10 Guitar Sight Reading Tips

A 2015 Palir Titan with Lollar pickups.

A 2015 Palir Titan with Lollar pickups. (Image credit: Cindy Moorhead)

There's an old joke that goes "How do you get a guitar player to turn down? Put sheet music in front of him."

As a teacher, I have had the pleasure to work with several advanced high school students whose goals are to attend music school and become professional musicians. This is the first in a series of posts on my thoughts about musicianship as a musician, student, and teacher. I consider sight reading to be my forte, and most of the work I am involved in requires it. Therefore, I thought it would be a good topic to get started on.

Based on my observations as a student at Berklee College of Music, I've noticed that guitar players tend to be weak sight readers. Many will argue that some of the greatest guitar players ever did not know how to read music. However, I am a firm believer that sight reading is a useful skill that you can frequently use to your advantage.

When you work on sight reading, if you practice smart, you can improve on other aspects of your musicianship (technique, time, theory, ear training, improvisation, etc.) simultaneously. Below are 10 guitar sight reading tips that I believe will put any guitarist on the path to becoming a competent sight reader. At the end of the post is a brief list of books that I have found useful over the past 14 years in developing sight reading ability, and still use with my students. Enjoy!

I encourage musicians to leave comments with their thoughts/ideas/opinions in developing one’s sight reading ability. If you have any questions, leave a comment, or send me an email.

1. Learn to read rhythms first. Practice playing/clapping/singing both 8th note (straight and swung) and 16th note rhythms. Play syncopated rhythms in both rhythmic levels. In addition, practice triplets at different rhythmic levels (half, quarter, and 8th).

2. Play written exercises all on one string and do this on all 6 strings. This will get you comfortable playing on all parts of the neck, and not just positions that you're already comfortable in. Try not to look down at the guitar so you can train your self to navigate the neck with muscle memory and focus on reading the music.

3. Practice reading with a metronome. One of my professors at Berklee once said to our class, people only care if you can make a written part sound musical. Novice sight readers tend to rush when reading music, and this will make you sound like an amateur. When you're reading, you need to nail the rhythms, notes, play in the pocket, and one more thing - play with expression. Dynamics, vibrato, and articulation still count when reading.

4. Chords. Most of us can strum through a chord chart. How about chords with added tensions? How about rhythmic notation? How about coming up with a part that fits and complements the arrangement when a writer gives you slash notation? Barre chords are nice, but in an ensemble setting, knowing different voicings on the top 3 or 4 strings can come in handy. How about specifically notated voicings? You must consider all these aspects of comping when sight reading.

5. Read music written in different time signatures. Not all music is written in 4/4 time. Spend some time reading music in 3/4, 6/8, and 12/8. If you want to work on reading odd meters such as 5/4, and 7/8, I would encourage it. While I personally don’t go out of my way to play music in odd meters, two weeks ago, I was handed a funk chart in 7/4 at my accompanist job, and had to read it. In case you want to know, it went pretty well.

6. Learn to read music up the octave from written (8va). Guitar is a transposing instrument, meaning our notes are written an octave higher than what they actually sound like (concert pitch). Common scenarios: playing a melody on a lead sheet written in concert pitch, playing phrases indicated by the writer to be played 8va, and getting asked by a band leader to play your part 8va on the spot to see if your part will sit better in the arrangement in a higher register.

7. Practice reading notes on ledger lines. Most students can identify notes on the 5 lines of the staff pretty quickly. However, once they are asked to identify notes on ledger lines below and above the staff, they start having some trouble. The range of the guitar in standard tuning goes from E on the space below 3 ledger lines (transposed part) to, depending on the length of your guitar neck, D two octaves above middle C. That’s seven ledger lines above the staff.

8. Read music from different genres of music. Reading from classical manuscripts is a good start, but you need practice in reading rhythms and grooves that are unique to different genres of music. Find and check out big band charts, musical theatre parts, and transcriptions of guitar parts and solos in Pop/Rock, Country, R&B, and Latin songs.

9. Read music from different music publishers. Music notation softwares offer a variety of fonts to choose from, some are more visually helpful than others. Don’t let an unclear font get in the way of you nailing a part. Also, practice reading handwritten parts. You will thank me for this tip.

10. Look ahead in the music. If you can get a glimpse of what’s coming up in your part, you will be prepared, and more likely to get it right.

Bonus Tip: Don't neglect bass clef. You may be asked double a written bass line or you be given a part written in concert pitch in bass clef by an inexperienced writer. If you want to go above and beyond, learn how to read in alto and tenor clefs too.

Helpful resources:

New York Guitar Method Ensemble Book Vol. 1 and 2 (Bruce Arnold)

60 Studies for Violin (Franz Wohlfahrt)

Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (J.S. Bach)

For Guitarists Only (Tommy Tedesco)

Matt Wong is a guitarist, composer, and producer from New Jersey. A big fan of musical theatre, Matt plays in pit orchestras for productions in New York City as well as regionally. In addition, Matt is a session musician, and has recorded guitar, mandolin, and banjo for artists in the US, and abroad (UK, Canada, Spain, and Israel). As an instructor, Matt teaches guitar, music theory, ear training, and improvisation, and offers lessons online via Skype. Follow Matt on Instagram (@mattwongguitar).

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