How To Read Guitar Sheet Music
Dear Fellow Guitarist,
If your calling is to play guitar, you will love the way you’ll feel when you won’t have to hide the fact that you can’t read music.
Instead, you’ll confidently tackle challenging music scores, whether on paid recording sessions, band auditions, live gigs, or rehearsals.
Acquiring this skill will allow you to communicate your most important assets… your compositions, with other “non-tabs” musicians.
They will read and perform YOUR music exactly how you want it to sound because music notation reading crosses all instruments and genres.
It all sounds great but,
There’s probably a good reason why you have no better word to describe music notation reading other than CONFUSING.
Where does the starting-to-read CONFUSION come from?
One reason for the confusion is that you are already familiar with reading guitar TAB, whereas you know, the six horizontal lines represent the strings.
Reading standard notation is NOT like reading Tabs.
In reading common standard notation the five horizontal lines (called the STAFF or STAVE) represent the layout on which NOTES are written. Another common reason for the confusion is that if you have the same note on multiple places throughout the fretboard, how can you tell which one to play?
So, the primary thing to learn is the corresponding notes on the fretboard, right?
You see, when you read music notation, your brain needs to work in two channels simultaneously.
That is, to interpret the rhythmic notation and, simultaneously, the notes written on the staff.
Learning to read the rhythmic notation is easier and you can master it relatively quickly.
This is why we want to get it out of our way first.
At least, up to a level where you don’t have to think too much about the rhythms while you’re trying to interpret the notes’ pitch.
(Don’t concern yourself with the term pitch or any other term used in this post because I’ll cover everything you need to get started; besides, there’s a complete sheet reading dictionary at the bottom of this page for reference.)
Now, although I will present some basic rhythm examples here to get you started in reading your first guitar sheet music today, I don’t want to turn this post into a lesson in rhythms.
If you want to quickly clear the understanding and reading of rhythms out of your way so you can master common notation reading faster, you can download the free PDF bundle of “Essential Rhythm Exercises for Solid & Accurate Notation Reading”.
Step #1: Understanding the standard notation layout
A system of five horizontal lines and four spaces for writing notes is called the staff (US) or stave (UK):
The staff is divided into measures through bar lines for “ease of navigation”, order and reference:
Within each measure, we write the notes either on the staff’s lines or between two lines (spaces). The notes are written and read from left to right.
When we climb up on the staff, it means we go higher in pitch (or ascending).
Going in the opposite direction means we go lower in pitch (descending).
Cool Tip: If the note is higher up on the musical staff, it will probably be on a higher string.
If the notes are higher or lower than the staff’s range, we add ledger lines above the staff for the higher notes or below the staff for the lower notes.
Here’s an example of the first added ledger line below the staff.
This is the C note:
Another example of added ledger line, only this time it is above the staff:
This is the high A note.
This is the treble clef which indicates that the notes are written for guitar:
Notice: Other instruments that also read in the same clef are: Flute, violin, and the right hand on the piano or keyboards. The piano also reads in bass clef.
You can use this information to write simple melodies for those instruments as if you would write for guitar.
This is the time signature:
The top number indicates the amount of beats per each measure.
The lower is a numeric representation of what kind of note equals one beat, when 4 means quarters, 8 means eight notes and so on.
Here’s another example of different time signature:
Step #2 Basic note values (rhythmic notations).
As mentioned above, we will not get into rhythms too deeply here so the three examples I’m going to give are for whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes because they hold a relatively long duration, which will provide you with time to read the first sheet music below “in time” with no pressure.
You can recognize a whole note easily because it’s hollow and written without a stem.
It’s strummed once and gets a duration of four beats. It looks like this:
By dividing a whole note to two you’ll get the second time value I want to discuss – the half note.
It looks like this: (pay attention to the added stem).
Its duration is two beats.
Strum once and count two beats.
You’ll get four equal quarter notes by dividing the whole note into four.
Quarter notes can be recognized easily by the full black dot and a straight stem:
As far as time values, we’re going to stop here to get you to read the cool sheet below.
If you got it, let’s move on to the next step…
Step #3: The corresponding notes on the fretboard so you’ll know where to play what’s written
Don’t worry, it may seem overwhelming at first, but once you get used to fingering, the reading becomes automatic.
“Confusion alert” – please accept the following as a fact.
On the guitar, there is only one lowest E, and it looks like this:
You can’t confuse it with any other E and it only appears once on your instrument.
Yes, there are different E notes on the guitar but on different pitches.
This one can ONLY be played on the open low E string.
Isn’t that great?
To know you can’t confuse it with any other E on your instrument?
As a matter of fact, I’m going to save you more confusion and time by showing you two more notes that only appear once on the entire fingerboard. These are the low F and Low G (also when sharps or flats are added i.e F# G# or Gb Ab).
This changes when you get to the low A because you can play this note on two different strings. The 5th open string or at the fifth fret of the low E (6th) string.
From this point forward, you’ll have several options to play the same note on different strings.
How would you know where to press to get a specific note on a specific string?
It’s marked with circled numbers for strings and numbers above the notes for fingers.
