How To Read and Perform Music on the Guitar – Part 1

Every student I’ve encountered desires to have the skills to read standard music notation on their guitar. One may argue whether or not standard music notation is the most accurate written language for our instrument (I happen to think so), but one can’t dismiss the fact that it is the most effective way to communicate with other instrumentalists (Bass, Drums, Keyboards, Sax, …etc.). If one loves the music and playing guitar, it is only logical that one would “want” to know how to write and read standard music notation.

I tell my students: “the only obstacle is that reading music takes a while to learn.” Therefore, if you want it, you need to be patient and have consistent practicing with it.

The “BIG MYTH” is that it’s difficult to do. However you obtained this idea, it’s wrong! There are many study guides and books that approach reading music in multiple ways. I found that the common problem they have is a proper learning curve in their method. Many of the books start out nice and easy. The student becomes confident, but not long after the first couple of lessons the learning curve inclines at an angle to which the student runs into major problems with the lessons. Most of this is due to the fact the student has not had a chance to get comfortable with the material he or she had just learned.

This year I’m taking an extra effort to help my students overcome the fear of learning to read music, plus find out how interesting and doable it is. I also plan on passing some of this information to you in a series rightly called “how to read music on the guitar” on the Guitar Noise website. I will present a step-by-step approach (lesson at a time) from the very beginning to intermediate linear (playing single notes) “PLAYING”. I like to use the word playing, because I have had many new students tell me they already know how to “read” music. Therefore, I write out a very easy composition for them to perform. Afterwards, they tell me that they “know” how to read music, but they can’t “play” it on their instrument. It’s music, so what’s the use of knowing it if you can’t perform it? Therefore, I teach “how” and then help you to “play” it. It’s a lot more fun that way!

For some of you, this course will be moving too slowly (it is suppose to be slow and easy to accomplish). Tom Serb has put together a two-part series (at the moment) that moves over a lot material rather quickly. I suggest you check it out Standard Notation. And you also have David Hodge’s guide Your very own Rosetta Stone.

I’m looking forward to the responses of the Guitar Noise readers. I hope you enjoy it as much as I like teaching it. When we finish this series, maybe we can forge forward in harmonic playing and theory, using the same learning approach. Let’s first learn how to read and PLAY!

This lesson will cover some music basics and “playing 3 notes” on the 1st string. I will be assuming that you can read TAB already. Therefore, I will have TAB underneath the notes as a guide for you. In order to really understand and use music notation, you will need music that doesn’t have TAB underneath the notes. Having the TAB under the notes is similar to having training wheels for a bicycle. Until the training wheels come off, you’re not quite riding on two wheels. I will be offering music without TAB. Including more practice material will make this article too long. You will just need to email me and I will be happen to send you some with audio.

Let’s start with the diagram below. I try and teach what you will only need to know for the moment. Therefore, there will be things not explained until later. Glance over the diagram now and then let’s move on to the explanations.

Music Basics

As you can see, there are a few things to learn. The staff is are the 5 lines that we write music on. It looks like TAB, but there are only 5 lines and the lines do not represent the strings. They represent “pitch”. The higher the pitch, the closer the note is to the top of the staff. Thus, the note on the top line of the staff sounds a lot higher than the note on the bottom line of the staff. The Measure is basically a representation of a group of beats. When the drummer of a band counts “1-2-3-4”, he is counting a blank measure. You can hear these groups. When you hear a Waltz (similar to the dance), you are counting in groups of “3”. The top number of the Time Signature tells you how many counts are in a measure. Therefore, a waltz is in 3/4;. We will leave the bottom number alone for now. Notes also represent Rhythm. If the note looks like a Whole Note, when you pluck that note, count to 4 and start counting the moment you pluck the note. (Dotted Half Note = 3, Half Note = 2, Quarter Note = 1).

I tend to teach my students to just count the values of each note. They will add up properly in each measure. Some teachers (most) have you count as the notes fall within the beat of the measure. The choice is yours at the beginning. Eventually it will work out anyway in the end. As for now the Time Signature is the symbol we use to indicate the pitch values of the notes, and this is the symbol we use for the guitar (plus many other instruments.

Now that we have enough information to move on, let’s look at the notes we are going to learn today. (see below).

Notes on the 1st String

Try and play these notes before attempting to play the exercises below. Listen to the midi examples and pay attention to the rhythm.

Download midi

Focus on 1 line at a time (4 measures). The audio example plays from the beginning straight to the end. This is your goal. If you have any questions, please email me. I will be more than happy to answer you. You can also request some extra exercises “without TAB” from me.

Until next time … Have Fun! …