I’m not going to lie to you – learning to read standard notation on the guitar is a lot of work. It also takes tons of practicing. In these lessons I’m going to give you the basics, along with one exercise for each new concept. It’ll be up to you to find other things to practice with. If you work with it, though, it’ll be well worth the effort – there won’t be any music you can’t understand or adapt to the guitar, even if you’ve never heard it before.
Oh yeah – the illustrations are copyright 2002 by NoteBoat Inc. (my publishing company) because I’m basically just cropping artwork that appeared in my theory book… the ones labeled “Exercise #…” are created for this article, and are copyright Tom Serb 2005.
First a few preliminaries for those of you unfamiliar with standard notation…
Standard notation is written on a set of five horizontal lines called the staff:
Guitar music is usually written using a treble clef, which looks like this:
The purpose of a clef is to identify the names of the lines and spaces. Each line or space will represent one letter of the musical alphabet, which is the letters A through G. Using the treble clef, the lines are (from the bottom up): E-G-B-D-F, which you can remember using the mnemonic Every Good Boy Does Fine. The spaces, from the bottom up, spell out the word F-A-C-E. Combining these two, we can write the notes from E through F on the staff:
Standard notation is very visual: the higher a note is on the staff, the higher it will sound.
Notes are symbols that indicate how long a sound lasts. Notes are made up of one or more of three basic parts: a head, a stem, and flags or beams.
The head of a note is a roughly circular shape:
If a note has ONLY a head, the head is always hollow (as shown), and the note is called a whole note.
A stem can be added to a note. When a stem is used, the head can be either hollow or solid:
Notes with stems and hollow heads are called half notes; notes with stems and solid heads are called quarter notes.
Notes with solid heads can have flags:
Notes with one flag are called eighth notes.
We can keep adding flags to a note, getting sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes, and so on:
The shapes of notes tell us how long the sounds last. A half note lasts for half the time of a whole note, a quarter note lasts for half the time of a half note, and so on.
Music isn’t just made up of sounds, though – it’s also made up of the silences between sounds. We need rhythmic symbols to indicate how long to NOT play, and we call these symbols rests.
Each note has a corresponding rest… the ones at the far left are double-whole note/rest, which is pretty rare in notation; at the far right is the 128th note, which is also rare:
Since the shape of the notes tell us how long they last – at least relative to each other – we can now start worrying about pitch. We can put notes on, immediately above, or immediately below the staff:
But that only gives us notes from D (below the bottom E line) through G (above the top F line). That’s eleven notes… and we can play a lot more than eleven different notes on the guitar.
To handle the ‘extra’ notes, we’ll use temporary extensions of the staff called ledger lines, and keep going higher or lower as needed:
Ledger lines are identified as if the staff just kept going:
We’re almost done with the preliminaries… just a few more things…
We know that a half note is half as long as a whole note, and twice as long as a quarter note – but we need to know what note represents one beat in order to count time. That’s shown by two numbers called a time signature that appears right after the clef. It looks sort of like a fraction, and it can come in a lot of different varieties:
To begin with, we’ll use only these three time signatures:
In each case, the bottom number is 4 – that tells us that a quarter note will get one beat. The top number tells us how many beats will be in each measure.
Measures in music are the space between ‘one’ counts. We set vertical lines called bar lines between measures in music to help us keep our place:
Since the time signature here is 4/4, there are four beats in each measure, and a quarter note represents one beat. There are four sixteenth notes to a quarter note… here the sixteenth note flags are joined together into beams, with each beamed set being one beat. After every fourth set of beamed notes is a vertical bar line, which helps us keep track of the ‘one’ count.
It’s common to use a double bar to indicate the end of a section or piece of music:
One last thing and we’ll start to play… the time signature 4/4 is so common in music that it’s sometimes indicated by the letter C. Musicians refer to this as ‘common time’… it’s not really a letter C, but that’s a music history lesson for another article. If you see C instead of a time signature, count it as 4/4.
