What are Guitar Inlays – Are they Helpful?

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Written By Tanya

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It’s easy to play guitar, just follow the instructions.” Playing the guitar is so easy! That’s why my grandma is so ferocious, right? That’s probably why no one ever gives up on life…

While there may be truth to the “dot” statement in general, we don’t always have to follow the dots these times. Sometimes, we need to follow the roses, vampire bats and thorns as well as the planets of the solar system.

I don’t understand all the markers that are on my fretboard. They look so strange. Why are they so spread out? What purpose serve they?

What are the materials used to make inlays? What are the best ways to use them? Let’s look at the history of fretboard inlays for classical guitars, from the ancient to the modern custom inlays and stickers.

You’ll be able to identify all the types and their workings by the end of this tutorial. Although it might take some practice to use them, there is no other way than to play your guitar!

We’re going to begin with some music theory as part of our grand discussion.

What are Guitar Inlays?

Guitar fret inlays, which are usually circular dots along the neck of the instrument, serve as visual aids so that you can direct your hand to the notes.

For beginners, here’s a simpler answer: “They tell which fret you are playing when you look at your neck.”

Have you noticed that inlays tend to be on odd-numbered frets?

There is a reason. The guitar can play chords so there should be a quick reference to the bass notes you are stacking notes onto.

The natural notes of C Major Scale are found along the open E strings of all the inlays. These are the odd-numbered frets. This rule is only broken by the 9 th fret. Banjos, therefore, tend to have a 10 th fret instead.

This is where the “follow the dots” reference came from. The C Major Scale plays out along the E strings on the inlays, with a caveat at the 9th fret…

The frets also help you to position your hand while playing the instrument. The average hand covers four to five frets at once.

Every position will have two inlays. When you hit the third one you’ll know that the next note in the sequence is available on the string above. This is a very unique way to interface with music.

The most important is the double dot 12 the fretinlay. Before you can repeat the original note an octave above, there are 12 notes in chromatic scale.

An octave, for those who don’t understand, is a scale that you have run all the way through. You then return to the beginning of the scale at the first note but at a higher pitch. An octave is a mathematical principle that the guitar can use to calculate.

Let’s suppose you’re playing a solo in open position E Minor Pentatonic and run out of ideas. You just need to move the neck 12 frets up and your hot licks will be amplified an octave, making them more intense and fresh!

It’s as easy as that: Add 12 frets on top of your current position, and continue shredding!

This is a quick overview of how fret inlays are used, and why they are there.

Guitar Inlay Material

Inlays are mostly made from a few materials:

  • Clay
  • Shells
  • Wood
  • Plastic
  • Gemstones
  • Stickers
  • Luminlay

These are the top-level categories. However, the names that you will hear come from them. Let’s quickly look at the details of each one.

Clay is often called clay, but it’s actually a polymer that has been mixed with clay to increase strength and resistance against impact and humidity. Inlays can be made from two types of marine shells: abalone and nacre.

Nacre, also known as “Mother of Pearl”, is available in white, gold, and black varieties. You may also find rare gemstones of any type, but these are often replicated with plastic. Gemstone inlay sheets – Sold by Rothko & Frost

Celluloid is one example of a variety of plastics that can be used to imitate other materials. “Perloid” is a knockoff of mother of pearl.

There will be swirled plastic used to replicate every gemstone. Abalam is also available, which are shaved and bound strips of abalone.

There are many stickers that can be used to do the same job at a lower price. The newest innovation comes from Luminlay, which produces a phosphorescent fluorescent material that glows in dark.

This is not for the audience, but for the musician on stage who cannot see his inlay fret marks well. Between songs or sets, you can charge them using a battery-powered LED bulb that fits in your pocket.

Types of Historic Inlay

The roots of the modern guitar’s inlays are once again found in Gibson and Fender. Although they weren’t the first to produce electric guitars, set the standard for all guitars.


Fender Stratocasters have inlaid markers that indicate the position of the guitar. They are not only important for playing the guitar but also have historical components that can be used to date your strat.

The famous icon was introduced in 1954. Since then, inlays have been placed at the 3rd to 7th, 7th, 9, 9th, 12th and 15th frets.

The inlay material and spacing between the strings are the most important details. Although variations are rare, these details have been a part of guitar history for those who care about the instrument. While not dots, Jason Becker’s numeral fret marker stickers show this layout well.

Originally, Stratocasters were made only with maple fretboards. These fretboards used black dots to indicate positions. These black dots were nearly perfectly aligned to the A and B strings at 12 frets from 1954 to 1959. This is a great way to determine if you have a vintage strat.

1959 saw the introduction of the rosewood fretboard and new matte white dots, commonly known as “Clay Dots.” They maintained the same 12 th fret spacings as the maple black dots.

