To Read or Not to Read


Should I Learn to Read Music on the Guitar?

This is a question that every guitar player must eventually face. If you use the guitar as an accompaniment instrument for folk songs, prefer simple rhythmic patterns and are certain that you will never want to expand into other styles of music, you may give little or no consideration to the notion of reading standard musical notation. If, however, you play rock, pop, jazz or classical music, you probably either read music already or you have at least given the idea some consideration. The question may come up when you’re feeling stuck with your leads or don’t quite know how to spice up your accompaniment playing. That question may be a tough one to answer if you perceive note reading as an enormous commitment to drudgery.


Reasons to Avoid Note Reading on the Guitar

To many guitar players, the thought of reading notes evokes feelings ranging from mild resistance to sheer terror. The question of whether to learn standard musical notation can’t be viewed simply and objectively for most people, due to negative psychological and emotional reactions to the “school-like” nature of a disciplined regime. This may be coupled with the impatience to express musically, and a fear that this expression would be postponed, and even suppressed or irreparably damaged by a structured study of musical concepts and symbols. Even if you don’t have a deep resistance to learning standard notation, you may still question the wisdom of investing your time in studying note reading, especially if you are able find tabs to most of the music you are interested in playing.


Reasons to Learn to Read Notes on the Guitar

Of course, the advantages of musical literacy are undeniable. I feel that when I teach someone to read music, I am teaching him or her “how to fish”. Not only is there an endless supply of repertoire written in standard musical notation, there is a vast amount of educational material available. Consequently, a guitarist who can read music need never be “stuck” in their progress.
Note reading helps you to know the fretboard deeply and allows you to learn music theory. These are essential skills for determining what scale to manipulate for a solo or how to play unfamiliar chords on a chart! Being musically literate means you can jot down ideas for a tune while you’re riding on a bus or sitting in a café, or hand out ideas for an arrangement to your band members. If you can read standard musical notation and have a basic understanding of theory, you will be able to communicate with other musicians, opening up possibilities for playing not only with a larger number of musicians, but also with sophisticated players of any instrument. And, if you’re interested in playing professionally, you’re more likely to get hired as a stand-in or a studio player.
If you are hooked on playing from tablature, consider that standard musical notation contains a lot more information than even the best tabs. You will be unlikely to find fingerings, expression markings or timing in most tabs and you won’t be able to discern how long to sustain a note or when to stop the vibration of the string. Not only that, but you are limited to playing what has been transcribed from guitar music, whereas with standard notation, you can read anything that is written in the treble clef. If you want to read a vocal part or a piano solo, you can do it!
The musical language is universal and it is far easier to learn than any other language. I still get a thrill when I am able to transform symbols on a sheet of paper into the audible expression of a composer I’ve never seen or heard. In other words, reading music is fun!


Suggestions and Solutions

In spite of all the benefits of music literacy, it may still seem that the price is too high. But what if you could reap rewards for a modest price? I’m not suggesting that the path to excellence is a short or easy one, but rather that by learning a few basics, your musical world could be greatly expanded. Consider just this much: learn the notes on the staff and on the fretboard and become familiar with the fundamentals of music theory. (By the way, I teach all of these things on my instructional video, Comprehensive Guitar Instruction .) With a clear, uncluttered approach, these basics can be had in a short amount of time and without confusion or frustration.
A vast amount of information is of little or no value if you don’t truly own it. I’ve met more than a few people who have a music degree, yet are unable to apply their acquired information toward creative expression. Rather than learning a lot and using it a little (or eventually losing it!), I prefer this approach: learn a little; use it a lot. Take a small bit of information and use it in every way you can imagine. Put it under your fingers on your guitar; write it on paper; teach it to someone else. Play it (read it, write it or teach it) backwards, upside down and sideways. Make your learning relevant and it will become increasingly so. Be creative with it, enjoy it and let it serve you!
Here are a few ideas to help you get acquainted with the musical language in a natural and painless way:


Join a choir. If that doesn’t suit your schedule or your sensibilities, sing at home while watching the written music. Follow the direction of the notes as you sing. Notice the distance between the notes, how some have a greater duration than others and how periods of silence are notated.


Find transcriptions to your favorites solos and follow them in the same way, or follow the melodic line of classical text. Once you can successfully follow one line of music, try following the scores of string quartets. This is really fun and adds a whole new dimension to your listening.


Practice writing whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, rests, ties and clef signs. Make up four bar rhythmic pieces. Do a lot of them. You’re composing!


When you sit down to read music, choose a song that’s familiar to you. After you’re comfortable with a few familiar tunes, you can try something unfamiliar, but keep it simple, and practice it until you can hear and enjoy the music in it.


Keep a deck of Practice Cards nearby, so that you can improve your ability to find notes on the fretboard or the staff in short spurts of time, and without even having your guitar in your hands. The Practice Cards can also help you connect the sounds you hear to the shapes you will make to play them on the guitar.


Listen to the CD’s and do the exercises in A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training as a simple, inexpensive way to learn the musical language while improving your listening skills.


Remember – Learn a little; use it a lot. When it’s time for more information, your hunger will direct you to the next useful bit. (Keep a copy of A Guitar Player’s Guide to Music Theory on hand to make this process easy!)


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