Do guitar players really need to learn how to read guitar sheet music?
Some would say no.
If you can get by with tabs and chord diagrams, why would you ever subject yourself to the complexities of sheet music?
The truth is that whether you’re at the beginning of your guitar-playing journey or someone who’s been playing for years and is trying to master new guitar techniques, learning the ins and outs of reading guitar music will make playing and understanding the guitar a whole lot easier.
Chords and tabs are beneficial, yes, but sheet music will help you understand the full musical picture.
Knowing sheet music also translates across different musical disciplines. Whether you play a Martin or a Gibson, the piano or the flute, knowing how to read sheet music is going to help you immensely.
Don’t be intimidated by the complicated scrawls you see when you look at a page. In this article, I’m going to break down each element of a piece of sheet music, and explain them in a way that’s easy to understand.
Ready to become a guitar sheet music maestro? Then let’s get to it!
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What Does Guitar Sheet Music Look Like?
You might recognize the iconic appearance of guitar sheet music already.
Lines, dots, numbers and curls – it can look a bit like hieroglyphics to the untrained eye.
To help you understand it better, let’s break down the different elements on a standard piece of sheet music.
The first thing you’ll notice is the multiple rows of five lines clustered together.
On each of these clusters of 5 lines, you’ll see notes. Knowing your guitar notes will be very helpful for learning how to read guitar sheet music.
You read these lines left to right and top to bottom – the same way you would read a book.
The more complex the song, the more complex the sheet will look. But today, we’ll focus on some of the basics.
How to Read Standard Guitar Notation
Standard sheet music consists of a few core elements.
By learning these first, you’ll have a great foundational knowledge for understanding sheet music as a whole.
Staff and Bar Lines
First things first: let’s nail down the staff and bar lines!
The most noticeable element of sheet music is the various clusters of five horizontal lines that cover the page. These are called the staff and this is where the notes live.
The staff is divided by bar lines – vertical lines that split the staff up. These bar lines are also called measures and indicate how many notes are in a bar.
The staff and bar lines are the one common element in every piece of sheet music.
Standard notation is written on a five-line staff and notes are written in alphabetical order from A to G.
If you glance down the left hand side of your sheet music, you’ll see a beautiful cursive symbol. This is the clef symbol.
You will always see a clef symbol on the left at the beginning of each staff. This looks like either the letter G or C in cursive. Usually, guitar sheet music will have the letter G, also known as the treble clef.
So what does this actually mean? And why is it written in fancy cursive?
If you look closely, you’ll see that this cursive G actually curls around one of the lines in the staff. This isn’t by chance! It indicates that line – line 4 – is in the note of G.
Now remember this, as this will help us kick things off for the next core element:
Staff Note Positions
Now that we understand what the treble clef is, we can start to learn a whole lot more.
If that fourth line indicates the note of G, it also tells us what notes the other four lines represent.
There’s a great little sentence to remember this. It goes:
Every Good Boy Does Fine.
From bottom to top, the lines represent the notes E, G, B, D, and F. So when you see a note symbol on these lines, you know to play the corresponding note.
But wait, it doesn’t end there! On the staff, there are also four spaces in between each line. Similar to the lines, these spaces also indicate specific notes.
So we have an acronym to help you memorize these spaces:
F A C E
From bottom to top, the empty spaces indicate the notes of F, A, C, and E. So when you see a note symbol on these spaces, you know to play the corresponding note.
And just like that, thanks to the treble clef, you now know every note on the staff!
I know what you’re thinking: does this not limit the amount of notes we can include in a song? The answer is no – this is what ledger lines are for.
Ledger lines are additional lines above or below the staff that allow us to add more notes.
If a song needs an extended range of notes, we simply add ledger lines!
If a song has a particularly large range of notes, you might find that your sheet music is quite overpopulated with additional ledger lines, both above and below the staff.
Which brings us to the next core element of reading sheet music:
8va and 8vb
At first glance, 8va and 8vb might look like computer code, but it’s actually a very simple and useful symbol.
The number 8 is simply shorthand for an octave. An octave is the same note except 12 half steps (or 8 notes) higher or lower on a scale.
When 8va is written above the staff it means you play an octave higher, and when 8va is written below the staff it means you play an octave lower.
You can also play an octave lower if 8vb is written below the staff. So 8vb and 8va, when written below the staff, are both interchangeable.
These simple symbols are a way of avoiding adding too many ledger lines and simplifying the sheet music.
Learning Beyond the Basics
Now you know the basics for learning how to read music for guitar, so let’s delve a little deeper.
Some of these next sections are new, but I’ll break down each one for you in very simple terms so you’ll be ready to get rocking (and reading) in no time!
Go through these sections one at a time as you start to feel a bit more comfortable with the basics of sheet music.
Note values signify how long you hold a note. In the list below, I highlight the note names and the duration the note is held for.
Note values are relatively easy to learn – it’s just a matter of drilling them a couple of times to make sure they stick.
