I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Reading Music for the Guitar
When you are first thinking of taking up the guitar, learning to read music might seem a little daunting. Musical notation looks like a bunch of abstract art when you don’t know what any of it means, and the road to figuring it out appears long and boring. Who cares about all that when you just want to rock?
It might surprise you to know that some of the best guitarists in history are rumored to have felt the same way. Guys like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eddie Van Halen are said to have been musically illiterate. Even the Beatles didn’t know what to do with standard notation. It didn’t seem to hurt them any, so why should you bother?
Truthfully, only those legendary musicians themselves know how deep their knowledge of musical notation went, but it does sound appealing to think these guys were too cool to read music. But one thing is for certain: Even if they couldn’t read music, they sure did know what they were doing.
If you take one thing away from this article I hope it is this: Musical illiteracy does not equate to musical stupidity. There is no easy road to guitar greatness, whether you choose to learn to read music or not. Either way, you have to know your instrument.
In fact, if you choose to take guitar lessons your teacher may or may not prioritize reading music in your curriculum. As you will see in this article, this will likely be based on your goals and the style of music you intend to play.
So if some guitar players don't read music how can they convey their ideas to other musicians? The guitar does have one thing going for it that most instruments don’t, and that's tablature.
Tablature vs. Staff Notation
Tablature, or tab, is a simple way for guitar players and bassists to jot down their songs, or transcribe the music of others. It literally only takes a few moments to learn, compared to the weeks or months it may take you to learn traditional musical notation.
Thanks to tablature, you can learn your favorite songs, share ideas with your friends, and even write your own music without having any understanding of standard notation.
In tab, each line represents a string, and the number on the line represents the fret. Therefore, if the sixth line has a five on it you know you are playing the sixth string at the fifth fret, an A note. There are other notations to indicate slurs, slides, rests and other musical direction, but generally, if you can read a piece of paper, you can read tab.
Thanks to tab, musicians who can’t otherwise read music can learn new songs and share ideas.
Pros and Cons of Guitar Tablature
So what’s the difference between tab and staff notation, and if we have tablature why should we care about reading music?
Tab is a very effective method of writing and learning music, but it does have some drawbacks. For one thing, you generally need to already know how a piece is supposed to sound or have a recording of the song to compare with the tab. The musical direction is very limited compared to standard notation.
Remember, standard musical notation has been around a long, long time, since well before a recording device was ever invented. Back then, a musician had to not only relay the right notes to play but every other nuance of the piece as well. Fellow musicians could then know exactly how a piece is supposed to sound just by reading the music. In this way, it is like a language.
Good musicians can read a piece of music as easy as you are reading this page and transfer it to their instrument, just as you would read the words aloud. Really gifted musicians can “hear” the music in their heads just by reading it on paper.
So, while tab is very helpful, it’s easy to see how learning to read musical notation can be beneficial to a guitar player. Still not convinced? That’s okay, and learning to read music isn’t for everybody. You can certainly become a great player without it. But, there are some things you can’t get by without.
Learning about music theory sounds just as boring as learning to read standard notation. You picked up the electric guitar because you were inspired by screaming Les Pauls and Marshall stacks, not because you wanted to do homework!
Once again, you aren’t alone. Many of the great rock guitarists just wing it when it comes to theory. They pick up pieces here and there, but in general, they make their own rules.
But remember the thing about musical illiteracy not equating to musical stupidity? Just because some of these guys can’t explain the Circle of 5ths or don’t know all the positions of the Mixolydian Mode does not mean they don’t know what they are doing.
Music theory is the why and how of music. Why do certain tones sound good together and others don’t? How can you get a certain sound and feel to your piece? Which notes should you choose to play over certain chords?
Again, while we may not ever really know what some of the great guitarists in history really understood when it comes to theory, it’s pretty clear they're able to figure out all of the questions theory is meant to answer.
Think the Beatles didn’t know which chords worked well together? Think Hendrix was stumped when it came to grabbing the right notes in a solo? Whether they were just gifted, or whether they worked hard until they got it (probably both), these guys knew their stuff.
So what does this have to do with you? You need to know at least basic music theory if you want to write songs, play in a band and communicate with other musicians. Knowing a little theory can also help you get back on the right path when you experience songwriting blocks.
