How to Read Guitar Sheet Music

Jim Josselyn
Learn to play easy chords.

Music is a language. The way the language is conveyed for each instrument is different with regard to fingerings, instrument specific notations, octaves, techniques, and even how the particular instrument relates to other instruments. For example piano, saxophone, and drum sheet music have their own language subsets with unique characteristics. The guitar, a rather unique instrument in and of itself, is no different.

Getting Started

Before you start, familiarize yourself with the basics of reading music, reading notes on the guitar, and how to read guitar tablature. If you're a guitarist who can't yet read guitar sheet music, need a refresher on some fundamental points, or just want to make sure you have your basics together, studying this information is essential.

Reading Chord Symbols

One of the great strengths of the guitar is its ability to play chords. The way these chords are expressed and written in guitar sheet music is not universal, but there are enough commonalities in most popular music to make most chord charts easy for musicians to understand. For example, a jazz guitarist will approach a sus chord differently than a rock or pop player. However, the following example offers commonly accepted triads, major, minor, seventh, and altered seventh chords with chord symbols, standard notation, and tablature. Study and learn these so you understand what the music is asking when you see it noted in tablature, on a music bar, or as a written chord.

Triads

First, learn the major triads. Start in the key of C, as noted below.

Triads for guitar
  • The top line lists the triads in the key of C.
  • The first staff with the treble clef shows the triads for each of the noted chords.
  • The second staff with TAB shows the tablature for each of those chords.

Major Chords

The following shows major chords in C as noted in chord notations, music notation, and tablature.

Guitar chords in c major

Minor

The following shows common minor guitar chords in C in the various forms of music notation.

Minor guitar chords in C

Natural Sevenths

The following shows the various notations of natural seventh chords in C.

Natural sevenths guitar chords in C

Altered Sevenths (Diminished and Half Diminished)

The following shows common notations for altered sevenths that are diminished or half-diminished.

Altered sevenths for guitar in C

Reading the Chords

The 24 chords expressed in the key of C are by no means meant to be an all-encompassing chord dictionary, but understanding of these chords, once transposed into all twelve keys, will give you the ability to read and play most pop, blues, country, standards, and jazz chord charts. Pianists may get the same exact information and have the entire chord fleshed out and voiced in the bass and treble clef, whereas a guitarist will, in most cases, just get the chord symbol.

Other Keys

Learn these chord symbols in all twelve keys. If you need a system for learning in twelve keys, use the cycle of fourths or C-F-Bb-Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-B-E-A-D-G.

The Symbol N.C.

Some other chord reading basics include the symbol N. C. which means no chord. In other words, there is no chord to play here.

Reading Rhythms

Rhythm charts for guitarists in a big band or pop group show the rhythm of the chord in the standard staff as a chord slash. For example strumming the chord on the beat for one beat, a quarter note, is a quarter note chord slash. Knowing exactly which chord to play when to play it and how to play it rhythmically is a great start. The following video illustrates reading rhythm charts for guitar.

Unique Fingering and String Notations

Again, there aren't universal ways to finger certain passages of guitar music, and they may differ based on the genre of music. A classical guitarist may finger a chord or run differently than a rock or jazz player and for very specific reasons. However, reading the way certain pieces of guitar music is written can be explained.

  • Most guitarists don't use the thumb on the fretting hand to hold down notes, but some do. When the thumb is required, the letter T is used on a chord diagram in place of a finger number. There are some advanced jazz chords that do require the thumb.
  • Guitar fingerings differ from piano fingerings in that the pianist counts his or her thumb as the first finger, whereas the guitarist counts the index finger of the fretting hand as the first finger. This can cause some confusion for musicians who play both instruments.
  • Other things to consider are the different types of guitars. Some guitars have seven strings, most bass guitars have four, but some have five and even six. Each type of guitar requires its own specific notation and even tablature language.

Guitar Sheet Music Fundamentals

Keep the following in mind when reading guitar music.

  • The guitar has a three plus octave range, meaning from its lowest note, low E, the highest E is three octaves away.
  • If the guitar has a cutaway, you can usually access high C above the high E.
  • Guitar music also sounds an octave lower than it is written. This is done to make it easier to read and understand guitar sheet music. To contrast with the piano again, middle C on the piano sounds an octave higher than the same note in notation does on the guitar. In other words middle C on the piano is played on the fifth string at the third fret, but sounds like the C on the second string at the first fret. Understanding how the guitar fits in with the rest of the universe of instruments is extremely important, especially if you want to play with other musicians.

Other Resources

There are a few really terrific method books that take you through the step-by-step process of learning the language of reading guitar sheet music while showing exactly how to apply it to the guitar. The Alfred, Mel Bay, and Hal Leonard Publishing companies all offer beginner guitar method books that teach the fundamentals of reading music and apply them in a user-friendly, step-by-step method with familiar tunes as examples to make the process fun. Any one of these books is a highly recommended next step.

Onward

Learning to read the music is the first step. Using a printable guitar chord chart to learn how to play dozens of chords is a great next step.

How to Read Guitar Sheet Music