Reading Guitar Music: The Ultimate Guide

Reading guitar music will allow you to unlock your hopes and dreams as a guitarist. Whether it’s learning your favourite song or a burning solo, learning how to read guitar music is a crucial part of every guitarist’s journey. In this lesson we’re going to show you how to read guitar music.

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In this free lesson you will learn:

  • How to read every type of guitar music. (Chordboxes, Tabs, Lyric Sheets and Music Notation).
  • How to read guitar music in 4 easy steps.
  • 5 must-know guitar books that will turbo-charge your reading skills.

Reading Guitar Music Is For Everyone

Congratulations on your decision to become a reader of music. It is a tremendously helpful skill to develop at any point in your career as a guitarist, especially as a beginner.

  • If you’ve been playing the guitar for a little while and haven’t been able to decode the written information, it can feel a bit like being in a library and not knowing how to read.
  • We are going to get you set up and reading guitar music as quickly as possible.

Reading guitar music helps us to fill the gaps while learning music from a recording. It also helps us to learn music without the aid of a recording. Reading guitar music allows us to become better guitarists.

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Music as a written language comes in a few different formats, from chord charts to complete scores. In this guitar lesson we’re going to show you everything you need to know about reading guitar music.

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Reading Guitar Music – Chord Diagrams

Most of us first pick up a guitar to strum some chords and accompany ourselves or others singing. In order to do that, we have to figure out how to interpret chord diagrams, also known as chordboxes.

  • Making a chord involves knowing which fingers to put on which strings at which fret locations, so there are a few naming conventions involved.
  • The fingers on your fretting hand are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4 with 1 being your index finger, 2 being your middle finger, 3 being your ring finger and 4 your pinky.
  • When the thumb comes into play, it is named T.

The strings are named, from the ceiling to the floor, E A D G B E.

For help remembering that, you can remember “Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears.” There are other mnemonics you can use, but this one seems to stick with most people for some reason.

The frets are numbered from the headstock to the sound hole. The plastic thing holding your strings up off the neck is called the nut, and the frets are the metal lines going across the neck.

Chord diagrams show you a vertical view of your guitar, with the top line being the nut of the guitar.

When it tells you to put your finger on the first fret, you will put your finger between the nut and the first fret, but as close to the first fret as you can.

Here are a couple of chord diagrams you may have seen before.

E chord

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(If you don't understand the above image please read our article "How To Read Guitar Chordboxes In 60 Seconds". It will make everything clear!)

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D chord

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Sometimes there are Xs and Os on the chord diagrams. Yes, they love you, but also, O means that you’re playing that string open, no fingers on any frets. X means that you are not meant to play that string.

If you’re not sure how to mute strings, check out these articles:

Learn the 12 EASIEST beginner chords with our famous FREE guide

  Stop struggling. Start making music.

  Learn 12 beginner-friendly versions of every chord.

  This is our most popular guide and it will improve your chord ability quickly.

 

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Reading Guitar Music – Chord Charts

Chord charts or lyric sheets are a very common and simple format of written guitar music.

For purposes of demonstration, we are going to use Tom Petty’s 1994 single, “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”

If you focus on listening to the verse, you’ll hear that there are two chords that repeat. Don’t worry if you don’t “hear” the chord changes. That’s what reading guitar music is for! In time and with practice, you’ll be able to hear the timing and sequence of chord changes.

  • Chord charts are what you usually get if you go to your favorite search engine and type in the song title you are looking for and then the word “chords.”
  • For example, if you wanted to find a chord chart for this song, you would type in “You don’t know how it feels chords”.
  • You would then be directed to any number of websites with any number of chord charts for the song.

The first line of the chord chart would look something like this:

E                       A                      E                    A                    E   A  E  A

Let me run with you tonight, I’ll take you on a moonlight ride

The chords should be situated over the lyric that is happening when the chord changes.

While one of the benefits of reading guitar music in chord chart form is simplicity and intuitive ease of use, one of the pitfalls is that because they are so easy to make, the same website might have chord charts made by music professors and by 13-year-olds.

There are some excellent books full of guitar music in this format. The “Little Black Book” series gives you bite-sized anthologies of the music of Bob Dylan, AC/DC, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, and the Beach Boys, among others. “I Come For To Sing” contains a canon of folk music from, or at least appropriated by the US.

Top Tip For Jammers!

Start to build a list of chord charts from books to print outs. This will help you and will allow you to get jamming with other guitarists as quickly as possible.

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Pro-tip: Practice vetting your chord charts! If you listen to a recording of your song while following along with a chord chart, you can learn a lot about the song and the chord chart.

If you cannot follow the chord chart, it might not be the best version for you to use for reading guitar music.

Reading Guitar Music – Tablature

Tablature or tab is a simplified form of notation specifically designed for stringed instruments like guitar. It looks like this:

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Or this:

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The latter example is tablature with standard notation on the top. For right now, we’ll ignore the standard notation and focus on the tab.

