Tips for Learning to Read Sheet Music for Guitar

3500593654_c1224a76b6_oAlthough it is possible to learn to play guitar without reading sheet music, adding this skill to your arsenal will make you a better musician. Not sure where to start with sheet music on your guitar? Follow music teacher Eric J.‘s advice and you’ll be sightreading in no time…

Learning to read music is important. It increases your understanding of your instrument and makes you more valuable as a musician. Reading music for guitar allows you to collaborate with other instrumentalists in ways most guitar players can’t. Even if you have tons of chops or know all about music theory: if you want to wear the ‘Good Guitarist’ badge with pride you will need to be able read music for your instrument. Here’s how to get started.

Clear your mind

Forget everything you know about your guitar. This is especially important if you already know how to play a little bit. It’s even more important if you are already an experienced player. Are you a pretty solid guitarist who knows their chords and licks and can solo over rock and roll songs? If you are, excellent! You can potentially have great success as a music reader because you won’t have to learn technique along with reading like most beginners. That being said: Assume you know nothing about guitar from this moment on.

Get a good method book

A good introductory method book is worth its weight in gold and you can get one at your local music store for about ten dollars. You need material that is ‘graded’. That just means a good method book will introduce new concepts in a logical manner and repertoire should increase in complexity gradually without too many sudden leaps in difficulty.

The Mel Bay Guitar Method is the tried and true course for the aspiring reader. It’s been in print for decades and is wonderfully graded. The Hal Leonard Guitar Method series is also wonderful. It doesn’t move quite as fast as the Mel Bay books do, though. If you are already skilled at playing and want a more ‘adult’ book, Modern Method for Guitar by William Leavitt is a great series.

Find a good teacher

Once you have your method book you are going to need a guitar teacher to help work through it with you. This is extremely important, even in the beginning stages. Entry level material may throw you some mental curve balls if you are completely new to reading music, and you are going to need a mentor to help guide you through them. A good teacher will be able to keep you focused. Reading is hard and it takes quite a bit of brain power and a good teacher will be able to monitor your tone, technique and rhythm while you focus on navigating the music.

Don’t just read guitar music

This is super important. The method books are great, but in the end they are only that: method books. Most of the material you read in your book will be applicable in the real world but is just a small sliver of what out there.

Any music written in the treble clef should do the trick. Start hunting for sheet music. A good web resource is the Petrucci Music Library. Call your local music store and ask them if they have any overstock, damaged or otherwise forgotten about sheet music lying around. Anything will do. Check out garage sales and thrift stores. Don’t discriminate. Get as much as you can for as many instruments and in as many styles are you can manage. Stack it up by your music stand so it is always within reach when you practice.

Always try to read something every single day

Remember that stack of sheet music you put next to your music stand? Pull out one page from it every single day and read the whole page start to finish. Don’t pick and choose which tune to play. Play the first page in the pile no matter how difficult it looks. Play the whole page one time and put that page in the bottom of the stack. You need to get your eyes and your brain used to looking at as much of this material as possible. Don’t stress on making it sound good. Just read the page and move on.

Understand what ‘sightreading’ is

Sightreading is the ability to read sheet music at performance level at full tempo without having to hear the material beforehand. Think of it like reading a book out loud in a school classroom. If you were asked to read a paragraph from a book you’ve never read before I’m guessing you’d be able to read it fluently and with some natural grace despite never having read that exact paragraph of text before. That is what sight-reading is, except with music. Reading from your big stack of random music every day will help refine your sightreading ability.

Never, ever, ever say ‘I read tabs’

Not to sound flippant, but this is important. Tablature is a handy tool, especially for beginners. Tablature allows us to have fun on our instrument without actually having to read and that is a good thing, in moderation. However, tablature is not ‘Sheet Music’. It has limitations in the way it displays melodic content and has no way to display rhythmic content. For these reasons tablature cannot be sight-read. The faster you get away from looking at it the faster you will become a good reader.

Hopefully these tips will help you get started reading sheet music on your guitar. Remember to take it slow and to practice consistently. Reading a little bit throughout the week is sometimes better than cramming four hours of practice in the night before your lesson. If you focus and set goals your reading skills will improve and you will be a much more valuable musician as a result.

EricJ.Eric J. teaches acoustic guitar, bass guitar, blues guitar and country guitar in Elgin, IL.  He received his Bachelor of Science from Northern Illinois University.   Eric has been educating students for the past twelve years.  Learn more about Eric J. here!


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2 replies
  1. Greg
    Greg says:

    I’ll get the 1st and 3rd book on amazon.

    I practiced it years ago but I love to write music and just play… I have strong designs on improving at musical theory. I want to take my writing to the next level through technical understanding; I want to transpose my racket onto paper so if anyone wants to play it they don’t need poorly-manufactured tabs to play it improperly.

    Good article 😀 I was thinking “am I too old to learn to read?” “I’ve heard if you can play; it can become impossible to have the patience to learn to sight-read” Ill sight-read AND experiment every day! Thank you for writing this

  2. Dan
    Dan says:

    “if you want to wear the ‘Good Guitarist’ badge with pride you will need to be able read music ”
    I guess Eric Clapton, the Beatles, Jack White, Van Halen, David Grohl, Slash, Jimmi Hendrix, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Angus Young… hell the list goes on… were all bad guitarists?

    Let me rewind and ask this: what does reading sheet music give a guitarist that tab (extended in the case of more complex music) and words do not? I can take anyone off the street, never touched an instrument, and within an hour have them understand, read, and even make notes in tab format even if they don’t understand what a chord is. I am genuinely curious, not trolling here; because it feels like this is another one of those “you have to learn acoustic before electric” type of discussions when it comes to guitar, and personally just creates steep learning curves where there is no need to be.


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