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  • Writer's pictureBigBlue

Should I learn how to read music?

Panama City Beach Guitar Lessons
Little Black Dots - Friend or Foe


After playing guitar for over 30 years and teaching for nearly 20, I have a few opinions on reading music for guitar players.

My students will know the next few paragraphs by heart as I talk about them often during lessons.

First and foremost, I'm often asked (sometimes debated) why reading music is a skill a guitar student should learn. After all, the guitar is such a POP(ular) instrument, that you can play convincingly  just by learning a handful of chords and scales and then practicing a song until it sounds *right*. Add too that things like tablature and other learning opportunities like Youtube videos and you'll soon see why reading music, as a skill for guitar players, gets pushed back to the end of the line.

It's true, everything above. You don't have to read a lick of music to be able to play the guitar. In fact, some of the most famous guitar players we've heard, in styles from Jazz to Rock, have said they don't read music. 

So why is reading important?

If you pick up the guitar and stick with it, meaning you get past the sore finger tips, frustration of learning how to make buzzy chords clean, wrestling with your time, etc. You will reach a skill level where you notice weaknesses in your usual learning methods.

For example, most tab(ulature) you find on the internet does not correspond to a rhythmic value. What this means is you have to really know what the song should sound like to make the fret numbers match the music. With music notation, both the note and rhythm are already there for you. And I won't even get started for how much BAD tab there is on the internet. As I tell my students, take any tabs you find with a grain of salt. All there are is a persons interpretation of what they think the guitarist is playing. And often, they're wrong (from a little to out of this solar system wrong).


Ok, what are the problems with Youtube?

Youtube is great, no doubt. From backing tracks to motivation videos to inspire you, Youtube is something I wish I had starting out back in the 80's.

However, as you develop, you see that most youtube videos follow this kind of script....

"What's up YOUTUBERS!!?! Today I'm going to show you how to play {insert song name here}. It's a fun song to play so check it out!

plays song...

Ok! Now I'm going to slow it down for you.

Plays section of song slowly...

Just watch my right hand for what to do (no explanation).


Here's what you do with the right hand. Down Down Down UP UP Down UP.

Ok Dudes, go Rock! Click my like and share button.

So, like the shortcomings for tab, if you can read music, you have all of the information you need on the score. Left hand, Right hand, tempo, feel, articulations, everything.


Looking long(er) term ... Down the road

As you improve, you'll likely start playing with other musicians. You ability to read, or not read, can have an impact on the quality of musicians you play with. And as I've said many times, one of the absolute best ways to get better is to play with musicians that are better than you. And I'll guarantee that in most cases, those musicians have a solid grasp on reading, music theory, a good ear, etc.


Have I made a good case for reading? If so, why do most guitar student not learn to read?

Going back to the guitar being a Pop instrument, our need for instant gratification makes us take the easy way to acknowledgment. What I mean by this is that when you learn to read music, you often start with simple melodies like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, which might sound cool to a 5 year old student, but not to the 16 year old student wanting to rock some Led Zepplin.

So the 16 year old student learns through tab and youtube and then thinks, maybe, I'd like to major in music in college. That is, until they have to audition and learn that reading is a required skill. At that point, they think, ok, I'll major in Philosophy in college and rock with my band (of other teenagers). This might work at that age, but move into your 20's-30's and you'll find most of the musicians gigging have some college background or have taken their craft serious enough to learn how to read notation and charts. 

At this point, I usually wrap my discussion with my students up with this...

You'll one day realize that reading is both something you want to do and need to do. So why not knock it out now, as you begin your journey, rather than having to stop after you can play well and backtrack to the beginning with Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star?

Learning to read is not a hard skill to learn. Like practicing your chords and scales, it is simply something that you need to work into your practice routine. I often encourage students to practice reading at the start of their practice, when they're fresh and mind is sharp. Practice a little every day, like 10 minutes. And trust me, before you know it, you'll actually turn your volume up when you have those little black dots put on your music stand.


If you're located in Panama City, Panama City Beach, or Bay County and are looking for a music instructor to help you learn how to read, I would love to help you!


Blue Heron Music Studio is located in Panama City Beach, Florida.

Offering Music Lessons, Guitar Lessons, Bass Lessons, and Ukulele lessons.

Call or Email to schedule a free trial lesson.

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