NOTE: This article was written before modern guitar tab was invented — Jimmy Cypher
The Necessity of Reading Music by Lee Ritenour
SOURCE: Guitar Player, June 1979.
Guitar players (regardless of style) have the reputation of not being able to read
music, or at least the reputation for being poor readers. This attitude has changed slightly
in the past decade, but not enough to convince many musicians that the guitarist should
be allowed to sit in with a symphony orchestra. Although this article will not involve any
musical examples, it will suggest some very practical ways in which to improve your
First, I think we should list several guitar styles and show the levels of reading ability
among guitarists in each genre. This analysis is based on my 20 years of experience in
crossing all types of guitar players, and by no means is the final word (there are plenty of
exceptions); however, trust me that the general assumptions are accurate. The list starts
with the best guitar readers and ends with the worst and takes into account the overall
ability to read music, knowledge of the fingerboard, sight-reading facility, horizontal reading (single notes), and vertical reading (notes stacked upon one another chords, counterpoint, etc).
1. Studio 4. Rock 7. Blues
2. Jazz 5. Pop 8. Flamenco
3. Classical 6. Country 9. Folk
It’s not hard to guess that studio guitarists would be the best readers. They have
usually spent the most time practicing their reading in preparation for becoming session
players. In general, jazz guitarists have also spent a great deal of time with written music,
and in many cases have attended universities that stress the reading of music. Classical
guitarists usually spend a large amount of time in learning to read music; their goal is
usually to learn how to read well enough in order to read or transcribe classical guitar
compositions and then memorize them. Unfortunately, classical guitarists are usually
Starting with the rock, pop, and country guitarists, the levels of reading drop
considerably for a few simple reasons. In the case of the rock guitarist, he or she usually
starts to pick up the guitar by ear. This is by no means a detriment; in fact, I’ve noticed that
many rock and pop guitarists have better ear training than the studio, jazz, or classical
players. As we know, some of the most innovative guitar playing has come from rock
guitarists who did not read a note (e.g., Jimi Hendrix). So if you plan to be in that category
you need not read further.
However, for those of you who are a little more practical, you
can see that the days of the rock guitarist not needing to read music are over. There are
just too many guitarists out there competing for the same job.
The blues, flamenco, and folk guitarists are usually the worst readers, but I don’t
mean any insult. The traditions for learning such styles run very deep, and in the past
have had very little to do with reading written music.
Looking at this list of guitar stylists and their general reading abilities, you might get
some idea of where you fit in. For example, if you are a folk guitarist looking to break into
the studios, you just may have a great deal of work to do in the reading department.
There are several steps you can take right away to help improve your reading. First of
all, give yourself this test to determine your weakest points:
1. Randomly select a note, such as B b. Play it on each string, starting with the sixth up
to the first, as fast as you can. For example, if you were using the note B b, you
would go from the sixth string’s 6th fret to the fifth string’s 1st fret, the fourth string’s
8th fret, the third string’s 3rd fret, the second string’s 11th fret, and the first string’s
6th fret. If you can complete the test from the sixth string to the first string in
between one and two second’s time, you have an excellent knowledge of the
fingerboard. Three to four seconds is average; if it takes longer than that”well,
you know you need some work. Try this exercise with all the chromatic tones.
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