The ability to read music is a skill that even some of the most brilliant acoustic guitarists lack. Steve Howe and James Taylor, for example, are both self-taught musicians and learned by ear rather than by reading music. The same goes for Paul McCartney. Playing by ear is a great skill to have, but being able to read music is an asset that will take you to the next level as a guitarist. Not only will it help you to be more flexible and fluent in a variety of different contexts, it will allow you to interact more easily with musicians who play other instruments.
Reading standard notation—without the help of tablature—is like learning a new language. The more you’re exposed to it and practice in different situations, the better you get. In this Weekly Workout, I’ll give you real-life examples of what I see when I’m playing with a jazz band, in a Broadway pit, or in a recording session.
The only way you’ll learn how to read notation is practicing, just as much as you work on learning melodies, riffs, and chord progressions. There’s an old saying that goes, “You can’t read what you’ve never seen before.”
Take this to heart as you work through this lesson.
This week, brush up on the basics of reading music: pitches, time signatures, key signatures, and note values. Guitar music is written in the treble clef and sounds an octave lower than written. Ex. 1 shows the natural notes—those without sharps or flats—on each string up to the 12th fret.
You’ll often see accidentals (sharps, flats, and naturals) that modify the notes you play. For instance, you might play the G in Ex. 2 on string 1, fret 3. The first accidental, the sharp (G) tells you to raise the G by a half step (the equivalent of one fret), so play it on string 1, fret 4. Oppositely, the flat sign (H), tells you to lower the G by a half step, so play it on fret 2 of that string.
You should also know about enharmonic equivalents. Since there isn’t a natural note in between B and C, nor between E and F, BG is the same note as C and EG is the same note as F; CH is identical to B, and the same goes for FH and E.
The number of sharps or flats in a piece determine its major or minor key. Ex. 3a depicts the order of sharps—FG, CG, GG, DG, AG, EG, and BG—and the sharp keys. If you haven’t already done so, memorize the keys and the number of sharps in each one, and do the same thing with the order of flats (BH, EH, AH, DH, GH, CH, FH) and the flat keys, as shown in Ex. 3b. You might’ve noticed the absence of C major/A minor. That’s of course because these keys contain no sharps or flats.
Ex. 4 shows a handful of common time signatures—used to show how many beats there are in each measure and the note value given to each beat. (More on note values in a moment.) In the first three, the top number indicates the beats and the bottom note indicates the note value. So in a measure of 4/4, there are four quarter notes; 3/4, three quarter notes; and 2/4, two quarter notes.
Another name for 4/4 is common time, and so sometimes you’ll find a C for a time signature instead of 4/4. Then there’s cut time—two half notes per bar—indicated by a C with a line through it. In a bar of the last time signature here, 6/8, there are six eighth notes.
Remind yourself of note values in Ex. 5. As you can see, the whole note takes up four beats; the half note, two beats; and the quarter note, one beat. There are two eighth notes or four 16th notes in a beat. Ex. 6 shows an assortment of rests. Remember, these are the opposite of notes; they call for silence.
Ex. 7 depicts ties—curved lines between notes of the same pitch, indicating that they are to be held for the length of both notes. In a pair of tied notes, only the first note is played. For instance, in bar 1, play a B on the “and” of beat 2 and let it ring through beat 3; play the B on beat 4 of bar 2, and let it ring through beat 1 of the last measure.
Finish this week by refreshing yourself on the most common dotted note values. As demonstrated in Ex. 8, a note followed by a dot adds one half of the value to its length. In other words, a dotted half note is a half plus a quarter; a dotted quarter, a quarter plus an eighth; and a dotted eighth, an eighth plus a 16th.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Reading music is a language of repetition and memorization. Spend a good amount of time internalizing a new rhythm, and then whenever you see it, you’ll automatically know how to play it.
Now delve into some real-life reading situations. I’m often presented with chord symbols, but not specific voicings or rhythms. Ex. 9 is a swing progression I encountered on a recent gig and two ways I might approach it. The first four bars start with the Cmaj7 chord rooted on the fifth string; in the second four bars the chord is rooted on the sixth string, for a slightly darker timbre. In terms of rhythm, for a situation like this I like to keep things simple and play four quarter-note strums per bar, with accents on beats 2 and 4.
Sometimes the chord symbols include specific rhythms, like in Ex. 10—the last eight bars of a 12-bar blues in the key of F major. Try plugging in all of the different moveable seventh-chord voicings at your command. This week’s takeaway is that the more you know about fretboard harmony, the better off you’ll be when reading at a gig or studio session.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Make reading a part of your everyday practice routine and it will soon improve dramatically.
This week, I’ll share what I might find on my music stand at a Broadway show. When presented with a lead sheet similar to Ex. 11, I first check the time signature—4/4—and then the key signature. I notice that the piece starts in the key of G major and modulates to BH in bar 7.
I then inspect the range of the melody, which helps me determine which position to play it in. Scanning through the music up to the second ending, I see that the lowest note is the A below the middle staff line and the highest note is the A just above the staff. So, I would play this in second position, with the A in bar 1 on string 3, fret 2; the B on the fourth fret of the same string; etc. When the music modulates to BH, I would go for fifth position. Experiment, though, to see which positions work best for you.
As for the chords, the music on a chart like this doesn’t specify the exact voicings, so I’ll grab whatever grip is close by. For example, I would play the G chord either open or at the third fret—whatever helps me move the most smoothly between playing the melody and the chordal accents.
Ex. 11 shows dynamic markings: Mf (mezzo-forte) calls for the music to be played moderately loud, mp (mezzo-piano) indicates moderately soft, and f (forte) is loud. And then there’s the road map. After you play through the first four bars, as directed by the repeat sign (:), play bars 1 and 2 again, but this time skip to the second ending (bar 5). Also, D.C. al Coda (meaning from the head to the tail) tells you to go to the beginning of the music (the capo) and continue until you see the sign at bar 2 that directs you to the ending (the coda).
Beginners’ Tip #3
Don’t practice sightreading using something you’ve heard before. You might think you’re reading it, when in fact you’re relying on your ear to play it.
Sometimes I encounter music written for the guitar that gets specific in terms of voicings, like in Ex. 12. Without chord symbols, frames, or any other clues, I have to read the music in real time. I always take a good look at the music before I play it. In this case, you’ll see that these are all common open chords: Em, C, G, and D. With experience and repetition, you’ll recognize these chords at a quick glance.
Ex. 13 is similar to what I might see on a gig where I’m asked to play in the gypsy-jazz style. When beginning to learn reading, guitarists often play things in a low position with open strings, but to be able to give the melody the right feeling and to add vibrato,
I like to work in a higher position. I’d play this example in fifth position, starting with the A on string 4, fret 7. It’s also important to know the style of the piece you’re reading. Since it’s jazz, I would play Ex. 13 with a swing feel and also embellish the melody in ways not written on the page.
When I’m asked to bust out the nylon-string guitar, I might be handed music that looks like Ex. 14, which is inspired by the classical literature. Scan through the music and you’ll see that in the first five bars the upstemmed notes are based on a D chord, while the bass notes move around. If you’re fluent in reading you’ll immediately recognize that the D chord can be played with an open grip. Spend some time in the woodshed with reading, and before long you’ll be playing chords without needing their symbols or frames.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Use a metronome to learn how to accurately read and feel rhythms, not to mention track your progress as you increase your speed.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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