How to Read Guitar Sheet Music

Kevin Casper
Learn to play easy chords.
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In order for a guitarist to truly grow as a musician, he or she must learn how to read guitar sheet music. While using guitar tabs is a fantastic way for beginners to get up and running without having to know how to read music, their usefulness has a limited reach. For starters, tabbing out a complete song is a long and tiresome procedure. Therefore, no matter how many tab sites pop up on the Internet, there are always going to be songs you want to learn that have not been tabbed.

The same thing applies when you start to play with other musicians. It would be very rare to go to a rehearsal and have the bandleader hand you a stack of songs written out in tab. What you will likely encounter in this situation, depending on which type of music you are playing, is either guitar sheet music or guitar chord charts. Guitar chord charts are the preferred transcription method for folk, rock, blues and pop projects, while guitar sheet music is typically used in jazz and classical sessions. If you really want to take your playing to the next level and have an interest in expanding your repertoire as a musician, the following information will help you learn how to read guitar sheet music.

How to Read Guitar Sheet Music: The Basics

A full lesson on the details of reading music is beyond the scope of this article. However, there are a few basic features of any type of sheet music that a player should learn to identify before they begin to try to play a piece of music. If you have any experience reading music on another instrument, you will obviously have an advantage.

Identify the Guitar Part

If you've purchased guitar sheet music, that doesn't mean that the piece will only contain guitar parts. The music may include string parts, horn parts, piano parts, bass parts, etc. The guitar part will be clearly identified, so make sure that the guitar part is the part you are focusing on.

Treble Clef or Bass Clef?

The general rule of thumb when identifying which clef you should play in as a guitarist is that six string guitar parts are typically in the treble clef and bass guitar parts are typically in the bass clef. How do you identify which clef is which? It's easy. The treble clef is always written above the bass clef. The five lines of the treble clef, from low to high, are E-G-B-D-F. The famous saying Every Good Boy Does Fine is taught to music students to help them easily remember the notes on the treble clef. The five lines on the bass clef, again from low to high, are G-B-D-F-A, or Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always.

Identify Which Key the Song is In

The key of a song refers to which scale and, therefore, which notes the song is based around. A fairly reliable way to identify which key a song is in is to see which notes or chords the song starts and ends with. If a song begins and ends on a D, a good bet is that it's in the key of D. However, the official way to determine which key a song is in is to check the key signature. The key signature is a series of sharps or flats that are indicated at the beginning of each line of sheet music. Depending on the number of sharps and flats, the key of the song can be determined. This system is based around one of the key aspects of music theory known as the circle of fifths.

Check the Time Signature

Last, but not least, is the time signature. You've already identified which parts are the guitar parts, you know whether to focus on the bass or treble clef, and you know which key the song is in. Now, you need to know the rhythm of the song, or the time signature. The time signature is also written at the beginning of each line, and is shown as a fraction. For example, 4/4 is a time signature that is typically used in rock and pop music. In musical terms, this time signature indicates that a quarter note gets one full beat (the bottom part of the fraction) and that there are four beats per measure (the top part of the fraction). The time signature 3/4, on the other hand, tells the musician the quarter note gets one beat and there are three beats per measure. The 3/4 time signature is typically used in waltzes and swing music.

Challenges of Reading Sheet Music for Guitar

The most significant variable when it comes to the guitar and sheet music relates to the guitar's ability to be tuned in numerous ways. While a piano is tuned to a standard that does not change, many guitar players routinely experiment with different tunings. Players need to get in the habit of making sure their guitars are tuned correctly in relation to the sheet music. At the top of any well written piece of guitar sheet music, the tuning used will be indicated. Look for terms like Standard, Drop D, Open G, and so on. Make sure your guitar is tuned correctly, or what you're playing will never sound right.


Be sure to visit this channel's printable guitar chord chart to learn how to play dozens of chords!

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How to Read Guitar Sheet Music