The problem: You are either unfamiliar with reading standard musical notation altogether or would like to improve your sight-reading.
The solution: Get together with another guitarist who also wants to practice reading skills by playing together in real time.
Hundreds of years ago, J.S. Bach famously composed his two-part inventions for his students to study composition and counterpoint. These pieces have become standard repertoire for not just pianists but guitar students as well. In fact, any music written in treble clef can be fun to try for guitarists wanting to improve their reading skills—I especially like working from clarinet books.
Those who want to work on their single-line melody reading would do well to use the experiential advantage of playing with a partner to have fun and practice. For this introductory lesson, I have composed some duets that will help both you and a fellow player strengthen your reading skills.
Crack the Code
The music here is only shown in standard notation, without the tablature that you see in most music in this magazine. You can identify the fret position by the number on which your first (index) finger falls. The position is written above the staff using Roman numerals; so II indicates that your first finger is on the second fret, followed by fingers 2, 3, and 4 on frets 3, 4, and 5, respectively.
Example 1 shows the G that sits on the top line of the staff. Since that note can of course appear on the guitar in a few places, it’s helpful to have suggestions from the page. The circled number is the string number, so (1) is the first, or high E, string. The numbers without circles represent fretting hand fingers, so 2 means your second (middle) finger plays that note. With solid clues like this, who needs tablature?
We’ll play in the guitar-friendly key of G major for these examples. Example 2 shows where to find two F# notes in second position, one high and the other low. Notice the string numbers and fingerings that will guide you right to the correct spots: string 1, fret 2, and string 4, fret 4. Once you get on a roll reading a line, you won’t need these indications every time. They usually turn up just when needed to solve a guitaristic puzzle.
In It Together
There’s nothing like playing in real time with other people to improve your melody reading, because you need to commit to forward motion no matter what happens. Jump on in with Example 3, which is a melody we’ll continue to use throughout these exercises. This one is in unison, meaning both players are reading and playing the same part. Take it slow, count it off, and go. If you have to lay out for a beat or two, the other player should continue in time. Follow along and jump back in when you can.
While the goal is to play together through the piece, you might take turns carrying the ball for the other as needed until you both have it down comfortably. The most important part of this practice is to keep time and move forward no matter what happens—just as in real life. Practicing on your own can include repeating sections and going back to fix things. Practicing duets with a friend is all about forward motion. It takes getting used to, and it’s OK to laugh with a trusted friend as you begin the process.
The interval of a third is a common and pleasing sound for harmonies used by singers and instrumentalists. Example 4 has the same melody as Ex. 3 in the first part, while the second line is a third below. You can see that the starting notes of the two parts are D and B; the harmony line is lower in this case. Notice that the rhythms are still identical. Listen to each other as you play, feeling the beat together and keeping true to those rhythms. At the same time, you’ll be getting used to trusting your own reading, as each part has its own melody notes.
Example 5 extends these exercises into an original etude called “Duettes.” Some lines are in unison; some are harmonized. You’ll recognize the first four bars from Exs. 3 and 4 with the fingering indications shown. In measures 5–16, the fingerings are left up to you. If you stay in second position as written, you’ll have already practiced the string and fingering choices; they should become automatic after a few times. The most important thing is to stay together in time with your duo partner.
For individual practice, you could make a quick recording of the first part (voice memo on your phone works just fine for this) and then practice playing the second part along with the recording. In a follow-up lesson, we’ll be venturing into counterpoint lines, with each part in different rhythms and sometimes completing each other’s sentences.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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