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Do I Need To Read Music To Play Guitar?

Do Guitarists Need To Learn To Read Sheet Music?

Are you one of many guitar players who wonders whether or not you need to read music in order to play guitar? This is a hot topic that has been widely contested for a long time. 

Most instruments require the musicians to read from sheet music, so why not guitar? That's a tricky question to answer. 

It might stem from the guitar not really being considered a “real” instrument for a long time. Although big band Jazz utilized guitars in the early 1900s. You might have heard the anecdotal story of a record label passing on signing the Beatles because the rep thought that “guitar music is a fad” and wouldn’t last.

But even today as the guitar is extremely popular and is central in a lot of music styles, guitarists rarely read sheet music. Hendrix didn’t. Jimmy Page doesn’t. It’s not to say they can’t, but it’s impractical on guitar. It’s not how guitarists have learned songs or played songs for the most part. 

And in my mind, reading music isn’t something that beginner guitar players should be focused on. 

Focus on Ear Training Instead

Instead of trying to read sheet music (something most guitarists won’t apply to their playing), I think your time is better spent on techniques and ear training. 

What I think is critical for any guitar player (and musician in general) is ear training. When I was growing up playing guitar, I would spend hours in front of my record player trying to figure out what the guitarist was playing.

This was long and laborious, and often times I wasn’t playing the right part, but it went a long way to develop my ear. If you’re a part of Real Guitar Success you might be familiar with By Copy Playing. Just the act of trying to figure out the part trains your ear. 

I’ll also lump general music theory in this category. Things like learning scales and common chord progressions. And even learning note durations. Like whole notes, quarter notes, and so on. 

You get so much more value when you take what you’re going to use and apply, rather than something you don’t have a use for.

(A good music teacher can provide these things for you and set you on the right path. I’ve built these concepts into my Real Guitar Success course).

Alternatives To Sheet Music For Guitarists

Guitar Tabs

When I say “sheet music” I’m talking about standard notation. Guitarists do use a form of notation (among various chord charts) called tablature. Tablature, or tabs for short, is a way to easily notate the guitar part. 

It’s a visual representation of the guitar fretboard. It’s a clear way for guitarists to know what to play, without having to read sheet music. Most guitarists are easily able to read tabs. They were created for guitarists after all!

Even bassist, ukulele players, mandolin players, and banjo players use tablature. It’s simply a more efficient way to read music for us multi-stringed instrumentalists.

The Value Of Sheet Music

Now, I don’t want this to be a discouragement to learning sheet music if that’s the direction you want to go! Jazz guitarists and Classical guitarists both tend to read sheet music. And there are some fundamental concepts you’ll learn that can help you be a better musician. 

The more you learn about music the better the musician you’ll be. My biggest hang-up is when people spend too much time at the very beginning teaching a guitar player to read music. 

I think you’d be much better off learning the foundational guitar techniques, chords, and scales. After that, decide if learning to read sheet music will be the best use of your time. 

What Do You Think?

Do you currently read sheet music and/or do you want to learn to read sheet music? Let me know in the comment section below! 

Would you like some help on how to read sheet music? Check out the post below!

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  1. HI Tomas,

    I've been learning to read music, rather slowly, and do like the challenge of learning this new language. As I get better at it, I find it helps me with my picking up a new song or riff, as I don't always get it as quickly watching the videos. I also like to have a reference .

    I use tablature more than standard and have been trying to learn the standard. That's a bit of an uphill climb, but I like the challenge of it. I also use a piano keyboard from time to time to just get the theory of how music works, so standard helps with that as well.

    Thanks for putting this series together, I am enjoying it.

  2. Such an insightful article on a common dilemma for aspiring guitarists! The exploration of whether reading music is a necessity brings clarity to the age-old debate. I appreciate the balanced perspective presented, emphasizing the benefits of both reading music and playing by ear. As someone who initially learned without reading sheet music, I can attest to the liberating feeling of learning to play by feel and ear. However, the acknowledgment of the advantages that reading music brings, especially in certain contexts, adds a valuable layer to the discussion. Ultimately, it's all about finding the approach that resonates best with each individual player.

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