You can see it clearly in the above A note example.
Note: Most of the time, It doesn’t matter what string you’re playing a note on (if you play the correct pitch), although different strings have different timbres (sounds) on individual notes.
So, what’s the solution?
Reading within positions will help as an indication of which frets you’re going to be playing at…
Step #4: This is where you start – Open position note reading
Here is the layout of all notes within the open position:
I don’t expect you to memorize it all today but it’s a great reference for learning how to read guitar sheet music.
After this step, I want to try to read your first sheet.
You can use the help of the next fretboard diagram to understand exactly where to produce each note.
Step #5 Reading your first sheet
I took all of the low notes discussed in this post and assembled a short A minor Etude (a musical piece aimed at improving one’s skill).
Read it and see if it sounds like the recording attached below.
If it is, that’s great news, and congrats on reading your first full guitar sheet.
If not, download this printable Am etude PDF for free, so you can start practicing the low register of the guitar.
The next steps of your guitar sheet reading will be as follows:
- Practicing Reading in the open position
- Further development of time values rhythm reading, including rests and dynamics.
- Adding accidentals
- Reading in all positions
- Reading in different key signatures
Standard notation is a system of symbols and markings that are used to represent musical sounds and rhythms on paper.
It is a visual language that allows musicians to read, write, and communicate music in a consistent and precise way.
Standard notation uses a combination of symbols to represent pitch, duration, and other musical elements.
Pitch is represented by the position of notes on a staff, while duration is represented by the shape and type of the note, as well as by other symbols such as rests and dots.
Other elements of music, such as dynamics and articulation, are also indicated through various symbols and markings.
Standard notation is an essential tool for musicians, as it provides a way to notate and share musical ideas and compositions with others. It is used in a wide variety of musical styles and genres, from classical to jazz to pop music.
Music sheets can take many different forms, from handwritten manuscripts to printed and digital formats. They are an essential tool for musicians of all levels and genres, allowing them to learn new music and share their own compositions with others.
A music sheet, also known as a musical score, is a document that contains written instructions for a musician or group of musicians to perform a piece of music. It typically includes notation for the melody, harmony, and rhythm of the music, as well as any lyrics or text that accompany the music.
The music sheet is a visual representation of the music, with symbols and markings that indicate the pitch, duration, and intensity of each note. This allows musicians to read and interpret the music, and to perform it accurately and expressively.
A staff can be thought of as a horizontal grid of lines and spaces that represents the pitch of musical notes. The staff provides a visual reference for the performer to read and play music, with each note’s position on the staff indicating its relative pitch. The notes are placed on the lines or spaces of the staff, and their position can be modified with the use of musical symbols and markings. The staff is a fundamental tool in music notation and is essential for reading and playing written music. It can also be referred to as a stave or a system.
The treble clef, also known as the G clef, is a musical symbol that is used to indicate the pitch range of notes played by instruments such as the violin, flute, and trumpet. It is called the G clef because it wraps around the line where the note G is located on the staff.
The treble clef resembles a stylized letter “G”, with a loop at the bottom that circles around the second line of the staff. The position of the loop on the staff indicates the pitch of the note G, and the lines and spaces above and below the loop indicate higher and lower pitches, respectively.
In music notation, a measure is a segment of time in which a predetermined number of beats or rhythmic units are contained. It is similar to a “section” of a song, and is marked off by vertical lines that cross the staff.
Measures are used to create a sense of structure and organization in music, as they provide a consistent framework for the rhythm and tempo of a piece. They can vary in length depending on the time signature of the music, which determines the number and type of rhythmic units in each measure.
The number of measures in a piece of music can vary widely, from just a few in a short song or riff to dozens or even hundreds in a complex symphony or opera. Each measure is like a small window of time that frames a specific pattern of notes and rhythms, and together they create the larger musical composition.
The time signature is an important element of music notation, as it provides a consistent framework for the rhythm and tempo of a piece. It allows musicians to accurately count and interpret the timing of the notes in the music, and to play with precision and cohesion as a group.
A time signature is a symbol that indicates the number of beats in a measure and the type of note that receives one beat. It is represented by a fraction-like symbol that appears at the beginning of a piece of music or at the start of each new section.
The top number of the time signature represents the number of beats in each measure, while the bottom number represents the type of note that receives one beat. For example, in the common time signature of 4/4, there are four beats in each measure, and a quarter note (or crotchet) receives one beat.
Notes are symbols that represent a specific pitch and duration. They are used to create melodies, harmonies, and rhythms and are the building blocks of musical composition.
A pitch refers to the highness or lowness of a sound. It is the property of sound that allows us to distinguish between different notes and recognize familiar melodies. Pitch is an essential element of music that is used to organize and communicate musical ideas and to create complex harmonies and melodies.
Understanding note duration is an essential skill for any musician, as it allows them to create and perform music with a sense of timing and rhythm.
Note duration refers to the length of time that a musical note is played or sustained. It is a fundamental element of rhythm and timing, and is essential to creating a sense of movement and flow in music.
