Sight Reading Basics

This article is about sight reading, why you may need it and how to effectively train yourself to sight read. I have read a few articles around the Internet on this subject and it's of great concern to me how misleading some of the information is.

Ultimate Guitar

Do I Need to Learn to Read Music?

If you are a hobby guitarist, the outright answer is no. If you enjoy playing songs, can play along to backing tracks in time and can read tablature, then why would you need to learn to read music?

You are playing the guitar and are doing so for enjoyment, don't worry about it. If however, you want a career in music as a guitarist, why wouldn't you learn to read music?

To become a professional guitarist you must be adaptable, efficient and as versatile as possible! Decide which of the two above categories apply to you and take action accordingly.

Sight Reading Basics

Understand how to construct the major scale = tone, tone, semi-tone, tone, tone, tone, semi-tone.

Learn how chords are created and apply to the major scale formula.

Play through your 5 major scales and play all your chords in that key for each position - CAGED is the ideal system for sight reading.

Practical Sight Reading

Once you have the above mastered, you will have the ideal foundation to building upon your sight reading skills. Sight reading will take much dedication, it is best to practice daily for 10 minutes than one day a week for an hour.

I have actually more recently even been reading articles about how the CAGED system is so "bad" for guitarists.

The simplest explanation I have for this is why can anything that explains the guitar from a different angle be detrimental? I originally mastered the three note per string method which is superb for lead work, but soon found it's hugely illogical for chords.

Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Guthrie Govan and Phil Hilborne (a good friend of mine) all use the CAGED system as much as three note per string, please always expand your mind before writing off a particular method.

I used to be against the CAGED system until I actually learnt it, it works... especially in becoming a complete musician (whatever that may be).

Ideal Practicals

I started off with the Real Rock Book - Hal Leonard and just worked in the key of C to build up my sight skills. I started off by remembering that the spaces between the lines spell F, A, C, E

Don't add extra stress on yourself by practising with a metronome. As a guitar teacher I would always say use a metronome, but as a friendly guitarist, you will have enough of a challenging getting used to moving around the stave, especially when you start approaching chords written via staff.

I hope this has perhaps answered some questions for any guitarist's out there.
If you don't agree with some of the information I have added, please ask questions and explain your reasons, compromise is how we all learn further.

About the Author:
By Leigh Sullivan, Director of Norwich Guitar Academy. I have a team of 5 guitar tutors making a difference in East Anglia, England. I studied on the Session musician course at the British Academy of New Music with Ed Sheeran & Marcus Mcneish (Craig David's bassist). Have sessioned in various plays, bands and studio recordings. I have been full time guitarist since the age of 18 (2007). We run masterclasses at the Norwich Guitar Academy with the likes of Guthrie Govan & Andy James. To learn more about reading music feel free to check out our blog.

6 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I think this lesson could be improved with some more specific instructions. For instance, when you say that F A C and E are the spaces on the staff, which octave and in what position are you talking about on the guitar? F2 is not the first space on the staff in guitar music: A4 is above the staff. Maybe uploading some pictures demonstrating this, along with some simple etudes in standard notation would help out the people reading this because on face value, it seems like this would be a little difficult to discern what you mean. Just a suggestion - I'm not sure if you intend on expanding this lesson series.
    Hi Segovia, I certainly agree with your comment. I shall plan to create a series of guitar lessons regarding sight reading. The next step is to create some videos of practicing & implementing sight reading into your every day routine as a guitarist. Thank you for your suggestions. Kind regards, Leigh.
    My opinion on the caged system is while it a great tool for learning the fretboard and can be used as a quick easy method of finding just about anything you want on the guitar, it can be easy to get, well, "caged" into it. I see so many guitarists use it like a guitar bible, and they end up always playing the same shapes, same chord shapes, and same melodies, simply because it's convenient in regards to the CAGED system. The system is a great building block in familiarizing yourself with your instrument, but it's important to be able to break away from it to think more laterally about how to use the fretboard. But that's a fault of the guitarist, not the system, guys like Marty Friedman prove that you can very easily work around the system and be incredibly creative with it.
    I think the key words you have used Jimjambanx is 'building block' The CAGED system is the perfect foundation that once combined with 3 note per string methods, it's beautifully comprehensive, It's nice to hear someone talk logically and educated about the CAGED system. Thank you for your comment.
    The important thing to remember about sight-reading is that it isn't about improvisation or spontaneous composition - its about making music from notes on a page. As such. the inversions in the CAGED system are necessary for playing any repertory, because these provide the basic framework for understanding how chords move where they do in compositions and also what fingerings are useful for specific passages. Imaginative contemporary repertoire (like what you're referring to: Marty Firedman, Guthrie Govan etc.) is difficult to interpret because it doesn't stick to the "system," but you can't play most of the classical canon with any efficiency, or understanding, without the framework of the CAGED system. So, in improvisations, the CAGED system isn't the greatest device, but in interpretation, it is essential, especially in regards to pre-contemporary repertoire.
    The Harvest
    If you rearranged CAGED to be in the right order, EADGC, you would make a G11 chord out of the notes, which is also the C Major Pentatonic scale.