How to Play Above the 12th Fret on Classical Guitar

Most of the music we play on classical guitar uses the lower frets. Yet some go much higher on the fretboard. Some music even calls for the notes above the 12th fret.

There are special techniques and methods to play above the 12th fret on classical guitar. These make it possible to play cleanly and (almost) comfortably in these higher regions.

The Challenge of High Notes on Classical Guitar

On a classical guitar with the traditional body style, the neck meets the body at the 12th fret. This means that the neck effectively stops there.

To play higher, we must work around the body of the guitar. This creates issues with reach and leverage.

Our sitting position may also change as we move higher on the neck. We may need to drop the left shoulder and/or lean to the left to access the notes.

To play above the 12th fret, we must change position in the left hand. The most common method to play high on the neck is called thumb position.

Thumb Position for High-Register Guitar Playing

In thumb position, we move our left thumb to the lower corner where the body meets the neck. Under the neck.

This allows us to bring the hand and fingers around to the front of the guitar. And keeping the thumb placed allows for leverage to press the strings.

Thumb position also makes large reaches possible. For example, we can extend our little finger all the way to the highest frets of the guitar.

Choose Fingerings for Ease of Playing

As we learn music that uses the higher positions, we can optimize for playability. Above the 12th fret, we are able to cover more frets than in lower positions.

So fingerings that would be impractical lower on the neck are attainable here. For example, we can cover seven or more frets on a single string. This would be more difficult lower on the fretboard.

Likewise, playing on the lower strings (E, A, and D strings) above the 12th fret are more difficult than the higher strings. So shifting down may be preferable to using these strings. This is not always possible, but worth considering.

As we choose fingerings in a piece of music, we can experiment with the different options. Then we can opt for the ones that are most likely to work at the full tempo (speed) of the piece.

Extra Techniques

Besides thumb position, there are other techniques we can use to play above the 12th fret.

Playing with No Anchor

Instead of bracing the thumb on the fretboard, as in thumb position, we can let the hand float. We then press the strings. This uses the strength of the fingers and the weight of the arm.

While more athletic, this can be a better option for some pieces of music.

We sacrifice the stretch between fingers but are freer to move between positions.

Thumb on Fretboard

We can also use the side of the thumb to press frets. For this technique, we must supply our own leverage. Like playing without an anchor, we use pure muscle to press the strings.

To press with the thumb, we rotate the forearm in a twisting motion. Think of turning a doorknob.

This method allows for a very large reach, as the whole left hand is fretting the notes.


As an alternative to fully fretting the higher notes, we may decide to play harmonics instead. We can do this with the right or left hands. For these, we can use natural harmonics, or artificial harmonics.

For each note, we must find the harmonic that gives the desired pitch. This usually changes the fingering.

Harmonics also change the sound of the note. But depending on the music, it could be a welcome effect.

Right-Hand Tip for Playing in the High Register

When we move the left hand up above the 12th fret, we can move the right hand back toward the bridge.  This allows the sound quality to remain resonant and rich.

When we play with the hands close together, the sound can “pinch” and turn thin.  It almost sounds choked or restricted.

So as we move up high, we can move the right hand back.  Ideally, the right hand plays back about 2/3 to 3/4 of the length of the string.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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