Most people, when they first pick up the guitar, channel their inner rockstar and have dreams of rocking it up on the stage jamming to their favorite songs.
We get it, we really do.
The problem with this approach is that it isn’t sustainable to learn music this way.
If you only want to learn how to play like Jimi Hendrix then you’re probably going to burn out early on as the difficulty and frustration start to wear on you.
In our view, that means learning how to read guitar sheet music and how to learn sheet music generally.
It’s not glamorous, we know, but learning how to read sheet music is essential if you want to truly master the guitar.
This does mean that your reasons for playing should be born from intrinsic motivation as opposed to extrinsic motivation. For example, if you want to learn to read sheet music because you love playing then you’ll go far. If instead, you want to learn so you can impress your friends or be a rockstar then you might not get past the first few weeks
With all that in mind, this guide is an introduction to how to read sheet music for guitar for those who truly want to get proficient with the instrument.
What are the Basics of Guitar Sheet Music?
In guitar sheet music, you can have either tabs or standard notation. We’re largely going to address standard notation in this guide, but we’ll touch upon tabs later on just to give you an idea of what they are.
In standard notation sheet music, there is always a staff.
What is a staff?
That’s a good question.
The staff is one of the most important structures in any kind of sheet music, whether you’re playing the guitar, the piano, or one of many other instruments.
Essentially, the staff is the canvas for the notes that you’ll need to play. It also hosts other important elements for reading sheet music such as the clef and the time signatures, but we’ll get to those later.
Each staff (there are two in sheet music referred to as the grand staff together) is made up of five horizontal lines, but the four spaces in between them are important too.
The location of the notes on the lines will give you a lot of information about how to play them, from pitch to duration.
In guitar sheet music, you’ll only ever need to pay attention to one of the two staves, and that is the one with the treble clef. The bass clef, which sits on the other staff, isn’t used for guitar sheet music as it refers to a different register so luckily for you it’s not something you need to learn about.
The treble clef looks like a slightly more elegant version of the ‘&’ symbol.
You’ll see it at the start of each staff on the left-hand side, and it’s usually accompanied by the time signature.
Now, the lines and spaces between them in the treble clef staff will be occupied with various notes.
In guitar sheet music, there are a couple of simple mnemonics you can use to commit the pattern of notes to memory, which is as follows:
- Every Good Boy Does Fine (EGBDF)
The first mnemonic, which you can remember with the expression ‘every good boy does fine’ tells you that the staff starts off with an E note in the bottom left-hand corner next to the treble clef symbol. From there, you’ve got a G note on the next line, then a B note, and so on all the way up to an F note which resides furthest right up on the top line.
So where does the second mnemonic, ‘face’, come in?
The second mnemonic tells you what goes in between the gaps left by the notes in the first mnemonic. So, for example, there’s an F note between the E and the G, an A note between the G and the B, and so on.
You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll pick up the notes when you use these mnemonics.
There are also ledger lines, which refer to notes that fall below or above the staff.
Time and Key Signatures
There is one last thing you should know about before we move on from the staff, and that is the time and key signatures.
If you remember, earlier we mentioned that the treble clef is accompanied by a time signature.
To the right of the treble clef symbol, you’ll notice two numbers, one on top of the other.
This is the time signature.
What does it mean?
Well, the time signature tells you everything you need to know about the rhythm you need to play at.
Each time signature tells you how many beats there are in every measure.
A simple way to think of it, using a common example of 4/4, is that you need to count to four over and over in your head to keep up with the song.
Key signatures are the sharps, flats, and naturals of the guitar sheet music world. The key signature is located in between the treble clef and the time signature. Here are the symbols for each:
- Sharp - ♯
- Flat - ♭
- Natural - ♮
You’ve most likely heard of these concepts before, but what do they actually mean?
The key signatures let you know what key you need to be in to play the notes.
How do you Read Notes?
With notes, there are a few things you need to know so that you hit them right every time.
For example, you need to know what the note’s component parts are and what type of note you’re dealing with.
The Parts of a Note
Each note is broken down into three parts, which can give you information about how you should play it.
- Note Head
The note head is the circular part of the note, which can be either open or closed.
The stem of the note is the long part which is more of a visual aid than anything else.
The flag is only seen on some notes, and it’s a curved line coming off the stem. The flag tells you that you need to play the note for longer, and in some cases, it connects several notes.
Types of Note
There are four types of notes you’ll need to get familiar with as they will tell you how long you need to play the note for.
Played for a quarter of a measure and looks like a backwards ‘b’ with a black, filled circle.
Played for half of a measure and looks like a backwards ‘b’ but with an open, empty circle.
Played for a whole measure and looks like a circle.
Indicates a pause and looks like a short horizontal line.
What is Tablature?
Tablature is another common method for reading guitar music, alongside standard notation.
Often shortened to guitar TAB, this method became exceptionally popular because it could be easily written and shared online with thousands if not millions of other guitar players.
While it may not be the traditional sheet music for guitar, it’s still very effective.
With tablature, you have numbers instead of circles to represent the notes, and they’re spread across six different lines.
To learn with tablature, you just need to learn the numbers and the lines.
Put simply, the numbers refer to the frets, and the lines refer to the strings
Should you Learn Tablature or Standard Notation?
It isn’t our place to say which type of sheet music you should learn when picking up a guitar, but what we can do is provide you with an overview of each so you can make an informed decision for yourself.
Standard notation is the traditional form of sheet music and one which transcends many instruments.
Given that it’s more traditional, it’s well-suited to more traditional forms of music such as jazz and classical, which rely exclusively on this form of notation.
However, the standard notation can be harder to follow for guitar players, especially with the rising popularity of tablature.
Tablature is like the new kid on the block, bringing guitar music to the masses, and providing everyone with a way of playing different genres of music outside of the more classical ones.
It’s easily written and shared and is widely accessible so you can start playing from day one.
However, if your music of choice is jazz or classical, or you prefer to learn the more traditional way, then standard notation is a better option.
Whichever method you choose, a tutor can help guide you along the way.
With Superprof you can find a guitar tutor near you who can help accelerate your progress. You can work with them either online or in person. You can also work with a music tutor if you want to learn how to read sheet music for piano and make it easy with letters and pop songs.
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