes for an easy reference point. 

For example, the 12th fret on an E string is also E. After that, the cycle of notes repeats itself. The 13th note is the same as the 1st note (F), the 14th fret is the same as the 2nd note (F#), and on and on up the neck. So you can play the same riffs and licks one octave higher by playing above the 12th fret. 

The same goes for the 24th fret on the E string (although there are no notes that are higher than this on a normal guitar). The 24th fret is two octaves higher than the open string and is a great note to hit when hitting crescendos in solos, if it’s in the right key. 

Once you are familiar with the guitar you will use these two dots on the 12th and 24th frets as a convenient reference point. You can count down backwards from the 12th fret easily to find the 10th fret, for example. Having two dots there makes it easier to do this because they are instantly recognizable.

Why Are There Dots On the Top of the Guitar Neck? 

It’s useful to have dots on the top of the guitar neck because this lets you play without having to lean over and look at the front of the fretboard. These dots correspond with the dots on the fretboard. This way you have the same helpful fret guide on the top of the neck where it’s easier to reference while playing. 

Most guitars have dots on the fretboard, but you may encounter some guitars that don’t have dots, such as fretless guitars and classical guitars. But even guitars without dots on the fretboard will have dots on top of the neck to indicate the same thing. It helps players to avoid getting lost while playing.  

Use Guitar Dot Inlays to Tune Your Guitar

If you’re trying to get your guitar in tune and you don’t have a tuner, you can use guitar fretboard markers to help. To do this, you’ll be relying on playing octaves to make sure that the strings are in tune with one another. 

In standard tuning (EADGBE) with one string in tune, you can play the open string and the 7th fret of the next string. This note is the octave. 

For example, if you’re playing an open low E string, the 7th note on the A string is also E. Play those two notes in unison and adjust the tuning pegs on the guitar until the notes are in tune. In this way, by repeating this process for all the strings on the guitar, you can tune everything to one single string. 

How Can I Use Guitar Inlays When Playing? 

f you are new to guitar, a good way to practice using guitar inlays is to practice jumping up octaves on the same string. 

Play a phrase on the E-string, then jump up above the 12th fret on the same string to play the same phrase an octave higher. As you are repeating the phrase, try speeding up the tempo so that you can quickly jump up and repeat. 

Pay attention to the guitar inlays and how they can help you become oriented with the fretboard both in the lower register and the higher register. This will get you accustomed to the corresponding note values higher up on the neck of the guitar. This exercise will also help you develop muscle memory for how far you have to “jump” up the fretboard to hit the same notes one octave higher. 

Another way to train yourself to move around the fretboard and use fretboard markers is to practice scales in two octaves and use the inlays as a guide. When you practice a scale shape and then move above the 12th fret to do the same scale, you will notice that the scale shape stays exactly the same. These patterns are incredibly useful and mastering the fretboard can make you a better player faster. 

Another good exercise to help you get acclimated to using guitar fretboard markers when playing is to transcribe a phrase from one string to another. For example, when your guitar is in standard tuning, if you are playing the 12th fret on the E string, try playing the same note on the A string. Notice that the note sounds the same, but it has now dropped down to the 7th fret? 

When you play the same now on the D string, you’ll notice it’s now on the 2nd fret. You can practice this for many different note values around the fretboard. Soon enough, you’ll be able to find any note on the fretboard when asked and build a chord around it.  

Always use the fretboard dots to get oriented with where you are on the neck. Once you are familiar with how the fretboard markers can help you, you can begin to play whole phrases and transcribe them across the strings. 

This is very helpful to do as a guitarist because sometimes you will prefer playing a passage on a particular string because it is more convenient.

What Are Guitar Inlays Made Of? 

The most common materials for guitar inlays are wood, mother of pearl (also known as nacre), and plastic. Guitar fret markers can have a variety of colors, shapes or patterns. But the material that a guitar inlay is made from and the differences in design do not affect the sound of the instrument or the playability. 

What are mother of pearl fret inlays? This material is made from ground up seashells and has a cool, slightly shimmery look. Mother of pearl can come in a variety of colors, but the most common are gold, white, and black. For those who can’t afford this kind of feature or who just want something more basic, mother of pearl material can be made out of plastic that will look very similar to the original. This artificial mother of pearl is known as pearloid. 

Older vintage guitars may have ivory inlays, as this was a popular material for guitar building before the use of ivory was banned for sustainability reasons. 

Can You Replace Guitar Inlays? 

You can replace guitar inlays but usually it’s best to consult a professional before doing so. Replacing inlays is a difficult task that requires repetitive tasks that you will need to do for every fret on the fretboard that has an inlay. 

Doing this process incorrectly can result in a damaged fretboard or a guitar that is not playable, so proceed at your own risk! 

How to Install Guitar Inlays

If replacing your guitar’s inlays is still something you want to do, here are the steps to replacing inlays on your guitar’s fretboard:

  • Measure the inlays and order replacements
  • Remove the guitar strings
  • Drill a small hole in the existing dot
  • Scrape out the existing inlay
  • Add a dab of super glue to the hole in the fret
  • Replace with a new fret marker
  • Gently sand down the fret so that it is even
  • Repeat this process for every marked fret on the neck
  • Polish the fretboard

You will want to polish the fretboard after doing so much sanding. This will make the instrument look more presentable as well as remove any debris that might make it harder to play. 

Inlays Are An Important Part of Your Guitar

That sums up everything you really need to know about dots on the guitar neck. If you are just starting out playing guitar, you may need to rely more heavily on these fret markers. As you develop as a player and get experience with many different interests you’ll find it easier to work from memory. Nevertheless, it’s good to know what guitar inlays are and the purpose they serve. 

Killer Guitar Rigs has tons of useful information like this on the parts of the guitar as well as regular updates with tips, recommendations, and gear reviews. Check this blog often to stay up to date, and until next time, happy riffing! 

  • Dan Eder

    Dan grew up playing in bands in the local NY hardcore scene and adding his signature mix of thumb thumping and deadly Drop D distortion. During that time, he managed to learn just enough about theory and songwriting to be dangerous, and slightly nerdy—in a good way. After getting his BS in Journalism at Northwestern University, Dan went on to write for everyone from NPR, to Cartoon Network, to KillerGuitarRigs.