If you’ve read my other guitar related guides, you’ve probably seen me comment on the fact that reading sheet music for guitar can be hard.
Many guitarists start out with chord diagrams and tablature, which is easy to read. Sheet music is a pickle by comparison.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible by any means. But it will take some work and dedication, usually over the long haul.
So, let’s talk about how to read sheet music for guitar.
The Basics Of Reading Sheet Music
Before you even pick up your guitar to play, you should learn about the basics of sheet music.
The first thing you need to know is time signatures. If you’re working your way through a method book, you likely won’t play anything that’s not in 4/4 or 3/4 time for quite some time.
But what exactly does that mean?
4/4 time basically means there are four beats per measure (or bar). So, you should practice counting “1, 2, 3, 4” at an even pace. Clap it out if that helps.
Similarly, 3/4 time means there’s three beats per bar. Try counting that out too.
You’ve now mastered the basics of time signatures.
You should also familiarize yourself with bar markings, which are basically just vertical lines through the staff. They indicate when a bar has come to an end (i.e. after four beats if the song is in 4/4).
Music is made up of melody, harmony and rhythm. What we’re talking about here is basically the rhythm.
At this stage, you should also learn to distinguish whole notes, half notes, quarter notes and eighth notes.
They all look a little different. A whole note is basically just an oval that’s not filled in.
A half note looks a bit like the whole note except that it has a vertical line attached to it.
A quarter note is like the half note except that the oval is filled in.
Finally, an eighth note is a quarter note with a downwards curve attached at the top.
Each of these notes have different values. So, a whole note lasts for four beats. A half note lasts for two. A quarter note lasts for one, and an eighth note is twice as fast as a quarter note.
When playing eighth notes, you count a little differently. You add an “and” in between each beat.
So, it would be like “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &”.
Bar markings can help you see how long to hold each note when you get around to playing an example.
Rest values are also worth learning, but if you’re working your way through a method book, you probably won’t get around to those until later.
So, those are the absolute basics or learning to read sheet music, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The Basics Of Identifying Where Notes Are On Your Fretboard & Playing Them
The easiest way to learn how to read sheet music for guitar is to start in the open position.
So, basically, you’ll be playing open notes, and notes on the first, second and third frets.
First, you’d start with the first string. Then the second. And then the third, fourth, fifth and sixth.
Since you’ll be starting off with natural notes (i.e. no sharps or flats), you would learn where the E, F and G notes are located on the staff. You would then commit the location of these notes to memory.
Likewise, you’d identify exactly where these notes are on the fretboard. In this case, it would be open (E), first fret (F) and third fret (G) on the first string.
If you’re using a method book, you’ll likely work your way through several non-musical sounding examples using these three notes.
It doesn’t necessarily sound good, but they do make for good exercises.
On the second string, you’ll learn how to play B (open), C (first) and D (third).
On the third string, you’ll learn to play G (open) and A (second).
Fourth string: D (open), E (second), F (third).
Fifth string: A (open), B (second), C (third).
Sixth string: E (open), F (first), G (third).
Again, you’ll commit the location of these notes on your fretboard and on the staff to memory.
If you already know all these notes on your fretboard, great. The only thing you’ll need to figure out is how these notes are notated on a staff.
Of course, while you’re working your way through a book, you’ll encounter examples that feature all the notes you’ve learned to that point. That can be a bit of a mind twister at first.
As you go through this process, you’ll learn about rests, dotted notes, tied notes and probably a few sharp and flat notes too.
That’s beyond the scope of this lesson but I’d recommend finding yourself a good book and working your way through the examples.
Do You Even Need To Learn To Read Sheet Music?
Opinions vary quite a bit.
A classical guitarist will likely need to learn to sight read and will even start their first lesson with book in hand.
And, many beginner students also start off on method books, because their teacher told them to. The examples are usually easy to play, but they can also be tedious and boring.
Still, books are organized, and they break the concepts down into bite sized chunks, so you don’t get lost.
It’s also encouraging to work your way through the pages one by one. It gives you a sense of progression. Parents of students tend to like this too.
If you go in this direction, you may not get to learn any cool riffs like “Rock You Like A Hurricane” for a while. If you’re working with a teacher, maybe suggest sneaking in a few of those.
Learning to read sheet music will make you a more well-rounded musician overall. But your creativity and progression aren’t necessarily dependent on it.
There are plenty of guitarists, like Jimi Hendrix, that never learned to read a note of music but could write amazing songs.
So, learning to sight read is not a prerequisite to becoming a professional guitarist in any sense of the word.
But there are a few areas where learning sheet music can certainly benefit you, so I’ll go rapid fire on these:
- Session gigs. If you’re hired on as a session player, you might get some sheet music plopped in front of you. If you don’t at least know the basics, you’ll be at a loss, and if there are no chord markings, you’re basically hooped.
- Music that hasn’t been turned into tablature. Seems strange in this day and age, but some music probably hasn’t been tabbed out, and even if it has been, it may not be entirely accurate. If you know how to read, you’ll be able to figure out some music others can’t.
- Performing with an orchestra or choir. Again, this is another situation where you might be sent home with a binder full of music. Even if you can’t read a single note, you can probably figure it all out one by one, but that’s insane. Knowing how to read can prepare you for these situations. I recently played with a choir and I was glad I knew what I knew.
How To Read Sheet Music For Guitar, Final Thoughts
Overall, sight reading is a valuable skill, and one worth picking up.
Do you absolutely need it to become an incredible guitar player? Not at all. Many a guitarist has done great things without a clear understanding of sheet music let alone music theory.
But sheet music is the “common language” in the musical world, as are lead sheets. Tablature is not.
If you find yourself in a lot of musical situations, it’s probably a good time to start picking up some new skills.