Ok, so we’re done with the basic tools – you know the note shapes, the letter names of staff positions, what note gets one beat, and how many beats are in a measure. Time to pick up your guitar!
We’ll start with the first position, and take one string at a time. The notes on the first string, first position are E (open), F (first fret), and G (third fret). These correspond to the top space of the staff, E; the top line of the staff, F, and the note immediately above the top line, G:
Get comfortable with the idea that these notes represent the sounds of the open, first, and third frets of the first string… then play this:
Make sure you’re getting the count right – the first note takes four beats, the next two notes two beats each, etc. Go slow – this takes time to read ‘at sight’.
Now let’s look at the second string. The open second string is the B note on the middle line of the staff; the first fret is the C note on the second space from the top; and the third fret D is the second line from the top:
Ready to read? Let’s go!
And now let’s try both strings:
Now let’s try another time signature… in 3/4 time we have notes that represent two beats or four beats, but we don’t have a note for three beats (one full measure of 3/4 time). The solution is to put a dot after a half note:
Dots after notes mean the original note value is extended by one half – a dotted half note is a half note (two beats in 3/4) plus half the value of the original note (one more beat in 3/4) for a total of three beats.
Ready for a stab at waltz time?
There’s one other way we can extend note values, by using another rhythmic symbol called the tie. Ties are curved lines that connect two notes of the same pitch (we’ll have other names for curved lines that connect different pitches later on). This is a way we can write a note that lasts for an odd amount of time, like five beats. When you encounter a tie, you play the first note, and hold it for the value of both. In this example, the last note of the third measure is held until the third beat of the last measure:
If we’d used a whole note to represent this sound – a whole note is also four beats – the third measure would have ended up with six beats… two too many. The solution is to split the note into two parts and connect them with a tie.
Now let’s add the third string. It’s only got two first position notes, the open G (second line from the bottom) and second fret A (second space from the bottom):
And let’s introduce another concept, partial measures… sometimes you’ll see a piece of music that doesn’t start on the ‘one’ count. To save space, publishers will often have an incomplete measure (less than the required number of beats) at the start of a piece or section. It used to be convention that the last measure of a piece like that would also be a partial measure – the first and last measures would add up to one full measure – but lately I’ve been seeing pieces that don’t end in a partial measure, so some publishers are discarding that convention. When you see a partial measure, start from the appropriate count; the next example will start on beat ‘three’.
At any rate, we’ve now got a full octave to play with, so let’s play!
On to the fourth string; we’ve got three notes: the open string D is the first note below the staff; the second fret E is the bottom line of the staff; and the third fret F is the bottom space of the staff:
Let’s put together everything so far:
Of course, we can divide beats… in 4/4 time, an eighth note represents one half beat (two notes to the beat). Publishers usually beam notes in beats or sets of beats – two beats in 4/4 time – to keep it easy to read. Count these notes “one-and-two-and-” etc.:
Now we’ve reached the note below the staff… to go any lower we need to start using ledger lines. All the open position notes on the fifth and sixth strings will need these temporary extensions to the staff.
On the fifth string, we have the open A note (two ledger lines below the staff), the second fret B note (the space below the first ledger line beneath the staff) and the third fret C note (the first ledger line below the staff):
The sixth string has three more notes in first position: the open E (the note beneath the third ledger line under the staff), the first fret F (on the third ledger line beneath the staff), and the third fret G (under the second ledger line below the staff):
Now we’ll introduce one more rhythmic twist: if we dot a quarter note in 4/4, we get a note that represents one and one-half beats. The next example includes dotted-quarter/eighth pairs, which are counted ONE-and-two-AND-THREE-and-four-AND. Give this a try:
Well, that completes the strings in first position. There’s still a lot more to discover about standard notation, though… find some music, practice in this position, and in the next article I’ll explore accidentals, double stops, chords, and key signatures; after that, we’ll start moving up the neck to other positions.
Also check out… Standard Notation Part 2