Learn to Read Guitar Notes

Sheet music

You can learn to play guitar without ever learning how to read notes, but why limit yourself? Reading guitar notes is easier than you might think, whether you choose standard notation or tabs.

Reading Guitar Tabs

One of the great things about the guitar is that you don't always have to know how to read traditional musical notation to play. Tablature is a simpler form of notation that many players use to write out how a song should be played. A good deal of guitar players actually prefer tablature to standard musical notation, and you can easily find tabs online and learn to read them with ease. Tabs show you which string to strum or pluck, and the number of the fret to press as you strum or pluck that string in order to make the note you want. Tabs are laid out consecutively for a melody line, and chords are shown by stacking the fret numbers in a straight column. Here's a video that offers a simple introduction to reading tablature.

Reading Guitar Music

If you want to learn to read guitar notes, the first step is understanding the fundamentals of sheet music.

Standard Notation

Guitar sheet music is composed of a set of staffs and other various notations. There is a symbol called a clef at the beginning of each staff, as well as a time and a key signature. Each line on the staff and the spaces in between represent different notes in the scale. Each of these notes corresponds to the note created when a particular guitar string is held down at the correct fret and played. Here's a chart that will help you relate the notes on a staff to the location of the notes on your fretboard. The first string on the left represents the low E string, the thickest string on the guitar. The other strings follow in order.

Fretboard chart
Fretboard Note Chart

In addition, the notes on the sheet music staff indicate how long to hold them before moving on to the next note.

Notes in a Scale

There are seven notes in a scale: A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Each of these notes can be sharpened (denoted with a #, such as A#) or flattened (denoted with a b, such as Bb).

Each of the five lines in sheet music corresponds to one of these notes. The bottom line stands for E, the next line up for G, the middle line stands for B, the line above that stands for D, and the top line stands for F. This is clearly represented in the chart below.

Along with the notes for each line of the staff, four of the notes are also found in the spaces between the lines. The first of the four spaces stands for F, the second for A, the third for C and the last for E. This is illustrated in the chart below.

You may notice that if you read the first line and then each space and line after that in ascending order, the letters go in order (E, F, G, A...). This is because the staff lines illustrate the music scale. This is important to remember because the notes on a guitar neck work in a similar manner. It is also important to remember that notes continue in this pattern for more than just the basic five staff lines. The basic staff represents one octave, but there are octaves both above and below these five lines.

Playing Guitar Notes

Once you have learned a little bit about reading music, it is time to take what you understand and begin applying it to your guitar. As stated previously, each guitar string is tuned to a particular note. Starting from the left (with the thickest string) the notes of each string are E, A, D, G, B and E in a standard tuning. You can also play different notes along the length of each string by holding the string down at various points.

Using Fretboard Charts

The easiest way to match the note that you see on the staff to your guitar strings is to make use of a fretboard note chart. This will help you quickly locate any note you need.

For example, you would read the notes on the staff below as E, G, B, D and F.

Next, you would just need to find the corresponding notes on the guitar fretboard to understand where to place your fingers when you strum the strings. The thinnest string on the guitar is generally thought of as a "high" string and the thickest as a "low' string". What this means in terms of sheet music is that most of the notes on the high E string are above the basic staff octave, while most of the notes on the low E string are below the basic staff octave.

The image below is a small example of a common piece of sheet music.

As mentioned prior, the musical scale extends above and below the staff, so the additional notes below the main staff in the previous image would read as presented in the image below.

Persistence Pays Off in Results

It may seem difficult at first, but as you continue to study and practice, you'll eventually learn to read guitar notes and play them fluidly on your instrument. You just need to stick with it. You might even find it's worth your time to find a good guitar instructor who can answer your questions and explain the finer points of reading guitar notes.

Contributed by Tania Dworjan

Learn to Read Guitar Notes