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How to Read Guitar Notes [Basics for Beginners]

Do You Have to Read Music to Play Guitar?

This is a common question that guitar players ask. There are many great guitar players that did not know how to read music- like Jimmy Hendrix! But even the basics of reading guitar music can help you to communicate with other guitar players and be a better musician.

Different Ways to Read Music for Guitar

Guitar Tabs

You may be surprised to know guitar tabs were originally written for the lute. Later on, they were adapted for the guitar. So, tabs aren't a modern-day phenomenon, they have been around since the 15th century!

Guitar tablature is easier to read than standard music notation, but it misses a lot of the details. So, it's helpful to learn both!

Standard Notation

Standard notation is also known as staff notation because it's written on a staff. A staff is a blank canvas on which to write notes.

Then there are bar lines that are inserted onto the staff. The bar lines represent the same amount of time and separate the staff to make the music easier to read and understand.


Without rhythm, there would not be any music at all! Rhythm is determined by the notes, rests, and the time signature of the music.

Understanding Note Duration

Note duration means how long you hold a note for. There are different kinds of notes, there are whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and more.

A dot behind the note increases the notes value by half of its original value. For example, a half note with a dot would mean 2 beats for the half note plus one note for the dot, so 3 beats altogether for a dotted half note.

What is a Time Signature?

A time signature is the 2 numbers showing at the start of a staff. The bottom number of the time signature is the numeral representation of a note. The number 2 means a half note, 4 means a quarter note, and 8 means an eighth note.

The top number on the time signature shows how many of those notes' values can fit in one bar. For example, the number 2 on top with a 4 on the bottom would mean 2 quarter notes can fit in that bar.

Common Time

A 4/4-time signature is also called Common Time because it's...COMMON! In Common Time, a whole note lasts a whole bar, a half note lasts a half bar, and a quarter note lasts a quarter bar.


Rests are the spaces between notes in music. Every note has a matching rest that has the same duration! For rests, instead of playing, you don't!

Melody in Music

Every line and space in music represents a note. The guitar uses the treble clef in music. If you want to learn how to read guitar notes you need to learn the note names for the lines and spaces on a staff.

An easy way to memorize the notes and the spaces on a treble clef staff is to use Numonics. For the lines on the staff use this phrase- " Every Good Boy Does Fine" or "Every
Good Boy Deserves Fudge. So, the lines = E-G-B-D-F.

Now for the spaces between the lines, it is easy! They spell out the word 'face' or F-A-C-E. You can also come up with your own Numonics phrase to remember this, for example, Freddy Ate Cooked Eggs.

Ledger lines

Sometimes in music, the notes go above the staff or below it. This is when you would need to use ledger lines. These are lines or spaces above or below the staff.

Sharps and Flats

Notes that fall between the natural notes are known as sharps and flats. There are exceptions, however. Between the notes B & C and E & F there are no spaces between them., this is called the Rule of B & C, E & F.

On the guitar, to play a sharp note, you would need to go one fret up, and to play a flat note you would go one fret down. 

A sharp or flat on the key signature says that note from that point onwards will be sharp or flat. This is called a key signature.

You can also change a note to sharp or flat by writing it in front of the note directly on the music. This alteration would then hold true for the entire bar of music. This type of notation in music is called an Accidental.

Music is a Language

Like any language, it takes practice to be fluent. The basics of learning to read guitar notes and being able to understand guitar tablature will help you go far as a guitar player since the 2 work together very well.

It is very useful for guitar players to understand how the different notes work and combine this with guitar tablature. To learn how to apply these concepts to the guitar click here. 

Would you like to learn how to quickly and easily memorize the notes on a guitar freboard? Check out the link below!

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