Zone Systems

Recall, previously we had learned how to create fretboard maps (see for more details).

In this lesson we are going to look at how to carve up such things. This will give us playable positions in which to learn the fretboard and have the freedom to make choices rather than being stuck with what we already know. Indeed, properly understanding zone systems will allow us to transcend zone systems (go beyond "the box") and become one step closer to unfettered expression.

Let's start by looking at ways to carve up a fretboard.

Consider Eb major scale.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 T E W R F I S

We will first consider positions as classical guitarists refer to them.

We start with open position. Open position consists of notes on the open strings plus the 1st 3 frets. use your 1st finger for notes on the 1st fret, 2nd finger for notes on the 2nd fret, 3rd finger on the 3rd fret. If the need arises for a note found in the 4th fret, use your pinky to play it.

So looking at Eb major, open position, we have:

0 1 2 3 4 

We note that the 4th fret is needed for the octave and 2 fours.

If instead we look at 1st position (1st finger to 1st fret, 2nd finger to 2nd fret, 3rd finger to 3rd fret, 4th finger to 4th fret), it looks pretty much the same.

0 1 2 3 4 5 

note: frets 1-4 are "in" the position, where the open notes are not. You have choices between whether to play the notes "outside" the position (3 and 7) on open strings or in the 5th fret. You can choose to play open strings which probably leads to easier fingerings, or you could choose the 5th fret notes thereby eliminating the tonal differences between open and fretted strings.

Note: I did not include in the diagram the 6 on the 5th fret (3rd string)because it was already in 1st position. Someone may find it handy to have 4 notes to a string (maybe for legato phrasing, etc.). Generally when playing in a position we conatin our fingers to as many notes as possible in that position, but we are not bound to.

Moving on to 2nd position (still Eb major scale) we have:

 2 3 4 5 

and we notice that what a position really tells us is where to put our fingers. 2nd position means 1st finger plays notes on the 2nd fret, 2nd finger plays notes on the 3rd fret, 3rd finger plays notes on the 4th fret, and 4th finger plays notes on the 5th fret. If we need to play a note on the 1st fret, the first finger covers that also. And if we need to play notes on the 6th fret, the 4th finger covers those. Looking at 2nd position for Eb major, several notes in the scale are outside the position. This will require some stretching of the fingers and 2nd position is probably not the best choice for Eb major. Not every position is equal in accessability and ease for all scales (chords, arpeggios, etc.)

Moving on to 3rd position we have:

 3 4 5 6 

a much better position to play Eb major in, all notes are within the outer boundaries (3 on 6th string, 5 on 1st string) are included in the position.

We could continue all the way up the neck, but i'll leave it to the reader to determine which positions give easy fingerings or other desirable qualities. It should be noted that as you progress further up the neck, the sound of the note (it's timbre) changes, so the E on the 12th fret of the 6th string does not sound exactly the same as the E on the 2nd fret of the 4th string even though they are of the same pitch.

Classical guitarists notate position by writing a Roman Numeral that corresponds to the position number above the music in standard notation (note: an uppercase C with a roman numeral after it says to play a barre at that fret in standard notation).

Another way to create zones is by octaves.
Most tunings cover 3.5 to 4.5 octaves. previously I had discussed octaves on the fretboard in standard tuning. If we take those ocataves and fill in the chromatic scale, we can create various zones which may or may not coincide to a large or small extent with other types of zone systems.

One string only (works in all tunings, all strings on the fretted guitar)


Sticking with standard tuning, there are two possibilites of two adjacent strings; either 2 strings seperated by a perfect fourth (p4) or by a major 3rd (M3). The M3 occurs between the 3rd and 2nd strings [G to B] while the P4 occurs between all other adjacent string pairs (6 to 5, 5 to 4, 4 to 3, and 2 to 1).

Looking at P4, we have:


Note: looking at P4, we see that there is overlap in tones [4,b5,5] in which we could play the same note on two different strings, so we have a choice as how to create our zone. I will for illustration's sake create the zone so that 1 through 4 are on the lower string and b5 through 1 are on the upper string.


Like wise for M3 we have :


and we will choose to create the zone as


With the octave spanning 3 strings, we have 3 possible adjacent string configurations (P4-P4 = E,A,D or A,D,G)(P4-M3 = D,G,B)(M3-P4 = G,B,E)



Choosing only the 1st 5 frets of the pattern, we can cover 1 octave from root to the octave.


We could also create




From which I could create






I would choose


Across 4 strings
We have 3 possibilities of adjacent string distances (P4-P4-P4, P4-P4-M3, P4-M3-P4)


For convienience I'll just show the choices I've made






Stretching a zone for one octave across 5 or 6 strings presents some fingering challenges. Here are 2 5-string possibilities and 1 6-string possibility.

5-string (E to B [6to2] )


5-string (A to E [5to1] )


6-string (E to E [6to1] )


having finished some of the simpler ways of carving up a fretboard, we'll consider some other questions.

* What possibilities are created if we add the open notes (or a capo) to the zone we're using. Consider the G major scale (previously we were just looking at the chromatic scale) G major scale = G,A,B,C,D,E,F#,G. The notes A,B,D,E, and G are found in the open tuning. We could mix in those open strings with the other notes for a certain effect (this is sometimes heard in folk musics).

Looking at 2 octaves of G major scale with open notes I could choose to play the following:

0  1  2  3  4  5  6  7


* Although recent examples were in one octave, there is no reason to restrict ourselves to one octave. We could create zones with more or less notes.

Here is an example of equal-notes-per-string:


Historically, musicians used to split the perfect 4th (rather than the octave) into smaller distances thus creating tetrachords. These actually represented different tuning systems and the discussion is pretty much lost on current players who are blindly wedded to equal-temperment tuning. But for curriosity's sake, various authors made mention of the following tetrachords (meaning "four-strings"):
- diatonic (something like two whole tones followed by a semitone)
- chromatic (something like a minor third followed by two semitones)
- enharmonic (something like a ditone followed by two quartal tones)

These tetrachords were defined by specific interval ratios that no longer fit precisely with the tuning system in current usage. Of course if you play on a fretless board (fretless bass, cello, etc.), or on a fingerboard with moveable frets (sitar), or harp-type instruments (psalters, harps, choosing to change tunings on a piano, or harpsichord, etc.), or simply playing only open strings with other tunings, then you can actually play those things as intended

I will include a pages on tetrachords and various tuning theories at a later date.

The uses for most zones shown so far include chord/scale/arpeggio construction. But we may want to stay in a particular zone for an entire progression so as to minimize voice-movement.

Consider the progression I-iii7-VI7-ii7-V7-Imaj7

There are different ways we could voice the chords and the progressions. We could use a similar voicing for every chordand have parallel movement throughout the progression.

in G:

   I iii7 VI7  ii7  V7 Imaj7

or we could play different voicings all within a small number of frets (in a zone).

   I iii7 VI7 ii7 V7 Imaj7

To my ear, the second example sounds better (but I might use the top idea in a punk song where I was trying to jar my audience (not the chords but the idea of completely parallel movement).

Next lesson is on caged systems and their like (best known zone system of all).

Christopher Roberts

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Last updated October 31, 2002
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