How to Improve Your Jazz Guitar Sight Reading Skills

There’s an old joke that goes:

“How do you get a guitarist to stop playing? You put sheet music in front of him.”

I laugh a little whenever I hear someone say this joke at a gig or around other musicians, mostly to humor them.

Then I get ticked off because guitarists are often dismissed for our lack of reading single-note melodies, which most of us could be better at, but this is not the only skill needed to sight-read a chart on the bandstand.

When you’re on a gig and someone hands you a new chart, as guitarists, chances are you won’t play the melody.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t have the skills necessary to do so, but this is the reality of the situation. While usually you’re not expected to sight-read the melody, you are expected to be able to comp through the chord change and solo on a tune the first time you see it.

Because of these expectations, I have developed an approach to practicing sight-reading for my own study, as well as teaching it to my students, that covers all three of these bases.

 

  • Single-Line Melodies
  • Chord Changes
  • Improvisation

 

We’ve all heard the people comment that “Wes Montgomery couldn’t read music, so why should I learn how to read.”

Well, if you can play like Wes then maybe you don’t need these skills, but for the rest of us, we sure do need to have these skills under our belts to get through the gig and get that all important call back the next week.

So, if these are the three things that we need to do, melody-comping-solo, let’s look at some ways that we can both visualize these ideas on the guitar when sight-reading, as well as how to develop these skills in the practice room so that we are better prepared the next time someone drops a fresh chart in front of us on the bandstand.

Have a question or comment about this lesson? Visit the Jazz Guitar Sight Reading Skills thread in the MWG Forum.


Guitar Sight Reading Skills – Melodies

 

This is the one sight-reading skill that handcuffs many of us on the bandstand.

Reading notes on the guitar is hard.

When you factor in the different positions, string sets and fingerings, there are countless ways to play a single note. So, even if we get to the point where we recognize the notes and rhythms on the page, it’s tricky to figure out a good fingering for those notes on the spot.

But as a guitarist, you already have skills built into our playing that we can use to make sight-reading melodies much easier.

Melodies are written using the same fundamental items that you practice everyday, Scales, Arpeggios and Patterns (both diatonic and chromatic). So, why not use your previous knowledge of these concepts to lift your sight-reading abilities to new levels?

The next time you are reading through a chart, try to pick out groups of notes, instead of reading one note at a time which is very hard.

Look for patterns that you recognize and already know, such as:

 

 

If you can learn to recognize “chunks” of music as we are reading through them, you can prepare ourselves for what is coming next.

Reading one note at a time is hard, but if you can see that the bar you are in has a Cmaj7 arpeggio followed by a C Lydian scale in 3rds, you can let your fingers run through those ideas, which you already know, and focus on the bar that is coming up next.

Reading ahead, as it is referred to, is an essential skill for any musician, and learning to recognize these items in any melody will get you well on your way to becoming better sight-readers on the guitar.


Guitar Sight Reading Skills – Chords

 

Now here is where guitarists usually don’t give themselves, or get, enough credit when it comes to sight-reading skills.

Yes, we get dogged, and often deservedly so, for our melodic sight-reading skills, but all in all, we’re pretty good compers, even on the spot. But, having said that, there are ways that we can improve our ability to play chords behind a singer instrumentalist on the spot.

As was the case with single-notes, if you can recognize musical “chunks,’ such as ii-V-I’s and where the tune modulates, if it does, you can increase your chances of reading through the chords perfectly on the first try.

But, even if you do read through a chart on the first go, nailing all the chords, there is one potential pitfall that can sink us quickly, clashing our chord voicings with the melody.

I’m sure this has happened to all of us at least once in our lives.

You are reading through a chart, nailing the chords and gaining confidence. Then, you play our favorite Cmaj7 chord with the root on top, and the singer holds a B in the melody line right next to our C in the top voice of our chord.

This usually draws a few cringes from the audience, causes your face to go red and might bring down the wrath of the singer upon you after the gig, something none of us want to experience.

So how do you avoid this.

One way is to quickly scan the music before we read through it, looking for trouble spots where the melody could clash with your voicings.

Here is a list of common clashes to keep an eye and ear out for when sight-reading a tune:

 

  • Melody is a 9th on a  minor chord (clashes with b3) and vice-versa
  • Melody is the b9th of an altered chord (clashes with root)
  • Melody is a major 7th on a maj7 chord (clashes with the root) and vice-versa
  • Melody is a b13th on a 7th chord (clashes with the 5th)
  • Melody is a #11 on a maj7 or 7th chord (clashes with the 5th)

 

There are more potential clashes but these are fairly common, and if you learn to recognize them you can avoid some very awkward moments on the bandstand.