There are a couple general rules of reading guitar music in tab form:

  • The horizontal lines represent strings: they always go, from bottom to top, E A D G B E.
  • That means that the strings are upside down; that is a way of mimicking standard notation, where the higher the note is on the page, the higher the pitch.
  • The numbers are fret numbers, not finger numbers.
  • The vertical lines are not always included; when they are, they are bar lines separating the tab into measures, or repeating groups of beats. The above section is divided into two four-beat measures.

Reading Tablature for Rhythm Guitar

When you are reading guitar music for rhythm guitar, it can often look confusing because of the stacks of numbers.

Those stacks of numbers are almost always chord shapes, usually shapes you already know.

An E chord and A chord look like this:

understanding-guitar-notes

One advantage of reading guitar music in tablature form is that sometimes, although not always, it tells you what rhythm to use.

This format of tablature uses rhythmic notation, which we’ll discuss in the next section, to tell you exactly when to do what.

Reading Tablature for Lead Guitar

Tablature is invaluable for figuring out how to play segments of melody.

Countless brave souls have figured out entire guitar solos and published them, and if you develop some skill at reading guitar music in tablature form, you can figure out how to play some high-level guitar leads.

Here is one of the most satisfying guitar riffs ever written. It happens at 2:15 in this video.

understanding-guitar-notes

That slanted line is tablature code for slide. You slide into the 4th fret from a fret or two below, keeping pressure on the string so that the sliding is audible.

That is one of a few phrasing marks for tablature.

For more information on how to read tablature, check out this essential lesson: How To Read Guitar Tabs

Reading Guitar Music – Standard Notation

Standard notation has the advantage of being just about the most complete form of music you can read for guitar. The disadvantage is that it takes some time to be able to do that.

  • Unless you are working as a musician in a pit orchestra for a musical theatre production, you don’t have to worry too much about being able to read music quickly, and it’s not even necessary to be able to quickly take in all the information in standard notation in order for you to play a song.
  • There are two aspects of standard notation that you want to get a grip on in order to be able to use it in reading guitar music: pitch and rhythm.

There are other things like dynamics, key signatures, and tempo (speed) markings, but there’s no need to worry about those right away.

Download our lead guitar cheat-sheet to make things easier

It can be disorientating for guitarists to understand which scales work with which keys.

With this in mind, we created a cheat-sheet; a key and scale-finder that you can use again and again.

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Reading Pitch Notation

Standard notation tells you which note to play by where the note sits on the staff.

This is a staff with a treble clef.

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Each line and space in between the lines represents a letter of the musical alphabet. The clef tells you which lines and spaces are which notes.

  • For the treble clef, the bottom line is E, and each subsequent space and line is a subsequent letter of the musical alphabet (A B C D E F G).
  • The line notes – every other note – of the treble clef are E G B D F, or “Elvis’s Guitar Broke Down Friday.” The space notes are F A C E, which is already a word, so we don’t need a cute saying.

The little 8 underneath the treble clef tells you that you are to play the note one octave below the note that is written. For example, the bottom line E as written is the guitar D string second fret.

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The advantage of standard notation is that it contains everything you need for reading guitar music; use it and you are able to play exactly what it says.

The disadvantage is that one note on the staff – for example, the E at the top of the word “FACE” in the space notes – exists in multiple locations on the guitar. Here are a few places where you can the E note on the guitar:

  • Open high E.
  • B string fifth fret.
  • G string ninth fret.
  • D string 14th fret.

The tricky part here is that you have to figure out the best place to play it. To practice reading standard notation, grab your fretboard chart and a piece of music and try it out! Be patient with yourself and keep going, and you’ll make progress.

Reading Rhythmic Notation

The trickiest part of reading guitar music is reading rhythmic notation.

  • Rhythm, after all, is there for us to FEEL a song, so breaking it down into a visually interpretive cognitive process seems neither efficient nor fun.
  • However, rhythmic notation can get you from not being able to keep a beat to being able to lay down a delicious groove, if you let it.

Here are the basics. The appearance of notes tells you how long a sound should last in units called beats or counts.

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The round part is called the head, and the straight part is the stem. It does not make any difference whether the stem is pointing up or down.

  • A quarter note is the basic counting unit of music because it gets one beat.
  • Music is separated on the staff by those vertical bar lines, which don’t affect how you play but give you guideposts every time a certain number of beats (usually four) goes by.

Pro-tip: Begin reading guitar music in standard notation with very simple rhythms – whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes.  Add eighth notes and sixteenth notes later. Get used to counting while you play. It will make you an infinitely better musician!

Work Your Reading Guitar Music Muscles Every Day!

There are a lot of different kinds of resources out there to help you work on your skills at reading guitar music. For chord charts, you can find good ones at ultimate-guitar.com.

  • For tablature, you can usually find a tablature book published by Hal Leonard for your favorite group, from Crosby Stills Nash to the White Stripes.
  • For standard notation reading, there are music theory websites like teoria.com that will help you learn everything you need to know.

For rhythm reading, we recommend the amazing rhythm book by jazz drummer Louis Bellson called Modern Reading Text in 4/4 for All Instruments.

Recommended resources

Major Scale Guitar – An Essential Guide For Lead Guitarists

How To Read Guitar Chords: An Essential Guide

How To Tune A Guitar: A Guide For Beginners

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