Mid 1963 was the first time that the rosewood clay and maple black dots were inlaid together. You can use the dot spacing for those difficult years of dating to determine if your axe was pre- or post-dot change.

The rosewood clay dots were eventually replaced by pearloid, which looked similar to mother of pearl but was cheaper to produce in larger quantities. This was kept in place until 1983.

Fender introduced the maple fretboard in 1970 with larger black dots. These dots were slightly larger than the originals but they are important when researching vintage strats. Fake vintages and forgeries often overlook these details.

Fender began to use white plastic dots in rosewood fretboards models after 1983. This was in place of the glittering pearloid. It was half way through the year so it provides a great dating mark for historians and collectors.

This information allows the player to distinguish between vintage reissues and true vintages. These details were not used by Fender when they made copies of the originals.


Gibson includes the dot inlay in many of its classic designs from the ES-335 to SG and Les Paul. However, Gibson is best known for its Trapezoid inlays and Block inlays.

The inlays were not only more expensive than Fender, but also required that the luthier make more complicated cuts with the scroll saw. This meant more precision and time.

Gibson’s inlays have helped to establish their high-class image and justify the guitars’ higher price tags. Gibson provided these images regarding the inlays on their fingerboard guitars in an older feature that is no longer available online.

Gibson instead of using clay and plastic inlay materials, he used “mother-of-pearl” instead. This was often a fancy celluloid, but the bright, wavy appearance is just like a pearl’s innards.

The dots are very fancy. These are the best beginner guitarists you will still see today, because of their emphasis on functionality as well as ease of visual seeing.

These trapezoid inlays were most commonly found on Les Paul Standards. They were never placed at first fret. This inlay spot is reserved for the Les Paul Custom, which is the pinnacle of Les Paul technology. As you can see, the block inlay is pictured below.

Few Gibson models had the finest inlays available. The Les Paul Supreme required a few extras to sweeten it, and the Gibson split-block Inlays are the best.

These instruments are reserved only for the best.


Ibanez is the only company that has made the “Tree of Life” inlay scheme a household name. The Tree of Life was used often in the 1960’s Lawsuit Era models. It signified that an instrument of the highest quality was being played.

This was when Ibanez was copying Gibson, Rickenbacker and Fender models. However, the company made many original statements as shown in these inlay designs.

This inlay design was present on many older Ibanez models. Bob Weir, the Grateful Dead’s guitarist, had one. The “Tree of Life”, a symbol of Steve Vai’s shred wizardry, is now synonymous with this inlay design. His JEM series of guitars (seen above), helped redefine acrobatic stunts on guitars and brought this inlay pattern into modern times.

Modern Guitar Inlays

Players needed flash during the 1980’s when extreme guitar technique was at its peak. These inlays were often more aggressive than the sharper, more angular sounds that players were making.


When I think about 80’s hair-metal guitarists, I instantly think of Jackson guitars with their shark fin inlays. Jackson also offered reverse shark fin inlays, for the brave enough! Others featured fins that extended across the fretboard width.

Jackson made this inlay pattern so popular that he offered many variations in materials and sizes to fit the needs of shredders, including abalone, pearloid and alumiloid as well as larger and smaller shark fins. These and many other shapes can be found on the best metal guitars.


Neoclassical fretboards have no inlays. Although it sounds monotonous, some players prefer the clean look of a fretboard. For the player’s convenience, most neoclassical fretboards include side dots.

The inlay-less Parker P-36 is shown above.


You may think that inlays only apply to the fretboard or the side of your neck after all this discussion. However, that is not true.

This is the point at which people started to commission custom inlays along fretboards. These included space and science fiction landscapes, dragons and Japanese cherry blossoms.

Inlays were created by guitar companies to place logos on the headstock. It’s not surprising that inlays began appearing on the body of the guitars, from the front, back, and around sound holes.

This included inlays in pickguards and bindings as well as inlays on the side of your neck in the purfling and just about anywhere else you could squeeze it in.

As amplifiers and guitars became more affordable, customization methods also got cheaper. Exist whole companies that produce high-quality inlay stickers. This allows everyone to get involved, without the need to hire or become an luthier.

We have included the Tiger Tribute guitar, by Phil Gawen , to show you an example of custom-inlay work.

Cool and Functional Guitar Inlays

There have been many versions of inlays, even before the invention of guitars! You can see the difference if you look at any of the pre-guitar instruments, such as lutes or ouds. Many beautiful inlays were created by master luthiers during the Renaissance era.

While today’s focus was on the modern electric guitar, the history of guitar inlays dates back to the past. If you have the time, it’s a great adventure. You can learn more playing the guitar.

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