Updated September 2017
Among the many questions beginning guitar students ask I get this one often: “Do I need to learn how to read guitar notes?” Some might think it’s obvious that if you want to play any instrument that you must read music. Others point to the many rock guitarists that apparently don’t read a note and question if they should waste their time with following little dots on paper.
The truth is, you don’t have to read music to play guitar. In fact, many well-known guitarists don’t read traditional notes. But… and you knew there was a “but”… there are some clear advantages, and it’s really not that difficult or mystical as it might initially appear on the surface.
So how did reading guitar notes get such a bad rap to start with?
Reading Music On The Guitar Can Be Tricky To Master
In the music world we have this running joke. You first have to understand that guitar players have a reputation of noodling around during rehearsal whenever there’s break in the action.
The joke goes: “How can you get the guitarist to keep quiet during rehearsals? Response: Put a piece of sheet music in front of them.”
Indeed, guitarists were definitely known for not reading music… either not at all or not very well. Keyboard and piano players seem to notably gloat over this.
In all honesty, reading conventional notation on guitar is a tricky task to master.
When you’re learning the notes on the piano, the notes make sense – play notes going up on the piano; notes will go up on the paper. If they go down, the notes will go down. The chords on the paper are arranged similarly to the keyboard notes. There’s only one place to play all the notes on the keyboard.
However, notes on a guitar are different. If the notes go up, you may need to play the note on the guitar’s next string. Guitar chords don’t appear anything like what you see on paper. You must use both your hands to perform the notes. On top of that, the same note can be played in various spots on the guitar.
There are written attempts to help guitarists to read music like chord diagrams, additional fingering notation and an entire system called Tablature. Nonetheless, it still can add up to a much more complicated and at times confusing process.
On top of that, note reading for the guitarist doesn’t as give much “bang for the buck” as it does for the pianist. If you can read piano music, you can find countless tunes, publications and sheet music from which to choose. Almost every song you'd like to learn is out there on sheet music… as well as exercises, method books, scales and also other learning resources.
What Is PVG?
If you’re searching for your desired song written for the guitar you’re not likely to have as much luck. What you’ll uncover is usually a PVG version.
PVG is an acronym for Piano Vocal Guitar. This is mainly a lead sheet (melody and guitar chords) along with a piano version underneath. Undoubtedly, there is not a lot of incentive for writing the guitar part since most guitarist that play popular music can’t read standard notation anyway.
To perform a song from a PVG sheet, a guitarist would need to understand the song first and then play a suitable rhythm with the given chords. They would then perhaps find the melody on the guitar and listen to the song repeatedly to try to capture whatever was not shown by the music. The sheet would give an idea of the style of the song, the chord progression and where the song repeats.
Is Reading Guitar Notes A Waste Of Time?
With these handicaps it’s no wonder why many guitar students forego the labor of learning and practicing to read standard musical notation. Does that mean I think it’s a total waste of time to learn to read on the guitar? Absolutely not.
6 Things You Can Do If You Read Music
If you're able to read even at a basic level here are some of the benefits…
1. Play the melody
If you can read even at a basic level you would be able to pick out the melody of a song on sheet music. This can help when learning a new song that you plan on singing while playing the chords.
2. Understand song structure
It’s easy to figure out the structure of a song by looking at a written sheet. What I mean understanding when there’s a chorus, verse, repeat, and so on. The other option is to listen to the song and write out the structure.
3. Make better use of Tablature
Guitar tablature, or “tab” for short is incomplete. Though it shows the fingering on the guitar neck it’s missing several important pieces of information. The most obvious is the duration of each note or chord. You would usually need the standard notation to know how long to hold the notes.
4. Communicate with other musicians
Music notation is the standard for writing and reading among most musicians. Being able to read music allows you to “talk the language” when working with other musicians.
5. Notate (write out) melodies
If you want to create your own music the easiest way to remember it is to write it down on paper.
6. Have a foundation to build on if you plan to play Classical Guitar or Jazz
To learn classical guitar, like classical piano, you will need to read music and spend much of your time reading guitar notation. Most accomplished Classical Guitarist are excellent note readers.
Much of jazz music was and is composed by trained musicians that can write and read music. You’ll find that jazz charts often have the melody and other “lines” or musical phrases written out.
AND… maybe most importantly, you’ll have more fun and feel more confidence.
The Key Is Balance
For the guitar student learning to read guitar notes should be kept in perspective. In the early stages of learning popular styles of music like Rock, Folk, and Country I would dedicate about 20% of the time to understanding and rehearsing note reading and about 80% on chord progressions and what a lot of people might call “playing by ear”.
This way you’ll be making the most effective use of your practice time in comparison to what skills you’ll need to play the guitar.
Tips For Learning Note Reading On Guitar
Like many things it's much easier if you're systematic about it. There are a lot of tips and tricks you can learn that make note reading easier, but in the beginning here are some tips that will help you get going in the best way possible.
Start with a few notes and add on little by little
I usually start with the first string and have students get use to playing exercises using just those three notes. Then I'll add three notes on the second string and so on.
Learn the open position first
These are the notes you can play using the open strings. Recall that the open position.
Start with simple note durations and build complexity little by little
In the beginning get comfortable with reading quarter notes. Then start practicing exercises that include eighth notes. Little by little add rests and more complex rhythms.
It's helpful to practice note duration and rhythm patterns separate from the guitar. What I do with students is have them clap rhythm patterns. Once they can do that comfortably will add pitches.
Use by copy playing
This is a form of exercise where the teacher plays a simple phrase in the student by playing it back. This helps train the facility of the fingers and provides much-needed ear training.
Warm up with simple finger exercises
Before practicing note reading warm-up with a simple finger exercise to help your fingers comfortably go to the right place at the right time.
Practice note reading a little bit every practice session
This whole process works best if you keep coming back at it over and over a little at a time. Allow even 10 minutes of practice session to work on note reading. You'll find you'll get better and better over time.
Use a progressive set of materials
There are many books available that have progressive songs for you to practice note reading. To the series that I like are…
If you're a member of my guitar course real guitar awesomeness you'll find Module 5 is an entire course on note reading.
If you're not a member yet you might want to check it out at Real Guitar Awesomeness
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