If you don’t have time to find these hotspots before you play a tune, or can’t recognize them on the spot yet, one thing you can do to ensure that you won’t clash with the melody is to play Lenny Breau Chords, which are only the 3rd and 7th of each voicing, the first few choruses, avoiding clashes until you figure out where the tricky parts of the melody are and can then move to bigger chords in your comping.

To learn more about 3rd and 7th chords, check out my free 30-minute audio seminarJazz Guitar Chords: Jazz Blues 3rds and 7ths.”


Guitar Sight Reading Skills – Soloing

 

Now we get to the fun part of sight-reading, playing solos over tunes we’ve never seen before.

But, before you get all excited that I’m just going to say “Blow your favorite lines over these new changes,” I’m going to burst your bubble a bit.

Sure, you can reach into your bag of licks and concepts to conjure up a flashy solo at sight, but by doing so you are actually ignoring the most important part of the song, the melody.

I often hear guitarists soloing over a tune and I have no idea what song it is.

It sounds great what they’re doing, but the ideas they are blowing have no relation to the melody itself. They are just running changes, especially in a sight-reading situation.

So, one of the easiest ways to play a great solo at sight, and keep the sound of the original tune in your lines and phrases, is to quote the melody in our playing.

In order to quote the melody in your solos, you need to be able to either know the melody or be able to read it off the chart that was just put in front of you.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to play the entire melody during your solo, but it’s a good idea to come back to it in each four, or even two, bar phrase, at least in our first chorus or two in order to fully entrench the sound of the original melody in your listener’s ears.

Here are a couple of ideas that can help you pick out which parts of the melody will make good quotes in your soloing, so you aren’t playing the least interesting parts of the tune in your lines:

 

  • Listen for chromatic notes in the melody
  • Find the highest point of the melody
  • Find the lowest point of the melody
  • Listen for rhythmic repetition in the melody
  • Listen for changes in dynamics by the vocalist or whoever is playing the melody

 

If you can grab a hold of these sections of the melody, chances are they are the most interesting and the moments that will make the best lines to quote in your solo.

You don’t have to go overboard with injecting the melody into your improv, but keeping the listener aware of what tune you’re playing, and not just running chord changes, can be a great way to engage their attention, whether you are sight-reading a tune or not.

Check out my article “Play the Tune Not the Changes” for more info and exercises on this topic.


Guitar Sight Reading Skills – Exercises

 

The key to becoming a better sight-reader is practicing.

I have been lucky during my career that I have had a lot of steady work, particularly with singers, where the bandleader would bring in new charts to read every week, entire sets of new charts. Since they were often singers, this meant the charts had intros, outros and were in odd keys such as Gb and B, which I wouldn’t normally see in an instrumental setting.

This caused me more than a few headaches along the way, but it also made me a much better sight-reader since I was reading through charts two to three hours a night, three to four nights a week.

But, not all of us have this opportunity, and there are times when I didn’t work with bands that read as much as others, so over the years I’ve developed several ways to replicate this experience in our practice rooms.

Here is one of my favorite exercises:

 

  • Pick a volume of the Aebersold series
  • Open the book to the first chart and hit play on the recording
  • Read the melody over and over until you get it perfectly right
  • When you can do this, comp the chords for the duration of the play-along, usually 5-6 minutes, visualizing a soloing playing over top of your chords
  • Solo through the chart from start to finish
  • Repeat for every tune in that volume, the next day move on to a different volume

 

If you want to push yourself further, you can read the melody of one song, comp on the next and solo on a third track. This way you aren’t familiar with the tune when you comp, because you’ve already played the melody to that tune previously.

You can also do this exercise with a friend if you have a fellow jazzer in your neighborhood.

When I was at Vanier College, I used to get together with my friend Ben on Wednesday nights. We’d open the Real Book at around 5pm and just start sight-reading tunes until the security guard came and told us the building was closed.

This was another fun way that helped expose me to a large chunk of the jazz repertoire, while raising my sight-reading ability at the same time.

Another way that we can develop your sight-reading skills is to analyze melodies and chord changes. As we saw earlier, if you can recognize patterns in the music that you’re playing, such as melodies built with arpeggios or ii-V-I-vi chord progressions, you can read ahead in any chart that you are playing.

One way to develop your ability to recognize musical “chunks” on the spot is to spend time analyzing music in your practice room. Try taking five to six tunes out of the Real Book everyday and analyzing the melody and chord changes to those tunes, just looking for patterns such as:

 

  • Longer scale runs
  • Intervals such as 3rds or 4ths
  • Arpeggio and Triad Lines
  • Direction of the line
  • Range
  • Key Centers
  • Common Progressions – ii-V-I’s in major and minor etc.
  • Modulations

 

If you spend time analyzing tunes in your practice room, you are not only studying great music, you are also learning to recognize the building blocks of jazz compositions, which will in turn allow you to recognize these items on the spot, increasing your ability to sight-read the melody and chords to a new tune on the bandstand.

