Reading Notation for Guitar

Two Types Of Notation

There are two common types of notation for guitar. The first is standard notation – a system of circles placed on a 5-line staff.

Standard notation requires that you know which note name a particular circle refers to, then you have to find the corresponding note on the guitar neck.

Guitar Tablature

The second type of notation for guitar is tablature. This is a more direct way of notating guitar parts because it doesn’t require all of the calculations needed in standard notation. Tablature is a list of numbers written on 6 lines representing the 6 strings of the guitar. The numbers are fret numbers and are read left to right, like standard notation.

Is Reading Important?

Many guitar teachers insist that their students learn to read music. Reading music is unnecessary for beginning guitar players. It complicates the task of just learning to handle and understand the instrument.

If you have ever watched beginning guitar players, they are constantly turning their heads back and forth trying to watch both hands. If you add a piece of sheet music to the mix, it can get really complicated for a beginner. If you wait until you have a comfort level with the guitar, then you can better concentrate on learning to read the hollowed-out dots with stems and flags.

I encourage my students to learn at least the basics of staff notation. It is not necessary to read in order to play, or to understand how music and arranging work. Reading will almost certainly change the way you look at and think about music. I use worksheets for staff notation where my students write the names above the notes.

If your goal is to get good enough to jam with friends, or play along with songs on the radio, then you don’t need to read music at all. You only have to know a few chords and scales, and get the hang of playing chord progressions, and you’re in. Maybe later you’ll decide you want to go further. You will decide that there is some reason why you want to read. By this time, you have a large frame of reference. This is easier than learning to read at the same time you’re trying to get used to the feel of a stringed instrument.

Staff notation is a system that has evolved over centuries. It is a blueprint for pitch, duration, tempo and dynamics. It has been adapted to give players information on technique, like what position to play in.

If you are serious about a career in music, you should make a serious effort to master reading staff notation. Many jobs in music require that you be a first-rate sight-reader. Many jobs go to the best reader, not necessarily the best player. This includes many (not all) studio jobs, like recording music for commercials, videos, TV shows, movies, etc. Reading is also essential for most union-contract work.

Most people don’t get good at reading notation right away. There are people who seem to have mastered it overnight, but they are the exceptions to the rule. Reading is complicated, time consuming and takes a lot of practice to get good at. There are plenty of good books and software packages on reading, and they target all levels of difficulty.

When you are first learning, it helps if you start with very large notes. You can make enlarged copies at any copy store. You can rotate the book on the copier so that the pages can be made even larger. You can tape the pages together when you’re through.

The hardest thing about reading music is counting rhythm, that is dividing a measure into beats. This means memorizing the sound of different subdivisions of basic rhythms. Start with reading whole notes, half notes and quarter notes. If you can read note values up to 16th notes, you can read sheet music to most popular songs.