Sight Reading Tips for Guitar Players: The Joys of Reading Music and Beyond

A short article about sight reading and reading music for guitar players. When you are reading this article you may be one of those guitar players who never learned to read any written music. Do not worry, there are many players like you and it is quite common to start out with playing the guitar without the guidance of any written music. It is my firm belief that the guitar can offer you much more than the style of playing you enjoy at the moment. Let us have a look at the world of written notation as you may discover some new forms of inspiration:

                        Why Written Music?

The most direct answer to this question is: Music as found in books and playing methods is a form of tuition, it simply is a form which can help you how to play a particular song, or melody or chordsequence. Written music becomes fun once you have learned how to read. Most basic tutor books for the guitar do have this as one of their goals. Not many students do understand that this is one reason why it is useful to use tutorbooks right from the start: The books will teach you about the right fingering positions of the left and right hand, the right playing posture for the guitar and they will teach you to reconise the notes on the staves.

The guitar does have its traditional problems when it comes to reading music: Classical guitar was only considered as a serious musical instrument since the 1920s in musical schools. The instrument had been around for much longer and most of its players had learned to play by what other guitarplayers passed on to each other.
A tradition of reading was non-exhistant: if you wanted to learn guitar you just had to find yourself a friend who could play a little and learn whatever he/she had to offer you.  This is a very different tradition compared to learning a piano where most students would start out with a teacher and music books.

Today the situation has changed a lot: You can learn to play by using the internet, videos and other source of educational material. What I mentioned before about the piano compared to the guitar is still true to an extend: Most students of the piano will start out with written music whereas for students of the guitar it depends very much on the how students will get introduced to the guitar: If students seek out help of a teacher they may get introduced to written music, but not always as it depends on the background of the teacher and his/her musical vision about how to teach the guitar.

                            How Does One Learn to Play the Guitar?:

If today we have various educational  resources around is it still useful to learn to read music? Yes, but let me look at learning how to play and what to play on the guitar first.
Most students of the guitar do have some kind of idea what they want to learn: They either have some favourite players in mind they would like to study or they want to sing particular songs etc. For most of those situations I suggest using the actual music as a form of edcuation: If you want to learn to play some Oasis songs you need to listen to those songs and find out what chords are being played. Yes you can get the music books for Oasis, it will have all the musical notation for the bass, drums and vocals and the chords. Changes are you only want the chords so really………. you may be better of by having someone who shows you how to play those chords and get along with the song and the music. The best way of learning in a situation like above is to listen to the song and to play those chords and get as close as you can to the orginal feel of the song. Not an easy task in the beginnning, but you will get better at it, and no book will help you in this case, you just need to play and use your ears.

So no books for your favourite songs, why bother with reading then eh? Well what about if you have been playing some of your favourite songs but want to try something more with those chords than just strumming? You may find a book on rhythm guitar and various ways to accompany songs. Having some reading skills will help to get you more out of the book.
There is a wealth of material out there which can introduce you to different styles of music and onces you have learned to read you will get so much more out of those books.
Not a good sight reader? Do not worry, your reading skills will get better the more you do it, and most books can be understood also on a basic level. The more time you will put into your reading the better your reading skills will develop and over a period of time you will be able to use more demanding styles of reading material.

                              How Does Sight Reading Work? The Process

In the beginning you will learn to read the notes in one position of the fretboard. Most of those notes will be on the open strings of the guitar, a bit like when you learned to play your first chords for the guitar. Once you have mastered some of the open positions most books will progress to higher positions on the fretboard. If you are aware of what you are doing you can actually play all your open postion pieces in higher postions on the fretboard, simply find the first note of the piece and progress from there.

Once you no longer struggle with the actual reading of the notes you may want to just “read and play”. Sight reading is the art of reading and playing on the spot, you do not actually memorise the piece you are playing, you simply play the piece of music you see in front of you. Before you play the notes, try to visualise where you can play the piece, look for the highest and lowest note to get an idea of what position of the fretboard is suitable, avoid too much moving up and down the fretboard as it will make the reading and playing harder.
A true sight reader does not look at his/her fingers, your fingers feel their way across the fretboard while your eyes stay focused on the music. Good readers will be able to put feel into their music, even though they may never have played the piece before, such is the sheer pleasure of being able to play and read whatever you can find.

                                Tips for your Own Reading Studies:

Grade your own material: When you are new to reading music start out with basic material. You need to be able to get some sense of music from your notes for your own satisfaction, if you get no music from your reading you either cannot play the notes yet or you have chosen music which is too hard for you to play yet! Go back and find something you can play and progress from there. If you are working with a tutorbook, most of them progress slowly and you will notice your own progress the more your practise your reading skills.

Not only guitar music: You can read whatever you want as long as you can read it and as long as it is written in G clef. You can take any piano material, or violin or saxophone or whatever. You will notice, once you start using material for other musical instruments, the keys will be different from the usual guitar friendly keys such as E, A , G and C. Once you can read the music this difference should not be a problem.

Whatever you read, try to put feel into the music. If you struggle with this, the piece may be too hard, you simply have to play it longer to understand it and feel it.

                                   Learning a Piece or Just Reading it?

If you have  found some music you really like you may want to use it for your own playing, you can memorise the piece or simply keep reading it. You will find once you have memorised the music you will play it better. It may take some time to learn the whole piece, but it is worth doing it if you really want to play this piece again and again.


Once you have learned to read music the skill will stay with you forever, you may get a little rusty if you do not read regularly. You can move up to a higher form of reading by reading more demanding music to improve your skills or just use your reading skills to simply improve your playing style.

Have fun and keep at it  and hope to see you again soon,