Sight-reading is still a four-letter word for many guitarists, mostly because up until this point learning to read was filled with boring exercises, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

If you can find fun and engaging ways to practice sight-reading at home, it will inspire you to spend more time working on this important skill. Then, the next time someone tries to tell that bad joke about a guitarist’s reading skills, you can just smile, nod, and proceed to tear up the new chart they just laid in front of you on the bandstand.


Got a funny story about sight-reading on a gig, or a tip for our readers about how you mastered sight-reading on the guitar? Feel free to share it in the comments section below.



14 Comments

  1. Frederick, August 21, 2011:

    Matt would you please discuss finding Tonal Centers for any tune. You are a true blessing for we novices”.
    Musically Your
    Frederick Gilbert

  2. Matt Warnock, August 21, 2011:

    Hey Frederick

    That’s a tough topic to cover in one article. The best advice I could give is to analyze as many standards as you can. Get out the real book and start marking ii-V-I’s and other common chord progressions. Mark down where the keys change, where you see new ii-V-I’s in keys other than the tonic.

    It’s a broad topic, but just starting with analyzing standards is the best way to get your feet wet with this stuff.

  3. Blaine, September 6, 2011:

    Someone called it “musician’s curse” to describe an unwillingness or even inability to play or enjoy playing simple, relate-able lines. How much enjoyment of music for the sake of music is potentially lost when we focus on wowing people with mad skills in solos but leave them alienated from the song (an attitude also evident when we embellishing melodies beyond the point of recognition outside the solo section). Sometimes we musicians need to remember what it feels like to be an ordinary human being who enjoys the feeling music gives.

    Quoting the melody in soloing is a great way to include the audience and not get way out their on your own head trip. I know there’s a bit of my own personal preference in here, but I think every player should consider whether or not they are including the audience in their playing…allowing them to relate to the music rather than just piling advanced concept on advanced concept for the sake of impressing other musicians or quenching their own thirst for adrenaline or something. There is a balance.

  4. Matt Warnock, September 6, 2011:

    For sure! When my students first ask what scales they should use on a tune i always use the scale that came with the tune, the melody!

  5. John Baum, February 28, 2012:

    This may be a dumb question, but how can you tell when the key of a song changes?

  6. Matthew Warnock, February 28, 2012:

    Hi John,
    No such thing as a dumb question! The best advice I can give is look for the cadences, as these usually signal that the key has changed, even temporarily, to a new tonal center. For examle, if you are in the key of C and the chords are:

    C Am F G

    Those are all still in C, but if you then move to:

    C Am F G C C7 F Dm

    Then the C7-F is a cadence, V7-I, that moves you into the new key of F major.

    In jazz that’s probably the best place to start, look for V7-I or ii-V-I progressions that are outside of the tonic key of the tune.

    Hope that helps!

  7. John Baum, February 28, 2012:

    Thanks Matt. So I guess it comes down to how the music sounds and just having a familiarity with the common transitional chord patterns. Just looking at the chord pattern you gave as an example – C Am F G C C7 F Dm, I would assume we were still in C, since F and Dm are part of that scale.

  8. Matthew Warnock, February 28, 2012:

    Hey John,

    Yeah I should have finished off that chord progression.

    C Am F G C C7 F Dm Bb C F

    So you can see the full transition, that should make more sense, sorry bout that.

  9. Mark, May 11, 2012:

    Another great article Matt. I feel completely reinvigorated and ready to tackle my arch nemesis (sight reading) again! Thanks!!

  10. Matthew Warnock, May 11, 2012:

    thanks Mark, yeah sight reading can be a drag, but if you can make it fun it’s easier to work on. Good luck with the woodshedding!

  11. David, August 23, 2012:

    Matt
    I’ve always worked on the prenise that the best way to learn to sight read –
    is to sight read!

    Good luck
    David Price

  12. Matthew Warnock, August 23, 2012:

    Hey David, yeah I think just sigh reading is good to keep things up once you get to a certain level, but getting there can take other exercises/approaches depending no your background. For me, I get bored if I just read through charts, so I like to spice things up with my sight reading practice, just my musical ADD i guess.

  13. Jake Stewart, December 26, 2012:

    Great article.

    Something that has been holding me back with my reading- looking at the fretboard. I’ve since been forcing myself to read and feel where the notes are. I should have known from years of hearing “don’t look at your hands when you sight read” in piano classes…

  14. Oliver de Bhal, October 14, 2014:

    Sight Reading for Guitarists by Oliver Hunt I found very useful.Particularly for teaching yourself position work..He asks you to write patterns away from the guitar fretboard and then try them out.4 to 8 bar phrases as a daily exercise.My sight reading was better then than now..as ever need to take time to practice.

Add comments about this page