Touch of Hum | Easy Music Theory: How to Read Music for Guitar
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Easy Music Theory: How to Read Music for Guitar

Easy Music Theory: How to Read Music for Guitar

Learning to play a new instrument is both exciting and a little bit intimidating. One of the very first steps that you should take when preparing to learn how to play a new instrument is learning how to read the music for it. Guitar sheet music is commonly written in something called tab, or guitar tablature, which uses numbers instead of notes. However, it is still important to learn how to read and comprehend both standard notation and tab notation when learning how to read music for guitar.

Some of you may be wondering why it is important to learn standard notation as a guitar player if most of the guitar sheet music is written in tab. Don’t worry. In this article, I will explain the importance of knowing how to read both standard notation and tab notation, as well as go over the basics of how to read both of those. I’ll even be sharing some tips and tricks with you along the way to help make learning how to read music for guitar much easier.

Why Should I Learn to Read Standard Notation to Play Guitar?

There is some controversy among musicians on whether or not guitar players really need to learn how to read sheet music that uses standard notation or if they can get away with just learning how to read tab. I personally think that it is best for all musicians, no matter which instrument they play, to know the basics of how to read standard notation for a few reasons.

Not every piece of music you come across will be in tab, so if you don’t know how to read standard notation, then you will feel very lost if someone gives you a piece of sheet music to play or if you come across a song you want to learn that you can’t find the tab for. Jazz guitar books and transcriptions are almost always written in standard notation, so if you did ever want to dabble in learning jazz guitar, it is important that you know how to read standard notation.

Another reason is that knowing how to read standard notation allows you to learn from different instruments. Tab is specific to guitar, so if that’s all you know how to read, then you won’t be able to read music for any other instruments or learn from that all. This reason ties into the next one.

Knowing how to read standard notation allows you to share music with other musicians and singers, as well as allow them to share their music with you. Having the ability to do this gives you the ability to collaborate and play with other musicians and singers. If you ever want to join a band or collaborate with another musician, learning how to read sheet music is a must.

Now that you understand the importance of why guitar players should know how to read standard notation, let’s begin learning some of the basics.

Learning to Read Standard Notation.

Guitar music always uses the treble or G clef staff. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term staff, it is that thing you see on all sheet music (both standard notation and tab) made up of five black lines with four white spaces in between. The staff is where notes are placed, and the placement of the notes tells you how you can determine which note is which. Luckily, there are some tricks to help make remembering the note placement on the treble staff much easier.

The first helpful trick in learning the notes of a treble clef is an acronym to help you remember which notes sit on the black lines. Going from the bottom line to the top, the notes go E, G, B, D, F. The acronym to remember this order of notes is “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” The next trick is to help you more easily remember the notes that sit on the white spaces in between the black lines. Rather than an acronym, these notes spell out a word. Going from the bottom space to the top, the notes go F, A, C, E, spelling out the word “face.” If you can remember these two tricks, then learning standard notation for the treble clef just got a lot easier.

The notes don’t stop there though. The staff only has five lines and four spaces, meaning that there is only enough room for nine notes. There is a total of twenty-two notes that a guitar can play. Some guitars that can play higher notes can play even more than this. These extra notes are placed on something called ledgers, which are small lines and spaces that sit above and below the staff. These are used for very high and very low notes that extend beyond the staff.

Learning to Read Standard Notation

There’s more to these notes than just what letter they are though. There are different types of note lengths which tell you how long to hold that note for. If you’ve seen sheet music before, you’ve probably noticed that all of the notes look different. There are whole notes which you hold for one full measure or four beats. These look like little black outlined ovals with a white center.

Next, are half notes which you hold for a half measure or two beats. These look just like whole notes except that they have a line sticking up on the right side of them, sort of like a lowercase “d.” There are quarter notes which you hold for a quarter measure or one beat, and these look identical to half notes except that the circle is shaded in black. These three are the most common notes that you’ll see when playing guitar.

However, there are also eighth notes (1/8 measure, half of a beat), sixteenth notes (1/16 measure, quarter of a beat), and even thirty-second notes (1/32 measure, eighth of a beat). Each of these looks like a quarter note, but each of them has an added tail coming off of the top of the note’s line. So,an eight note has one tail, a sixteenth note has two, and a thirty-second note has three.

