Have you wondered how to read guitar sheet music in a guitar book?
The markings might seem overwhelming, so let’s look at some of the symbols and different methods for how to read guitar sheet music. Understanding how to read this way will help you learn new songs and exercises on your own, essential for the budding guitarist!
Standard notation is the traditional method for writing music.
When you look at a music sheet, you can identify standard notation by the horizontal rectangles that stretch across the page. We call each of these rectangles the staff. Inside the staff are lines and spaces that hold musical notation.
Guitar music is in what’s called treble clef. On the very left edge of the staff, you will find a curly symbol indicating treble clef.
Let’s talk about some of the most important things you’ll need to know to begin learning how to read this way!
You will also find vertical lines that separate parts of the music into smaller chunks within the staff. We call these vertical lines measures or bars.
Lines and Spaces
The staff has five lines and four spaces. These lines have letter names that indicate notes for you to play on your guitar.
From the staff’s bottom line to the top line are the notes E, G, B, D, and F as the top line. You can remember the lined notes with the acronym “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”
A dot on the bottom line means you play the note E. This is the E you play on the second fret on the D-string of your guitar. The highest note within the staff is F. This F is the first fret of your high E string.
The spaces in the line are the notes F, A, C, and E. These make the word FACE. When you put both the lines and the space letter names together, you get an ascending alphabet pattern of notes, EFGABCDEF.
Sheet music can indicate notes above or below the staff lines, so you can play notes that are lower than the E on the first line and higher than the F on your high E-string. Composers indicate these guitar notes higher or lower than the staff with ledger lines.
Several kinds of note subdivisions indicate how long you should play them. One type is a whole note, meaning that you will play this note for the entire measure. A whole note looks like a dot with a circle in the middle.
Half notes look like whole notes with straight tails to the right of them. These mean you play each note for half of the measure. Then, there are quarter notes, which are dots with the same tail as half notes. Beyond these notes are even shorter note durations like eighth and sixteenth notes.
Along with these note values, the staff also houses whole, half, and quarter rests to indicate time durations that you shouldn’t play.
The song’s key signature shows you the notes from either a major or minor scale that the song will use. You can see the key signature by looking at the sharp symbols, the flat symbols, or the lack of either to the right of the treble clef symbol on the staff.
For example, if you see one sharp sign to the right of the treble clef, the sharp sign shows you that the song is in the key of G-major or that the song uses the notes from the G-major scale.
The time signature tells you how the song should rhythmically feel. If you’ve ever heard a drummer count off “1, 2, 3, 4”, the song was in 4/4 time, the most common time signature.
Guitar tablature, or TAB, is a shorthand way of reading and writing music. TAB is becoming more common on sheet music today for stringed instruments like the guitar, and it can be helpful if you need to learn a song quickly. It may accompany the standard notation on your sheet music as an alternate method of reading.
TAB also uses something like a staff, but this staff only uses the lines within it. The six lines symbolize the six strings of your guitar. The top line is your high E-string; the bottom line is your low E-string.
The numbers on the TAB lines indicate the frets that you are playing. For example, the number 5 on the bottom E-string means you play the fifth fret of your low E-string.
While TAB is a shorthand method, it can help beginner guitarists learn how to play songs and better understand the standard notation it accompanies.
Reading Chord Diagrams
For most songs, you’ll find diagrams that show you how to play the chords the song uses. These diagrams do not indicate rhythm, but they give you a visual guide for playing the music’s chords.
Chord diagrams have horizontal and vertical lines. Think about if you held your guitar out in front of you with the body down, the headstock up, and the strings facing you. The way you see the neck in this position is how chord diagrams outline chords on the neck.
The six vertical lines are the six strings of the guitar. The leftmost vertical line is the low E-string. The horizontal lines are the frets. Unless they indicate otherwise, the first horizontal line is the first fret of your guitar.
The dots show you which frets your fingers should play. Sometimes these dots have numbers on them. These numbers tell you what finger you should use to play the note. For example, if there is a number 2 in a circle above the second vertical line and on the first vertical line, it means you use your second finger to play the low E-string.
Xs and Os
You may also see X and O symbols above the string lines. An O means that you should let the string ring open when you play the chord. An X indicates that you should mute the string when you play the chord.
Using All Three Methods
Use all three standard notation methods, TAB, and chord diagrams to help you understand how to read guitar sheet music for a song. Even though the diagrams are more common for most guitar music, you can step it up by reading sheet music for guitar.