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Reading Notation For Guitar

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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. You've seen it before. Below is a short example of staff notation.






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 any 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.

Music Phobia I have taught well over four hundred people to play guitar. Not many had any real interest in learning to read music. Most of my beginners want to learn to play by ear.


Learn the basics.  I encourage my students to learn at least the basics of staff notation. In the last few years, I’ve written a lot of worksheets for staff notation, where I have my students just write in the note names.


The pencil and paper exercise is a break from playing guitar, and concentrating completely on your hands. Some people balk at the idea of learning notation. You've heard of 'math phobia?' People have the same kind of phobia about reading music.


It is not necessary to read in order to play, or to understand how music and arranging work. “Writing” is not the same as “language.” and here, learning the language, as it applies to motions on the guitar, is the name of the game.


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Learn To Play First  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 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.

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 where music is concerned, and it will be easy - easier than reading as you're learning the basics of handling an instrument.

Reasons for reading Reading will almost certainly change the way you look at and think about music. 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.

A Career In Music  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.

Learn Gradually 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.

Big Notes 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.

Divide Measures Into 4 Beats The hardest thing about reading music is counting rhythm - 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.

Divide Measures Into Smaller Beats If you get to where you can read note values up to 16th notes, you will be able to read sheet music to most popular songs. You can see this for yourself. You don't have to read music to recognize a 16th note. Look at the sheetmusic for your favorite songs.


More On Counting Rhythms


Common Rhythms Most popular music is in 4/4 or a related time signature. Time signatures related to 4/4 are 2/2 and 2/4.

Other music is based on 3/4 time. Time signatures related to 3/4 are 6/8 and 12/8.

When elements of 3/4 time are used in a piece whose basic pulse is 4/4, the 3/4 elements are called 'triplets.' Triplets come in groups of 3 and are indicated by writing a '3' above the note group.


Reading Notation for Guitar

Copyright 2001 by Greg Varhaug. All Rights Reserved.