It is measured in units of time, such as beats or fractions of a beat, and is represented by various symbols and markings on the musical staff. The duration of a note can be altered through the use of musical symbols such as dots, ties, and rests, which add or subtract time from the note’s length.
Rests are symbols that indicate a period of silence or inactivity in a musical piece. They are used to indicate a pause or break in the music, and are written as symbols on the musical staff.
Rests come in a variety of shapes and sizes, which correspond to different durations of silence. The most common rest symbols include the whole rest, half rest, quarter rest, eighth rest, and sixteenth rest, although there are other, less common symbols as well.
Accidentals are symbols used to alter the pitch of a note in a given musical key. They can be used to raise or lower the pitch of a note by a half step or a whole step, and are typically written as sharps (#), flats (b), or natural (♮) signs.
FAQ’s on how to read guitar sheet music
Guitar sheet music consists of a musical staff, which consists of five horizontal lines and four spaces. Notes are written on the staff to indicate their pitch and duration. The sheet music also includes other symbols, such as time signatures, key signatures, and chord diagrams.
The pitch of a note is indicated by its position on the musical staff. Each line and space on the staff corresponds to a specific note on the guitar. To find the corresponding note on the guitar, you can use a reference chart or the Printable guitar fretboard chart PDF.
The duration of a note is indicated by its shape and style. Different types of notes have different durations, with whole notes lasting the longest and sixteenth notes lasting the shortest. Rests are also used to indicate periods of silence or inactivity.
In addition to notes and rests, guitar sheet music may include symbols such as time signatures, key signatures, chord diagrams, and articulation marks. Time signatures indicate the rhythm of the music, while key signatures indicate the key in which the music is written. Chord diagrams show how to play specific guitar chords, while articulation marks indicate how to play each note.
Reading guitar sheet music takes practice, but there are a few things you can do to improve your skills. First, start with simple pieces of music and gradually work your way up to more complex pieces. Focus on one element at a time, such as note recognition or rhythm. You can also practice sight-reading exercises to improve your ability to read sheet music on the fly. Finally, consider taking lessons or working with a tutor to get personalized instruction and feedback.
Standard notation is a traditional system of musical notation that uses a series of dots, lines, and other symbols to represent the pitch, duration, and other musical elements of a piece of music.
Guitar tablature, or “tab,” is a simplified notation system that uses a series of numbers and lines to represent the frets and strings on a guitar, allowing players to quickly and easily see which notes to play.
Both standard notation and tab are useful tools for guitar players, and it’s a good idea to learn to read both. However, if you’re just starting out, tab is often easier to read and understand, since it gives you a visual representation of the guitar fretboard.
Once you’re comfortable with tab, you can begin to learn standard notation, which will give you a deeper understanding of music theory and enable you to play a wider variety of music.
When reading guitar sheet music, the fret number is usually indicated by a number written on the line corresponding to the string you should play. For example, if a note is written on the third line of the staff, with the number “3” written above or below it, you would play that note on the third fret of the corresponding string.
In some cases, the sheet music may also include additional markings, such as the position number (e.g. “I” for first position, “V” for fifth position) or finger numbers (1 for index, 2 for middle, etc.) to help you know which fret to play.
What do the different symbols and markings on guitar sheet music mean, such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bends?
Guitar sheet music may include a variety of symbols and markings to indicate different playing techniques, such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bends. A hammer-on is indicated by a curved line connecting two notes, and tells you to play the second note by hammering your finger onto the fret without picking the string again. A pull-off is indicated by a similar curved line, and tells you to pull your finger off the fret to play the next note.
Bends are indicated by a curved arrow above the note, and tell you to raise the pitch of the note by bending the string with your fretting hand. Other markings that may appear on guitar sheet music include slides, vibrato, and tremolo picking.
Improving your sight-reading skills for guitar sheet music requires practice and repetition. Start by practicing simple pieces of music and gradually work your way up to more complex pieces. Focus on reading the notes accurately and playing them at the correct tempo, rather than trying to memorize the music.
It can also be helpful to study music theory and become familiar with common chord progressions and scales, which will enable you to quickly identify and play the notes on the sheet music. Practicing regularly with a metronome or backing tracks can also help you develop your timing and rhythm.
One common mistake is not paying attention to the time signature and tempo of the music, which can lead to playing the wrong rhythm. Another mistake is not identifying and practicing difficult passages, which can lead to stumbling and mistakes during performance. To correct these mistakes, it’s important to study the time signature and tempo markings of the music and practice difficult sections slowly and gradually increase the speed as you become more comfortable with the piece.
Reading chord boxes or chord diagrams is a simpler and more basic form of reading music compared to reading standard notation. Chord diagrams typically show a guitar fretboard with dots representing where the fingers should be placed, and chord boxes show the specific finger placement for a particular chord.
In contrast, standard notation requires a deeper understanding of musical theory and notation symbols to accurately interpret the notes and rhythms being played. Standard notation also typically shows individual notes rather than chords, making it more precise but also more complex.
Overall, chord diagrams and chord boxes are primarily used for learning and playing basic chords and simple songs, while standard notation is used for more complex musical compositions and arrangements.