Friday, September 5, 2008

Reading Music for Guitar

Despite the fact everyone and their dad plays one, the guitar is not an easy instrument. Thanks to the Guitar Hero video game, there was a brief boom in the guitar lesson market. Yet once all those people realized steel strings hurt your fingers more than plastic buttons, and hitting the correct string or two is a lot harder than flicking a light switch, those of us that try to maintain a few students had to go back to drinking PBR instead of those delicious microbrews.

One of the biggest challenges for most guitarists is reading music. Many great guitarists don't read music. They just don't have to. Either they have great ears or play in the type of bands where it's not needed. There are also many that do read music, and exploit that skill to get a lot of work.

Learning to read music seems like a chore. There is tons of great music that can be played without reading a single note, and thanks to more intuitive notation methods like guitar tab, it can even appear cumbersome.

Even if you can read notes on a treble clef, you can play the same note on several strings. This gets confusing, especially if you're trying to articulate a passage properly. When a guitarist comes across an E in the top space on the staff, they can play the open top string or, working the way down the lower strings, get the same pitch on the 5th, 9th, 14th, and 19th frets. Each has a different sound and can influence your next move. It's confusing and causes a lot of guitarists to freeze up or get delayed when sight reading music.

My own excuse for being a poor sight reader is that I rarely see properly notated guitar music any more. Most people don't know how to write for guitar. The other night I played a gig where I had a few guitar charts, most with the notes written in the wrong octave (note to arrangers: the guitar sounds an octave lower than written, so if you want to hear middle C, write the C in the staff), and with a lot of cluster chords without a chord symbol notated above. Most of the time I was reading over the piano player's shoulder, looking at a bass line and then a few bars later back to my music stand trying to double the lead trumpet part. The next day I'll be working with somebody using a capo, and while they're telling me it's a C chord, in my head I'm transposing up a minor third to Eb to compensate for that capo on the third fret. When somebody finally puts actual guitar music in front of me I never know what I'm going to play.

However, I strongly encourage guitarists to learn to read. Being able to read and notate music properly is the best way to communicate with great musicians. There are more gigs for guitarists that can read. Even if you don't gig, there is a wealth of music to learn that been arranged and notated for guitar. Combined with a great ear, you'll find yourself not only being a better guitarist, but a much better musician.


AfricanABC said...

Nice article.

Reading on guitar is challenging enough without the dodgy charts that are thrown at us.

Perhaps someone should bring out a "how to write guitar charts" guide for arrangers?

All too often I'm confronted with impossible voicings (taken straight from the piano), notes out of the range of the instrument or (as you state) notes in the wrong octave.

To arrangers:
For rhythm parts, chord symbols with rhythmic accents are usually the best. Sometimes the top note of the voicing can be included.
For single note melodies check the range/transposition of the instrument.

That said, I would have lost out on so many amazing gigs had I not been able to read. Reading allows me to remain a freelance musician and do gigs at short notice in a variety of styles.

Cameron Mizell said...

Here's an article I wrote over at that talks about writing music for guitar:

And I agree--the ability to read music opens the door to more gigs, which will obviously help you stay afloat as a freelance guitarist.