August 10

Do I Need To Read Music To Play Guitar?

Should Guitarists Learn To Read Sheet Music?

I’ll admit it: I get a little bit of an attitude when I hear music teachers or musicians telling guitarists that they have to read music to play guitar. 

This has been a hotly contested topic for a very long time. Pretty much every other instrument utilizes sheet music. But not guitar. Why is that?

That’s tricky to answer. It might stem from the guitar not really being considered a “real” instrument for a long time. Although big band Jazz utilized guitars in the early 1900s. You might have heard the anecdotal story of a record label passing on signing the Beatles because the rep thought that “guitar music is a fad” and wouldn’t last.

But even today as the guitar is extremely popular and is central in a lot of music styles, guitarists rarely read sheet music. Hendrix didn’t. Jimmy Page doesn’t. It’s not to say they can’t, but it’s impractical on guitar. It’s not how guitarists have learned songs or played songs for the most part. 

And in my mind, reading music isn’t something that beginner guitar players should be focused on. 

The Ear Training Method

Instead of trying to read sheet music (something most guitarists won’t apply to their playing), I think your time is better spent on techniques and ear training. 

What I think is critical for any guitar player (and musician in general) is ear training. When I was growing up playing guitar, I would spend hours in front of my record player trying to figure out what the guitarist was playing.

This was long and laborious, and often times I wasn’t playing the right part, but it went a long way to develop my ear. If you’re a part of Real Guitar Success you might be familiar with By Copy Playing. Just the act of trying to figure out the part trains your ear. 

I’ll also lump general music theory in this category. Things like learning scales and common chord progressions. And even learning note durations. Like whole notes, quarter notes, and so on. 

You get so much more value when you take what you’re going to use and apply, rather than something you don’t have a use for.

(A good music teacher can provide these things for you and set you on the right path. I’ve built these concepts into my Real Guitar Success course).

Alternatives To Sheet Music For Guitarists

When I say “sheet music” I’m talking about standard notation. Guitarists do use a form of notation (among various chord charts) called tablature. Tablature, or tabs for short, is a way to easily notate the guitar part. 

It’s a visual representation of the guitar fretboard. It’s a clear way for guitarists to know what to play, without having to read sheet music. Most guitarists are easily able to read tabs. They were created for guitarists after all!

Even bassist, ukulele players, mandolin players, and banjo players use tablature. It’s simply a more efficient way to read music for us multi-stringed instrumentalists.

The Value Of Sheet Music

Now, I don’t want this to be a discouragement to learning sheet music if that’s the direction you want to go! Jazz guitarists and Classical guitarists both tend to read sheet music. And there are some fundamental concepts you’ll learn that can help you be a better musician. 

The more you learn about music the better the musician you’ll be. My biggest hangup is when people spend too much time at the very beginning teaching a guitar player to read music. 

I think you’d be much better off learning the foundational guitar techniques, chords, and scales. After that, decide if learning to read sheet music will bring you any value. 


What do you think? Do you currently read sheet music and/or do you want to learn to read sheet music? Let me know in the comments!

>> Check Out Day #8 : Should You Practice With A Metronome

Tomas Michaud


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  1. HI Tomas,

    I've been learning to read music, rather slowly, and do like the challenge of learning this new language. As I get better at it, I find it helps me with my picking up a new song or riff, as I don't always get it as quickly watching the videos. I also like to have a reference .

    I use tablature more than standard and have been trying to learn the standard. That's a bit of an uphill climb, but I like the challenge of it. I also use a piano keyboard from time to time to just get the theory of how music works, so standard helps with that as well.

    Thanks for putting this series together, I am enjoying it.

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