You have two paths before you when it comes to theory: You can go it alone, learn the instrument as best you can, make your own rules and try to piece things together.
Or, you can pick up a few books, or find a teacher, and learn. No doubt the second choice is way more boring, it is also a much straighter and less messy path. The choice is yours.
Paul Gilbert Talks About the Value of Music Theory
Jazz and Classical Guitar
If you play rock guitar you might be able to get by without learning to read music, and by figuring out theory on the fly. But if you are a jazz or classical guitarist, it’s a different story. Sure, it’s possible to learn classical and jazz guitar from tab and never learn to read, but the road is much harder.
Most classical and jazz musicians rely on standard musical notation, and if you play with a group you are going to have to be able to digest a piece of sheet music and be up to speed with the rest of the band pretty quickly.
Really good jazz and classical guitarists are adept at sight reading, as described before. They can look over a piece of music and translate it immediately through their instrument without having to memorize it. Their repertoire is so deep they can’t possibly be expected to memorize everything.
So, they use musical notation as the language it was intended to be, and they play it from the page. This is why classical guitarists have music stands onstage and rock guitar players don’t!
If your goal is to be a jazz or classical guitarist you need to learn to read music, and you need to learn theory by-the-book. As a session musician or member of a group, there is no substitute for this. If you just plan to noodle around you can rely on tab, but serious guitarists in these genres need to be highly educated.
Can You Play Guitar Without Reading Music?
Learning to read music can only make you a better guitar player, as can learning music theory. But if you choose not to spend your time working on the academics of guitar playing, don’t fool yourself into thinking they don’t apply to you.
At the very least you'll need to learn the notes of the fretboard, but you'd also be making your life easier by studying music theory and at least learning the basics of standard musical notation.
So, do you have to learn to read music or not? So far the answer has been maybe yes, maybe no, definitely if you play classical and jazz, but if you are a rock player Jimi didn’t care so why should you.
Shockingly, you may still be confused. So let’s get to the bottom line:
Being the best you can be at something requires learning as much as you can, and working really hard. In the case of rock music, it also means forging your own path and, as Frankie said, doing it your way.
Jimi Hendrix was great because he broke all the rules and played with heart and ferocity never seen before in rock music.
Yngwie Malmsteen is great because he learned all the rules, then played with a heart and ferocity never seen before.
The thing they have in common is that both guys knew their stuff, even though each chose a different path to greatness.
If you choose not to read music, like some of the greats, you’ll just have to figure it all out for yourself.
Will You Learn to Read Music?
Michael James (author) on October 07, 2017:
It's never too late to start again, John. If you are thinking of getting back to guitar don't wait another day!
john Mac on October 07, 2017:
i used to be a musician. Young Good looking and knew all
the moves.Worked well until now i wish to start again.
But i never learnt to read music Just sheet.And now i regret it.
Small Boy who want to learn guitar on October 26, 2016:
Nice article. It made me completely impressed.
Michael James (author) on January 04, 2016:
Thanks Edgemaster! The one good thing about those guitar magazine tabs even today is that they tend to be more accurate than tab found around the internet.
Edgemaster from Dallas on January 03, 2016:
Cool article. I use tabs for guitar. But I have learned sheet music for pianos since it made more sense. I just couldn't get into sheet music for guitar for some reason. I remember before internet i would go out and get some guitar magazine's so i can learn songs from the tabs.
Prasana on January 21, 2015:
This article is good.I love to read music as well as music theory.Thanks for sharing
Michael James (author) on April 01, 2014:
Thanks Heather! I have to admit I am very jealous of people like you who can see the joy in studying the academics of guitar. For me it was always a means to an end that I endured because I wanted to be better. But I do see what you mean about the "Aha!" moments where it's suddenly clear how chords and scales are built and why things are the way the are. That is pretty cool.
Heather on March 31, 2014:
Great article. A lot of people who don't know how to read music have trouble understanding why they should go to all the work of learning. I like to make the analogy that being able to play an instrument without being able to read music is kind of like being able to speak, but not knowing how to read. The only point where I disagree with you is when you say learning music theory and standard notation is boring - I think it's a lot of fun! It really makes the light bulb come on when all of a sudden you understand how chords are created, what being "in the key of G" means, and lots of other cool stuff.