If you’re here, then you’re interested in improving the most ignored areas of any player’s tool belt, reading music on guitar.
While other articles dig into how to read music on guitar, many of us need to begin by asking ourselves:
“What’s the point to reading music on guitar?”
If you’re like many guitarists, you’ve felt that you should read music, that it’d be helpful, but you don’t why it’s worth spending that much time working to gain this skill.
“Because you should” isn’t a good reason to learn to read music, it needs to be more practical than that to motivate you and benefit you in your playing.
This article lays out 7 practical reasons to learn how to read staff notation on guitar.
Each of these reasons provides you with incentive, motivation, and real world examples of where not knowing how to read holds you back, and knowing how to read opens new doors.
All of which are better incentives than, “because I should.”
Take some time to read this article, it opens you up to explore reading and reinforce reasons you already know, but that haven’t pushed you to learn to read music yet.
After you’ve read the article, grab your guitar, your favorite method book, and start the tough, but highly beneficial, journey to reading music on guitar.
Learning to Read Music (Click to Skip Down
- Build Confidence
- Expand Practice Materials
- Increased Fretboard Knowledge
- Keep Transcriptions Alive
- Quickly Learn Songs
- Share Your Music
- Play in Big Bands
Reason 1 – Build Musical Confidence
Have you ever been to a Jam session and somebody puts a tune in front of you and asks you to play the melody?
How did you do?
Or if you haven’t been in this situation, count your lucky stars, how would you do in this situation?
If you struggled, or feel you would struggle, then you are not alone.
Many guitarists, even intermediate jazz improvisers and compers, would struggle to read a melody in real time and nail it.
It’s tough, on a good day.
Being in this situation is demoralizing, and takes away from the good work you’re doing as a soloist and comper with other tunes on that jam session.
Learning to read music on guitar builds your confidence in situations such as jam sessions and helps you nail any lead sheet melody put in front of you.
Jam sessions are intimidating for many players, especially those new to jazz, and not being able to read adds to the nervousness on stage or in the jam room.
Getting your reading chops together erases nervousness, increases confidence, and turns an embarrassing situation into a fun and creative moment.
Reason 2 – Learn From Other Instruments
When learning jazz guitar, the reality is that much of the written literature, such as method books, transcriptions, tunes, etc., are only in standard notation.
Since there are many more instruments, sax, trumpet, and piano to name a few, that use notation and not tab, many method books and transcriptions only come in standard notation.
“Not being able to read cuts you off from this rich collection of practice material.”
Reading music on guitar allows you to benefit from this collection of books and transcriptions, opening new doors to your practice routine at the same time.
When I was coming up, because I could read music at a high level, I was able to take any sax, trumpet, or piano book and study it in my practice routine.
This allowed me to quickly digest influences from other instruments that I would’ve missed out on if I only read tab, or not read music at all.
Even when it comes to jazz guitar books and transcriptions, many of these are written in standard notation, which are locked behind a door if you can’t read notation.
If you’ve found a book or transcription that you want to work on, opened it up, realized it was only in notation and put it down, then reading music on guitar immediately benefits your playing.
You can even use these books to teach yourself how to read, as I did with violin books, the Charlie Parker Omnibook, and the Real Book.
Once you read music, there are no limits to what publications you can use in your practice routine, which is worth the time spent learning to read worth it many times over.
Reason 3 – Learn the Fretboard
One of the most overlooked reasons for learning to read music on guitar, is that as you learn to read, you dig deeper into your knowledge of the fretboard.
You can’t read music in real time if you don’t know your fretboard.
This means knowing notes, scales, arpeggios, chord tones, extensions, etc., as these all come up when reading tunes, transcriptions, or other music on guitar.
If you learn to read music for no other reason, let it be to build your fretboard knowledge, which is a big reason why many guitarists struggle learning to play jazz guitar.
Being able to see any key signature, scale or mode, arpeggio, or chord shape on the guitar, in all keys, in the moment, is a huge help when soloing and comping in any jazz guitar situation.
Learning how to read shows you where your weak points are on the fretboard, helps you to plug those holes, and directs you to focus on those weak areas in your practicing.
