Follow this exclusive and comprehensive 14- part series from Rockschool tutor Charlie Griffiths to demystify the art of reading music for the guitar.
Reading music is a highly useful and enriching activity, which will help you practise mental focus, improve concentration and engage more deeply with your guitar. It also neatly ties together the worlds of technique, music theory and musicality, while also being an extremely valuable professional skill to have, as it will allow you to efficiently share and procure ideas with other musicians. Perhaps just as important these days is the fact that it will make you an altogether better prospect for employment – playing shows, doing dep gigs with other bands, etc. Of course it can also take hours – sometimes literally days or weeks – off the learning process for new tunes or entire set lists.
So how do you learn it? Well, reading music is essentially a three- step process. Step one is to use your eyes to recognise notes and rhythms on the stave; step two is to process that information in your mind, and step three is to translate the information to the guitar. We’ll get into the business of recognising the dots on the stave in the next instalment. In this session, we’ll start with step three.
Step three? This is not as counterintuitive as you might think, as finding notes on the guitar is something that is almost certainly a familiar concept to you. But what if we were to ask you to play an E on your guitar? As there are many different places on the fretboard that we can play an E, this question isn’t as simple as it at first seems. You probably found yourself asking: which register do I play in? Which string do I use? Which fret do I use? This is both a blessing and curse when it comes to reading, as it’s not always clear which part of the fretboard to use to produce the note. The positive side of this is that reading music is not as prescriptive as, say, reading tab. As a musician, you can use your experience and artistic freedom to decide which E to play and how it should sound.
The first two exercises are designed to help you see the fretboard as a whole, and you’ll see
Music has its own set of symbols which you will need to become familiar with, but for now, we’ll use ones you already understand.
there are often three places to find the same pitch. It’s also useful to group notes together into ‘ scales’, and use specific fingerings so that you can feel where the notes are without having to look at the guitar – keeping your eye fixed on the page. As you can imagine, this process not only helps when reading the dots; it’s also invaluable when improvising, since it frees your hands and brain from constantly checking your position on the neck.
Finally, we will deal with step two, which is processing the information. In fact, GT knows you’re already very good at doing this, because you’re doing it right at this moment. You can recognise the letter ‘ A’ immediately, seemingly without thinking about it. You see the symbol ‘ A’ and you hear the sound of that letter in your mind. Of course, music has its own symbols which you will need to become equally as familiar with, but for now, we’ll use symbols you already know and understand. When reading music you have to be able to expect the unexpected, so it’s a good exercise to get used to reading nonsense; exercises 3- 5 are designed with that in mind.
Good fretboard knowledge will greatly improve your music reading