To Read or Not to Read

By October 2, 2020 No Comments

by Brian Fish


Guitar players can play countless songs without ever having to read notes on a music staff. Many people start playing guitar and pick up a method book that primarily teaches standard notation. Unfortunately, this leads to frustration because they are not playing the music they love, and it seems like it will take forever to play what they want using what is taught in these books. Now, being able to read is not a bad skill and is necessary in some situations.

How do you know if you need to work on reading standard notation right now?

Below is a brief overview of the most common roles guitar players have, so you can see which one aligns with you and your goals. This will help you determine if reading standard notation needs to part of your practice routine.


When is it not important for you to be able to read standard notation?

You Just Started Playing Guitar

Reading standard notation is not an important skill for a beginning guitarist to work on. When first learning it is better for a guitarist to start memorizing simple chords, learn to read simple chord charts, and be able to read or imitate simple rhythms. At this stage it is best to keep any melodies or riffs short and simple. You can use tablature or learn them by ear. These are the skills that you will use more often than reading notation on a music staff.

Hobby / Campfire Singer

Reading standard notation is not common for this type of guitar player. Most people who play for fun and for family will learn their music by ear, from a teacher, or by using simple chord charts with lyrics.

Cover Band / Original Band

Guitarists who play in these types of bands do not need to read music on stage. Cover bands and original music projects tend to play the same songs every gig, so no music reading is required. When learning songs or in rehearsal band members may have simple chord charts or tablature to help them remember their parts but once the band has rehearsed and is playing in front of people the music is usually played from memory without any sheet music.


When will you need to know how to read and write standard notation?

All Occasion Band

Playing in a band that does a lot of weddings or corporate gigs requires a different set of skills than playing in a cover band. In these situations, you may have a completely different set list from job to job. To work in this type of band you will be playing out of what is called a fake book, or you have to read charts the band leader has written. You need to be able to site read chord symbols, rhythms, single note lines, and know how to improvise. Reading standard notation is essential for this type of gig.

Theater Band / School Jazz Band

Playing in a theater band or school jazz ensemble is like playing in a cover band except you will be using charts with chord symbols, rhythms, and single note lines. The set list will not change from night to night, but the music is usually more complicated. You will be expected to play exactly what is written in the chart for every performance. To pass the audition and read the charts you will absolutely need to read standard notation.

Writer / Arranger

If you want to write for a band that has instruments besides guitar, bass, and drums you will need to know how to read and write in standard notation. Tablature only works for guitar and can not be used or understood by people who play other instruments. Any horn lines, string sections, piano parts, or pieces where the ensemble is playing in a big band style the lines will be written in standard notation. You will also want to have a solid understanding of each instrument’s range so you can write appropriate parts.



Reading through these overviews you should have a clear idea of whether reading stand notation needs to be a part of your practice routine right now. Whether your goal is to be able to play in an all occasion band, write arrangements for a band, or just play for fun it is always a good idea to seek out the help of a highly trained professional. A good teacher will be able to help you learn the appropriate skills for the goals you have set for yourself. Knowing what skills you need to focus on to reach your goals and play the music you love will help you save time and money.


About the author: Brian Fish is a professional guitarist living in North East Ohio and is a highly trained guitar instructor at Guitar Lessons Geauga.