In addition to the notes, there are a few other symbols and markings on the staff that are important to know the meaning of, one of them being accidentals. Accidentals are notes that are marked with either a flat, sharp, or natural sign because they don’t usually occur on the staff. The flat sign looks like a lowercase “b,” the sharp sign looks like a pound sign, and the natural sign looks like a small box with the top left and bottom right corners sticking out. Both key signatures and time signatures can also be found on the staff at the very far lefthand side of it.

The key signature will be either a sharp or a flat sign, letting you know what key you’re in. The time signature will be two numbers stacked on top of each other, typically, although not always, a four stacked on top of another four. The top number lets you know how many beats are in a measure, while the bottom number becomes the lower half of a fraction with a one as the top half, giving you the type of notes per measure. This means that if the time signature is four over four, then this staff has four quarter notes per minute.

One last thing you will find in standard notation that is specific to guitar playing are the string and finger indications. The string indications are a small number above the note, letting you know which number string to play it on. The finger indications are a small number beside the note, letting you know which finger to play it on.

Learning to Read Tab

Tab is different than standard notation because it uses a combination of numbers and notes. This type of staff is a little bit easier to read than a standard notation staff is, especially for beginners. Unlike a standard notation staff, tablature staffs have six lines instead of five to represent the six strings of the guitar. Because of this, the first step to understanding tab is to know which strings of the guitar play each note. Starting with the sixth and thickest string, the strings go E, A, D, G, B, e. When looking at a tablature staff, these notes go from top to bottom, beginning on the bottom line and ending on the top one. A helpful acronym to remember these strings is “Every Apple Does Go Bad Eventually.”

Now that you know which note each line of the tab staff represents, we can take a look at what the numbers mean. The numbers will sit on the same line of the note that is being played and should be read left to right, similar to reading a book. The purpose of these numbers is to tell you which fret that note is to be played in.

Most classic guitars have a total of nineteen frets, so the numbers used in tab will range from 0 to 19. If the number on the line is 0, that means that the string should be played open. If the number is 1, it should be played in the first fret. If it is 2, it should be played in the second fret. This pattern continues all the way up until the 19th and final fret. In some cases, you’ll see a few numbers stacked on top of each other rather than being placed from left to right. This represents a chord and means that you should play all of the notes in whatever fret the numbers indicate at once.

Numbers are not the only notations that you will find on a tablature staff though. There are a variety of symbols that are used in tab staffs that tell you what technique to play a note in. The main techniques that you will need to know how to do when playing guitar are slides, pull-offs, hammer-ons, and bends. The tab symbol for a slide is a long line connecting one number to another. This means that you should slide your finger from the first note to the second one that the slide symbol is connected to. Pull-offs and hammer-ons both look like curved lines that connect two numbers to each other.

The difference between a pull-off and a hammer-on is that a pull-off connects two descending notes, while a hammer-on connects two ascending notes. In a pull-off, you place your fingers on both frets and take your finger off just the first one while the note is still ringing. In a hammer-on, you play the first fret, and while it’s still ringing, place your finger on the second one. A bend looks like a curved line that ascends off of the staff and has either ½ or ¼ at the top of it, letting you know how far to raise the pitch.

One major downside to using a tab staff rather than one with standard notation is that tab does not have the capability to tell you the rhythm of the song the way that standard notation does. To figure out the rhythm of a song when reading it on a tablature staff, you have to listen to the song and get a feel for the rhythm of it by ear.

The symbols that tab uses can aid in figuring out the rhythm of the song, but either listening to it or reading the standard notation of it is the best way to figure it out. This is yet another reason why it is so useful to know how to read both tab and standard notation when learning how to read music for guitar playing.


As you can see, there is a lot of information to take in when learning how to read music for guitar. Instead of just learning how to read standard notation the way you would for most other instruments, you have to also learn how to read tab. Hopefully, the acronyms that I taught you in this article will help you remember the notes on each staff more easily, and with enough studying and practice, you’ll be reading both tab and standard notation music for guitar like a pro.

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