- Whole Note: 4 beats
- Half Note: 2 beats
- Quarter Note: 1 beat
- Eighth Note: 1/2 beat
- Sixteenth Note: 1/4 beat
You’ll probably find that you use the same three-note values repeatedly: quarter notes, eight notes, and sixteenth notes.
Rest values indicate the length of a pause or rest.
Similar to the above, rest values have a specific symbol:
- Whole Note: 4 beats
- Half Note: 2 beats
- Quarter Note: 1 beat
- Eighth Note: 1/2 beat
- Sixteenth Note: 1/4 beat
The time signature signifies how many beats are in a bar of music.
The most common time signature is 4/4, or four-four. This means that there are 4 beats per bar.
The top number indicates beats per bar, and the number on the bottom indicates what type of note gets the beat. The bottom number can be 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc., which correspond to the following types of notes:
- 1: Whole Note
- 2: Half Note
- 4: Quarter Note
- 8: Eighth Note
- 16: Sixteenth Note
So in the common case of 4/4 time, there are a total of four beats per measure, and one-quarter note equals one beat
A key signature is a series of sharps or flats on particular lines and spaces of the music staff at the beginning of each staff system. They can usually be found next to the treble clef in guitar sheet music.
The key signature replaces sharp (#) or flat (b) signs appearing across the staff in multiple places. It acts as a reminder to play a sharp or flat pitch for the notes on that line or space throughout the piece of music.
As all keys except for the key of C have sharps and flats in them, you’ll find key signatures appear very often.
Ties, Slurs, and Dots
- A tie links two notes together so you have to hold the note twice as long. A tie always occurs between notes of the same pitch.
- A slur, on the other hand, is similar to a tie except it occurs on two or more notes with a different pitch. It results in legato.
- A dot beside a note instructs you to increase the note duration by half.
Connected Notes (Beaming)
Connected quavers – also called beaming – indicate quavers joined together within a bar of music. The notes usually sound quick because the note values are quite short.
Dynamics denote when and how to vary the volume of the music you’re playing. There are various dynamics in guitar sheet music, but the most popular ones are as follows:
- Crescendo: gradually getting louder
- Descendo: gradually getting softer
- Piano or p: quiet
- Pianissimo or pp: quieter as in more quietly
- Pianississimo or ppp: very quiet
- Forte or f: loud
- Fortissimo or ff: very loud
- Fortississimo or fff: very very loud
Ornaments can really transform a piece of music. They indicate when you should embellish or ornament a piece of music.
Below I’ve provided an overview of some of the most popular types of ornaments:
A guitar trill is a fast alternation between two notes on the same string using hammer-ons and pull-offs.
A tremolo is the very quick repetition of a note or chord, or the quick repetition between two notes or chords.
The number of slashes on the tremolo symbol indicates the number of times you should pick or pluck.
A vibrato is a technique that requires you to vibrate the note that you’re playing with your fretting hand.
To play a vibrato, bend the string down slightly and then let it return to its natural position. Repeat this process depending on the length of the vibrato.
The length of the squiggle symbol denotes the duration of the vibrato.
You might already be familiar with accidentals. There are three main types:
- Sharps – denoted by #, it raises the pitch up half a step or a semitone.
- Flats – denoted by♭, it lowers the pitch down half a step or a semitone.
- A natural symbol – denoted by♮, it cancels a sharp or a flat for that particular note and all subsequent notes that are the same in that bar.
Learning to Read Music for Guitar: Additional Resources
If you’d like to take your knowledge of guitar beyond reading sheet music, I’ve put together a couple of other resources that might help you along the way:
And finally, watch this free guitar class for the trick to finally making guitar playing a consistent part of your life.
FAQs for Understanding How to Read Guitar Sheet Music
We’ve broken down all of the elements of standard guitar sheet music, now let’s address some common questions when it comes to reading it.
Is Guitar Music Hard to Read?
Learning how to read guitar sheet music might seem a bit daunting at first – it’s like learning a new language.
But once you get familiar with the above core elements, you’ll find the rest flows quite easily. Learning to understand sheet music will also open you up to learning more complex songs as you grow as a guitar player.
Is Reading Music Necessary for Guitar?
Not at all! Learning how to read guitar sheet music isn’t strictly necessary. In fact, many people get by without ever learning it.
However, if you really want to master the guitar and music in general, then learning sheet music is essential.
Is Standard Notation Better Than Guitar Tabs?
It really depends on how you like to play, how you like to learn, and what you want to do with your guitar playing!
Tabs are great for visual learners while standard notation is ideal for those who really want to advance their overall musical comprehension.
Is Guitar Music Written an Octave Higher?
Yes – guitar notation is usually written an octave higher than the piano and other instruments. This means that the guitar’s notes usually sound one octave lower than they are notated.
Now that you know a bit more about reading guitar sheet music, what’s the next step?
If you’re looking to build a consistent, life-long guitar practice, watch this FREE guitar class, where I show you the three secrets to faster guitar learning in 10 minutes a day.