It’s a win-win practice situation.
You learn how to read music, giving you the benefits explained in this article, and become more comfortable with the fretboard at the same time.
You can’t go wrong there, no matter which way you look at it.
Reason 4 – Keep Your Transcriptions Alive
Have you ever learned a cool line from a recording, or an entire transcription, memorized the line or solo, then a few weeks later forgot that material?
This happens to all of us, and there’s one way to ensure this never happens to you again.
Learn to read music on guitar.
It’s that simple.
If you can read music, then you can write out any line or solo you transcribe, keeping records of all your hard work for future study.
When tackling a new tune down the road, you can reference your “licktionary” and quickly grab that perfect Wes Montgomery line that fits those tough changes you’re studying.
There’s nothing more frustrating than learning a transcription, and not being able to keep a written record for future reference.
Writing out transcribed lines and solos prevents you from wasting time relearning these ideas by ear when and you access them down the road.
Wasted time in the practice room is not something most of us can afford, so do your best to avoid it.
Though it’s a tough slog, you can also use transcribing to teach yourself how to write and read music.
Get a starting point from a method book if needed, then use that knowledge to write out transcribed lines in your practice routine.
You won’t get it perfect the first time, but you’ll learn from your mistakes, teaching yourself to read and recording your transcriptions in one go.
Reason 5 – Quickly Learn Fake Book Tunes
One of the biggest roadblocks when you can’t read music, is that fake books are only written in notation with chord symbols on top of each measure.
Because of this, if you can’t read music you’re forced to learn tunes by ear when you add to your jazz repertoire, which can be tough to do.
By learning to read music, you open up a new realm of possibility when learning tunes and jamming with other musicians.
While there’s often a saxophonist or trumpet player at jam sessions or in community combo sessions, this isn’t always the case.
And people get sick or miss rehearsals and jams, leaving you to handle melodies from time to time.
This is tough if you can’t read music, to say the least.
By learning to read, you can quickly learn the melody line to any tune you study in a combo class, jam session, or just for the fun of learning new repertoire.
As well, by learning to read melodies at home, you increase your ability to read melodies in real time at jams, which is highly beneficial to your playing experiences.
Reason 6 – Share Your Music With Others
You might not write original music, not yet anyway. But if you do, learning to read music is essential for sharing that music with other musicians, in the jam or just with people around the world who dig playing what you write.
I have a friend who is a very talented jazz guitarist. He’s always been into learning standards, but he also enjoys coming up with tunes of his own.
This was a great addition to his gigs, but he didn’t have the tunes written down, making it impossible to play them on a gig unless they rehearsed.
All this changed when he learned to read music and began inputting his tunes into software for his band mates.
After getting his reading down, he’s able to bring lead sheets to jams, quickly teach other musicians his tunes, and stop wasting time.
If you have a good tune idea, have a collection of tunes you’ve written, or you want to explore original composition, then reading music allows you to do so with as few headaches as possible.
Reason 7 – Participate in Big Bands
This last reason isn’t for everyone, but if you want to play in a big band then reading music is an essential skill to have.
You often encounter written lines in big band charts, and if you’re in a rehearsal band you won’t have much time to learn those lines before the conductor counts off the tune.
Learning to read prevents wasted rehearsal time, and keeps you in the good graces of the band leader and your fellow band mates.
There’s nothing more frustrating than when the band is cooking and the guitar line comes up and there’s silence, or worse, a bunch of wrong notes.
This brings a productive rehearsal to a stop very quickly, and nobody will be happy about it.
Getting your reading chops together raises your level of playing in big band jams and gig situation.
It also showcases those skills in a rehearsal situation.
Both of these lead to band members calling you to play in other bands as they know you can handle your stuff on the bandstand.
Even if you can’t sight read a tough big band chart in the moment, take it home and use your reading skills to get it up to par for next rehearsal.
Most band leaders will forgive a few errors when sight reading, but not many allow you to make the same reading mistakes before they replace you.
Learning to read music prevents this type of awkward situation from ever happening to you.