How to read guitar sheet music
Guitar

How to Read Guitar Sheet Music: Simple Guide for Beginners

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Written By Will Fenton
Guitar

How to Read Guitar Sheet Music: Simple Guide for Beginners

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The first thing you are going to learn as a guitar beginner is that there are several ways to write down music.

And one of them is sheet music, also known as standard notation. 

Being able to read sheet music is an incredibly useful skill, and we will tell you why.

But first, let us take you through all the basics of reading guitar sheet music!

What is Guitar Sheet Music?

Before we start, we want to remind you of all the different ways of writing down music.

In guitar playing, there are three common ways of writing down music:

  • guitar TAB
  • standard notation
  • chord charts

Using guitar tablature and charts (diagrams) is fairly easy. And that’s why many guitar beginners don’t bother with learning standard notation.

Sheet music is more complex as there are more symbols for you to memorize. 

And since you can learn new songs by using tabs or charts, many guitar players argue that standard notation is something you can simply do without. 

However, standard notation is the main language of music. If you learn how to read guitar notes, you will understand how music really works.

Plus, with guitar sight reading skills, you’ll be able to play any song you want without hassle. 

Sheet music tells you everything you need to play the song as it is supposed to be played – from note lengths to dynamics

And although it has a reputation for being hard to learn, learning sheet music is sort of like learning a new alphabet. From that perspective, anyone can do it

You’ll just need some time and practice to get used to it.

How to Read Guitar Sheet Music 

To be able to read guitar sheet music properly, you need to learn what each symbol means.

Most of the symbols you’re going to learn today are used in other instruments’ sheet music, but some of them are associated specifically with stringed instruments. 

Treble Clef 

For starters, it’s important for you to understand that guitar music is always written in treble clef

treble clef

The treble clef is the most used clef in Western music notation, and you can spot it at the beginning of the staff. 

The bass clef, on the other hand, is typically used for instruments that have a lower pitch range, such as the cello, bass guitar, and trombone. 

The transposed value of guitar music is one octave lower than that of the text. In music, transposition means moving a group of notes or the whole piece up or down in pitch, without altering the relationships between these pitches (or notes.)

But for now, it’s important for you to understand that for the guitar, the treble clef circles the G note. And that’s why it’s also known as the G-clef.

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Lines and Spaces

So, you already know how to find a G note – it’s a note on the second line. 

What about the rest of the notes on the line?

Starting from the bottom, the notes are E, G, B, D, and F.

music notes

A fun acronym to memorize notes on the line is Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.

So, each line in the staff signifies a note. And when there’s a note on the line, it means you need to play that note. That’s why it’s crucial to memorize which line is which note. 

And the same goes for spaces. 

music notes

The acronym to remember the notes in the spaces is the word FACE

Ledger lines 

If you need to play a note that is above or below the lines and spaces of the regular musical staff, you’ll see it written on a ledger line.

A ledger line is slightly longer than the note head and it’s drawn parallel to the staff.

ledger lines

Now let’s break down other symbols that can be found on the musical staff.

Accidentals 

If you see some symbols right next to the note, they’re not here by accident. 

Nevertheless, these signs are called accidentals. They are placed immediately to the left of (or above) a note. 

Accidentals are very common in sheet music, and they can tell you to play a different note from the original. In other words, they indicate that the note must be changed in pitch.

accidentals

When you see a sharp (♯), you need to raise a note by one half-step.

And a flat (♭) tells you to lower a note down by one half-step.

On the other hand, a natural (♮) represents the unaltered pitch of a note. So, a natural cancels all previous accidentals and tells you not to sharpen or flat a note.

Key signatures 

In guitar sheet music, you’ll also notice the same signs as the accidentals at the beginning of the staff.

These signs are actually key signatures, and they’re normally positioned between the staff and the time signature. 

The key signature highlights if there are any sharps or flats, and therefore indicates the key of a musical piece.

Note lengths

One of the most important things that sheet music tells you is the duration of each note. 

You can easily find out how long the note is going to last based on how it looks.

For example, an ‘empty’ note without a straight stem has 4 beats. And if we’re talking about a 4/4 time signature (we’ll explain this in a bit), this note will last 4 beats. Therefore, this is also called the whole note.

Besides whole notes, the most commonly used notes include half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes

note lenghts

Time signatures 

Another thing that makes sheet music more complete than chord charts are time signatures. 

In short, a time signature determines the rhythm of the song. So, a time signature will also determine the way you count.

time signature

As you can see, a time signature consists of two numbers. The upper number tells you many beats there are per measure, and the bottom number tells you what note value takes one beat. 

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The most common time signature in music is 4/4. This basically means that each measure consists of four quarter-note beats. So in this case, you’ll have to count out 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, and so on.

If you’re using a metronome, set the metronome to 4/4 times. In the beginning, you can set the tempo to a relatively easy pace, or around 70 beats per minute. You should then evenly strum the guitar to the beat, hitting just one strum per beat.

