How to Learn to Read Music on Guitar

how to read music on guitar

Guitarists (me included) are notorious for not learning to read music, most likely due to the abundance of Guitar Tablature and a lack of formal training such as you would receive if you took up an instrument of the orchestral variety. Back at Music College it was unavoidable and fundamental if you wanted to make a career out of music, which seemed to be the mantra of most of the instructors. They were right, of course, and so ensued many late nights trying to decipher what was written on the staff of the practice material while resisting the temptation to look up the tab. I struggled though it wasn’t until years later that I realized that if you break the learning process down as follows, it’s much less painful.

Learn to Read Rhythms First

It seems obvious now but back then I was trying to do everything at once: learn the note names on the staff, learn where to find them on the neck, play the rhythm, count in my head… it’s just a little too much for the brain to assimilate, especially when the result is a shaky rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In.

You’ll get more gratifying results if you start with learning to read rhythms. Get hold of some fairly simple sheet music and practice the rhythms; read them from left to right, right to left, even up and down, and if you’re using a guitar for this just chug on one note for the time being. If you want a more graded approach there are a couple of books I would highly recommend:

The first is Sight-read Any Rhythm Instantly by Mark Phillips. I wouldn’t buy too much into the slightly sensational title but it’s a great book with tons of rhythms to practice.

The second is The Rhythm Bible by Dan Fox which is basically along the same lines, and has literally 1000s of rhythms to practice.

Either of these great books will give you more than enough material to practice with until you master the art of reading rhythms.

Learn the Notes on the Neck

Once you get the hang of reading rhythms you’ll gain a different perspective on learning the notes on the neck. The reason why most guitarists struggle or don’t bother to learn the notes on the neck (past the low E and A strings) is that they little or no use for it unless they are particularly disciplined. There are plenty of methods out there, most of them gimmicks, but I’ve come up with a way to learn them which I think you might like.

Other Benefits of Knowing the Notes on the Fretboard:

  • Understand what you’re playing
  • Make your theory knowledge useful
  • Communicate better with other musicians who play different instruments
  • Improve your improvisational skills
  • Move things around the fretboard at will
  • Become less reliant on shapes

How Not to Learn the Fretboard  

The main problem I see with a lot of note-learning methods is that they have little to do with the practical application of finding notes on the fretboard.

The ‘Up and Down’ Method

This method involves naming the notes as you go up and down one string as follows: E, F, F#, G, G# etc. Apart from being extremely tedious, it is very time-consuming and has very little practical benefit as you know which note comes next regardless of which fret you’re on because you’re just reciting the musical alphabet. The connection between the note name and its location doesn’t happen.

The ‘Find the Same Note on All Strings’ Method

This method involves finding all the F notes on the fretboard then all the F# notes etc. and is sometimes practiced with a metronome. While you get a better idea of the location of each note, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to play seven F notes in a row in different locations on the fretboard, and it’ll take a long time before you know the notes in proximity to each other in a limited area on the fretboard, which is a far more useful application.

My Method

The fretboard diagram on the next page shows you where all the notes are on the fretboard. Below you’ll find the steps to follow in order to (finally) learn the information.

Step 1: Play the notes on the first four frets only using one finger for each fret i.e. 1st finger 1st fret, 2nd finger 2nd fret and so on (use this page if you need to but once you have the notes off the paper/screen and into your head, stop looking at this page).  Call out the note names as you play them randomly; when you more or less know them move on to the next step.

Step 2: Move up one fret so that your 1st finger now covers the 2nd fret, your 2nd finger the 3rd fret and so on. Repeat the procedure in step 1, calling out the names of the notes as you play them. What we’re doing is introducing the notes gradually while reinforcing the ones we’ve already learned.

Step 3: Rinse and repeat until you reach the end of the fretboard (or at least the 13th fret).

You don’t have to do the whole fretboard in one day, in fact, I’d recommend doing one shift per day to really get the notes down then in a couple of weeks you should be looking at the fretboard in a whole new way! This method also lends itself well to learning to read as you need to get used to playing in positions which usually span four or five frets.

Putting It All Together

Now that you can read rhythms and know where the notes are on the neck, the final step is to start reading music. I’d recommend single note melodies to start with while bearing in mind that you don’t have to read guitar music. The beauty of being able to read music is that it opens up a whole new world that was previously unavailable as you can now play anything that uses the treble clef such as violin, oboe, sax, trumpet, flute, clarinet or even the xylophone.

Learning to read music is not an overnight process but once you start getting somewhere it kind of snowballs and you’ll find yourself reading in no time at all. Good luck!


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