Zoom Out, Break Out, Rock Out: The Guitarist's Guide to Reading Music

Guitarists face unique challenges when reading music, and many great players have a hard time reading standard notation at all. How can we make reading easy on us? And how can we transform written music into a lively performance?

Zoom Out, Break Out, Rock Out: The Guitarist's Guide to Reading Music
Guitarists face a unique challenge: There are numerous ways of playing almost every note, melody, riff, and comping pattern. Whereas a pianist will always play a middle C in the middle of the keyboard, a guitarist can play the same melody in multiple positions and on different sets of strings. Reading therefore is not only about quickly recognizing pitches and placing them on the fretboard, it is about finding the most adept position for each phrase.

Guitarist are forced to look at an entire phrase and decide immediately where to place that phrase on the fretboard. This extra effort allows a skilled reader to perform phrases with greater expression since well placed phrases will sound more idiomatic to the instrument. Ultimately we want to utilize guitar-specific techniques while reading: Slides, bends, tremolo, and vibrato give life to a melody, while elegant voice-leading and economic picking supports groove and time. All these expression tools fall under the category of performance practice and they will rarely be written in the music. It's up to the player to make the music sound musical.

In the heat of the moment most guitarist tend to forget about musical expression when they sightread. We are so focused on playing the right notes that we forget to look at the larger picture, we neglect the development of the phrase and its musical context and content. A teacher of mine once summarized it this way: "Don't make it sound like you're reading, make it sound like you just invented it." So how do we get there?

First we need to stop approaching a line one note at a time. Our gaze has to zoom out and we have to take in groups of notes. When we read a sentence (silently or out loud) we do not read letter by letter, but rather take in words and parts of the sentence. We combine bigger pieces, we recognize phrases and we intuitively add infection and changes of pitch. This translates directly to reading music. I find that the greatest obstacle to overcome is in looking only at one note at a time.

A common reading exercise can help: Instead of looking and playing one note at a time, try to look at a group of notes, memorize it, and play it as a unit. The work lies not in playing but in the mental preparation that goes into interpreting the ink on the page before translating it to music. The execution is the easy part and requires far less concentration. So while you play the memorized phrase, look at the next one, memorize it and add it seamlessly to the last one. While you are playing this newly memorized line, look at the next one, memorize, play, look at the next one, and so on.

You can start by memorizing only a few quarter notes and advance to memorizing multiple measures. Slowly your gaze onto the page will zoom out and you will be able to look further and further ahead. This also has a psychological benefit: The further you look ahead the less you worry about what is immediately ahead of you and you begin to relax. I find that the key to sight-reading often lies in relaxation.

Many guitarists find that they quickly reach a plateau in their reading skills. While most of us make an effort to learn how to read at one point, our reading skills don't usually develop as gradually as say our improvisational skills and musical vocabulary. This is less due to the fact that we spent less time reading music than practicing pieces, and more due to practicing inefficiently.

In "Moonwalking With Einstein," Joshua Foer's excellent book on mental athletes, the author discusses overcoming learning plateaus in a very intelligent and self-reflective way. Foer observes that the speed at which we type on a computer keyboard is not constantly increasing, even though most of us "practice" typing every day. The difference between us and a stenographer - somebody who types professionally - lies in the different challenges. We only type at a speed that we feel comfortable in. A stenographer has to write at the speed of somebody talking, so he has to develop physical skills to keep up with this fast paste and he has to make creative decisions on what to shortcut, what to replace. The stenographer grows with the challenge.

The same applies to us when we are sight reading. If we always stay in our comfortable fifth position and practice reading at a tempo where we are not challenged we will not grow. We need to brake out from our comfort zone and learn how to operate on a part of the fretboard that is less familiar. For example try playing the same phrase in first position, then in third position, then in fifth position, and finally move positions but limit yourself to only play on one set of strings. This is where we really begin to understand musical phrases and see their potential. Another excellent exercise is to comp in only one position, then start over in a different position. When we sightread changes our hand is immediately drawn to the most familiar voicing, but if we limit ourselves to only comp in one position, we have to discover new voicings and we will automatically voice-lead more elegantly.

Let's look at how we can approach sight-reading with this example.

Zoom out: Analyze range and key. Determine position.

We are in the key of G, our highest note is an E5 and our lowest note a D4. The range of the entire phrase is a ninth. We could play this phrase in fifth position, but since this key allows us to utilize open strings and the phrase can be played comfortably in a lower register we should look at playing this in first position. If we begin with our middle finger on the 4th fret of the G string, we can map out the entire phrase easily.

We can decide if we want to play our G and D open for a characteristic guitar tone or if we want to fret them so we can manipulate the pitch with vibrato. The musical context and the speed of the line should inform these decisions.

Break out: Play idiomatically.

We have now found a way of playing the correct pitches in a comfortable and appropriate position. The next step is to play the line musically. Remember not to sound like you are reading one pitch at a time. Let's lock at groups of notes and think about how to tie them together tastefully. We can start by sliding into the first note. The triplet is ideal for a pull-off on the first two notes. If we play the last note of the triplet (B) on the 4th fret of the G string, we can slide onto the A on the same string with our middle finger. Finally we release and play an open G. Any phrase will immediately sound more alive if we add techniques that complement its musical context and our instrument and playing style.

Rock out: Play style-appropriate and add something meaningful to the performance.

Finally we need to be aware of our position in the band and about the style that we are playing in. How do we add the most to the group's performance? Things to consider are:
  • Am I playing at an appropriate volume?
  • Is this played clean, overdriven, distorted?
  • What is the rest of the band playing?
  • How can I support the band's groove at all times?
  • How do I add something meaningful and support my fellow musicians?
While the page in front of you might show you this:

What you should be seeing in your mind is more like this:

Reading is much more than playing the correct pitches. When we read music we transfer ink on a page into art. We bring an abstract idea to life. Developing this skill can be among the most satisfying experiences for any musician.

About the Author:
Jakob Reinhardt is a New York based guitarist, composer, and session musician. He’s currently playing guitar for the national tour of the Broadway show A Night With Janis Joplin and performs with his solo instrumental album Songs From Coastal Cities. Jakob is a graduate from Berklee College of Music, a native German, and a beer and board-game enthusiast. www.jakob-reinhardt.com

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