Do Guitarists Really Need to Read Music?

In today's guitar lesson, we'll talk about why you should learn to read standard music notation to help you be the best guitarist you can be.

The old joke goes “How do you get the lead guitarist to stop playing? Give him some sheet music to read.” This is not too far off for most of us. I’ve seen super shredders fumble comically through such high-level material as “Aura Lee” and “Mary had a Little Lamb.”


Why I Learned to Read Music


            While I’d love to believe that modern guitarists never encounter notated music, this is simply not the case. For students you will be limiting your possibilities to tablature (or rote or gamified apps), and for professional guitarists you will be limiting your performance opportunities to those in which you don’t have to read a score. 

            Before I became music literate, I thought I was pretty accomplished. I knew all the riffs, I’d written albums and played tons of gigs. For the music I’d composed I’d only written my guitar part and I “let” the other musicians in the band come up with their own—I had no idea how to communicate a piano part or notate drum rhythms effectively, much less creatively. 

One day I joined a band that had a string section, plus piano. The songwriter handed me my part, which looked, as far as I could tell, virtuosic and likely spell-bindingly amazing. But I didn’t know because it was written in standard music notation. One of the violinists walked over and sight-read the lead lines from my score while I sat there, completely befuddled by all the dots on the page. 

            Though I was embarrassed by being the guitar goon in the room, this was the moment when I decided to become a professional musician. One of the hallmark skills of our trade is music literacy. I got home from rehearsal and took out the method book I’d been threatening to work through for the past ten years. I set a goal to study it for 15 minutes per day until I finished the whole thing. I didn’t really endeavor to master any technical side of the exercises at that point, just the reading aspect. I struggled through “Mary had a Little Lamb” and “Aura Lee,” not sure if I was seeing an A or a C! But over time my reading began to improve, and I found I could study a score prior to rehearsal and learn to play it without creating tablature or learning by rote. Now I can even sight read Bach!


Tablature, Alfabetto, and Beyond


            Guitarists have so many different notations and methods of learning at our disposal. We have tablature, chord diagrams, scale diagrams, and standard notation. For us standard notation also includes finger indications and string numbers. All these evolved from Renaissance and Baroque era systems that used letters instead of numbers (French tablature which lutenists still use today); or presented the strings opposite of our modern tablature (Italian Tablature); or, as in Alfabetto, utilized arbitrary letters to identify chord symbols (these were consistent only within a single chord book, didn’t correspond in any way to the notes of the chord, and the numbers, letters, or symbols could represent different shapes when you looked at a new chord book). Strangely, we’re always trying to develop new methods of learning to read music on guitar that get further and further away from actual notation, even moving further away from tablature. Guitar Pro, an app I adore, features a new system that communicates only the scale degree—this might be effective at teaching some aspects of theory, but I’ve only seen this notation in use within Guitar Pro

Apps like Rock Smith have tried to gamify modern guitar, and they might certainly help you build some degree of technical skill. Unfortunately, they don’t prepare you to collaborate and communicate with other musicians, and they certainly don’t prepare you to read any form of notation once Rock Smith goes out of business. Many students I’ve worked with that rely on this sort of app fail to even learn tablature.

            Don’t misunderstand: I am a huge advocate of learning tablature, chord symbols, and scale diagrams; even learning by rote. But we should use these systems to be the smartest people in the room, not the least informed or the most inflexible. All of these systems are amazing because guitar and lute music has been entabulated for centuries, and much of it only exists in these forms until we transcribe it to natation; so guitarists, in a sense, can access all the music. But, not all music is entabulated or programmed into an app. There may not be a Rock Smith lesson for Bach’s Lute Suite in C Minor BWV 997, and such a piece is far beyond the scope of a 1 minute Tik-Tok lesson. You might also be hard pressed to find tablature of “Platero” by Eduardo Sainz de la Maza. But if you know standard notation, you can read the heck out of BWV 997 and in the end play some spell-bindingly amazing guitar.


Be the Best Guitarist You Can Be


            When you learn to read music, you access endless possibilities. 


Firstly, you can learn more music as I mentioned above. You also learn so much more about the instrument. Standard notation and progressive learning are the easiest and most effective ways to map the fretboard and learn the instrument (despite what all the youtubers want you to believe). You begin to understand music theory and compositional practices. And most importantly you can communicate and collaborate with more musicians.

            To that last point, this doesn’t just mean working with piano players. It can mean working with string players, brass players, classical singers, full orchestras even. Once I learned to read music, I started getting gigs with pit orchestras and theater companies that actually paid money, mainly because I possessed this one essential skill as a musician. And further, out of the embarrassment I felt for not being able to read a score so many years ago, I improved and diligently worked on my music literacy, which has helped me to become an accomplished classical guitarist, a jazz improvisor, a rock virtuoso, and an effective teacher

Don’t believe the notion that guitarists shouldn’t learn notation. That is a limiting mindset. You can play your guitar without notation, sure, but you are closing yourself off to so many wonderful possibilities. 

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