Reading Music For Guitar Players Part I

Reading music is a key element to becoming a well-rounded musician, so let's learn some tips that will help us improve our reading skills.

Ultimate Guitar
"How do you get a guitar player to stop playing? Put sheet music in front of him". This classic joke says a lot about the relationship between guitar players and reading music. Some of the greatest guitar players admit not being able to read music notation and in the professional world there are very few gigs that require a guitarist to be able to read music fluently. We would all agree that reading music is a key element to becoming a well-rounded musician, so let's learn some tips that will help us improve our reading skills.

1. Work On Your Technique

In order to be able to read music you need to be able to play without looking at your hands. You are going to rely on your touch rather than your sight, so having a good technique that allows you to feel the strings will help you to focus on the paper. Here's a good video where we address the basics of Guitar Technique:
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2. Know The Fretboard

If you want to read music, you need to know where the notes are located on the fretboard. One easy way to learn them is to keep the Note Names activated at all times in Rock Prodigy. Start by memorizing the name of the open strings and the natural notes in open position.
Here's a great exercise to locate the notes in the fretboard:
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Then, you can work on simple exercises like:
  • Play and sing along with all of the E's in first position. Then, do the same with the notes A, D, G, C, F, and B.
  • Try the same exercise but add the next note going up the scale. For example, play and sing C-D in all octaves. Then try A-B etc...
  • Play the next note going down the scale. For example: Play and sing C-B in all octaves. Then try A-G etc... Once you know all the natural notes in open position you can try to learn all the natural notes on the fretboard. Start by getting familiar with the natural notes on each individual string, and then, add groups of two or three notes and play them on different strings, like we do in lesson 13 "Theory: Natural Notes".

    3. Know The Staff

    There are many ways to get familiar with the notes in the staff in treble clef. For example, you can use mnemonics like "Every Good Boy Does Fine" as a way to remember the notes on the lines (E-G-B-D-F), or FACE for the notes on the spaces.
    Here is a useful exercise to get familiar with the notes on treble clef: Write down the names of these notes:
    Once you solve that, try this one:
    As you can see, there is a pattern in this last exercise, the first and third beat of each bar are followed by the next note of the scale, going up or down. If you know the name of the notes on beats 1 and 3, the beats 2 and 4 are easy to find. (We will give you the answers in the next article - Part II.) Look for sequences and patterns every time you read music. Remember that the notes on the paper are not just single letters put together, but words and phrases. All your favorite songs have plenty of patterns to look for.

    4. Improve Your Theory Knowledge

    Some of these patterns are really easy to spot on the paper if you understand music theory. For example, three consecutive notes over lines make an arpeggio. Notation Arpeggio
    Tablature Arpeggio
    Or, two notes that are two lines or two spaces apart from each other, make a fifth interval. Etc... Notation Fifth
    Tablature Fifth
    The more you know about intervals, chords, scales, etc... the easier it becomes to put what's on the paper under your fingers. I hope these tips are helpful to set the tone for the future lessons on Reading Music for Guitar Players. Please stay "in tune" :-P for the next articles. And remember, the key to Sight Reading is to read and read and read. By Jose Hernandez
  • 10 comments sorted by best / new / date

      Back when I played a lot of classical guitar, I'd buy Renaissance era (1500 to 1700) lute music. It was closely related to what we nowadays call 'guitar tablature' (each string had it's own line and the fret was notated by a letter rather than a number). It was so easy to read especially compared to the modern day staff. I find it interesting that in the early days of string/fretted instruments they used tablature similar to what we use today.
      I agree, sometimes tablature and Rhythm notation make more sense for guitar players. Music notation is harder for guitar players because we can play the same note in 4 or 5 different places, and takes some time and experience to understand which position is the one you should use. The downside of tablature is that we tend to don't be aware of the names of the notes we play, and we get out of touch from harmony and theory.
      I also play keyboards and find that music theory is so much easier to understand when applied to a keyboard vs a guitar neck
      Hello: i just wanted to thank you kindly for all your excellent instruction. I am teaching myself to play and felt i had "hit a wall" so to speak, when it came to learning intermediate techniques. Thanks to you and your methods of instruction, i have learned more from your instructions in just the past week, than i ever could have by just downloading and practicing. Your lessons on finger picking were most helpful and i really learned a lot. Again thank you so very much; your efforts are deeply appreciated.
      I guess it's not much different then how English also became a "common" language for the majority of the world's population. Also to Jose; Violins and Cello's etc. can also play the same note on different strings, and how many "classical string" players can't (sight)read music?
      That's a good point. I guess they also have one main choice for reading and only read music notation from the get go. However, it doesn't feel like music notation or tab separately fit for guitar as well as music notation fits for piano. I like reading tabs that show the stems so I can see the rhythm and the exact location of the notes.
      interesting question: there's a pretty large group of violin players in the world who don't read music. also kids who learn violin or cello by Suzuki method don't read. they get positions and play by ear, and have the same issues as guitar players when they go to learn to read.
      It's true that the Suzuki method starts with position (finger numbers and such) but they do learn to read music. My 7yo has been learning cello for 3 years now and she has certainly learned to read music on the Suzuki method.
      Am I the only one who misses the text lessons? Being able to read and learn the lesson without having to load videos and stuff. I have spend 16 years of my 17 year old life without a proper, consistent internet connection, and the only way to learn guitar was to save a bunch of lessons from here to my comp and read them later. I don't have to do it now, but I couldn't if I'd wanted to... too many vids. It's great to have them, but could you make a separate section for them? And it's of course great to that you're using your own tab model, but to be honest it's friggin hard to read compared to the traditional tab.
      Rock Prodigy
      Sorry about the broken link for the first video. Here is the link until we can fix the post.