Bars 

The measure we mentioned a moment ago refers to the section of music enclosed by bar lines.

So, vertical bars in the staff will help you find the end of each measure.

Other symbols

Let’s tackle some of the other symbols you might encounter in sheet music.

If you see a dot next to a note, you need to take half the value of the note and add it to that note. In other words, a dot increases duration by one-half.

And if you see a long marking connecting two notes, you need to play them as one. Ties basically merge multiple notes of the same pitch. 

music sheet

Now, if you’re supposed to play a note on a certain string, you’ll see a number above the note indicating which string you have to use. 

And if you’re meant to play a note with a certain finger, there will be a number beside the note telling you which finger to use. 

And that’s it!

If you memorize these symbols, you’ll be able to play a song on guitar simply by looking at sheet music.

Should I Learn to Read Sheet Music? 

Although all of these symbols and notes might seem confusing at first, reading sheet music is actually not that hard. It’s very logical, as long as you know what each symbol represents.

And just like learning a new language, it will take you some time to be able to read it effortlessly. But once you do, you’ll realize it’s not hard at all, and it will feel as natural as speaking your native language.

Of course, music notation is simpler to learn than another language. That said, learning how to read it well won’t take you that long.

On the other hand, reading guitar notes requires you to memorize numerous symbols and understand how they correspond with your instrument. 

So is learning to read standard music notation for guitar worth the effort?

guitar and coffee

As we’ve already pointed out, standard notation is the main language of music. 

Therefore, if you want to work with other musicians that play piano, violin, or flute, you need to be able to read standard notation. 

Almost every professional musician is familiar with standard notation. Learning how to read sheet music is an integral part of every music school curriculum. But even if they don’t take traditional lessons, aspiring guitarists decide to learn standard notation.

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Besides your goals and intentions, whether you should learn how to read guitar notes depends on the genre of music you want to play. 

For instance, if you intend to play rock and pop tunes, you’ll find an accurate tab quite easily. But if you want to play classical pieces or jazz, there’s a high chance you’ll come across standard notation only.

So if you’re still wondering if you should learn how to read notes or simply use guitar tabs, consider the following factors:

  • the music genre you’re interested in
  • your personal goals
  • your learning habits 

Either way, if you want to become a skilled guitarist, we suggest you familiarize yourself with standard notation. Even if you’ll use the guitar tabs in the future, this kind of knowledge will help you become a more complete musician.

Tips for Reading Sheet Music for Guitar

Once you familiarize yourself with all the parts of guitar sheet music, you’re ready to play songs!

However, don’t get ahead of yourself – gaining sight-reading skills takes time.

But the more you practice, the easier it gets. However, there are some things you should keep in mind if you want to get better at reading guitar notes.

First of all, you should take it to step by step. For example, learn to read basic scales without accidentals (sharps and flats.) As you progress, you can move on to more complex scales and musical pieces. 

Also, try to count the beats while playing, even if they don’t match the rhythm. Counting the beats will help you understand what you’re reading.

woman reading with guitar and laptop

Furthermore, listening to music while reading notes is also very helpful. It’s sort of like learning words by listening to someone else say them out loud.

So let’s summarize the most important tips for reading sheet music:

  • Learn sheet music symbols and note lengths
  • Play without accidentals first
  • Once you feel confident, practice adding sharps and flats 
  • Count the beats while playing
  • Listen to music while reading notes

Where to Get Guitar Sheet Music? 

If you want to expand your repertoire and learn new songs, there are many places to get guitar sheet music.

If you’re interested in classical pieces, you can purchase them online or in your local music shop.

And if you prefer playing popular songs (pop, rock, folk, etc), or you’re looking for free guitar sheet music, you can check out the following sources: 

  • 8notes website offers free sheet music for guitar and covers a variety of genres (jazz guitar, Christmas guitar music, world music for guitar, etc)
  • Classical Guitar Shed provides guitar tabs and sheet music categorized by level of experience 

If you need some inspiration for picking a good song to play, check out our list of Easy Guitar Songs for Beginners

Final Thoughts 

Now that you know all the basic sheet music symbols, we hope reading guitar notes doesn’t seem so difficult.

You just need to take it slowly. And with enough practice, you’ll be able to read notes like you’re reading this article. 

So, be patient and keep practicing – it will all be worth it in the end!

If you’re looking for a fully comprehensive way of learning guitar, read my guide on the best online guitar lessons.  

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Will Fenton

Introduced to good music at a young age through my father. The first record I remember being played was "Buffalo Soldier" by Bob Marley, I must've been six years old. By the time I was seven, I was taking drum lessons once a week. The challenge but the euphoric feeling of learning a new song was addicting, and I suppose as they say the rest was history. Favorite album of all time? Tattoo You by The Rolling Stones Best gig you've ever been to? Neil Young at Desert Trip in 2016 Media mentions: Evening Standard Daily Mail

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