Sights & Sounds
Fresh from the studio and the stage for different assignments, Adam Goldsmith discusses the importance of sight-reading
One of the questions I frequently get asked is ‘how important is sight-reading if I want to be a freelance guitar player?’ I’ve mentioned the subject of sight-reading once or twice here over the past few years, but two gigs I’ve recently been involved in provided good examples of contrasting situations and uses for this skill, which I hope will be of help to anyone interested.
The first was an album of Celtic-style instrumental music for composer Jody Jenkins via the production music company Audio Network, while the second was an orchestral concert playing music by Queen, ABBA and a few other bits and pieces at Henley Festival, for musical director Steve Sidwell.
In my humble opinion, sight-reading is a fantastically useful skill for a working musician and it will more
“Sight-reading is a fantastically useful skill for a working musician to have… but is in no way essential for making good music”
than double your chances of making a decent living. But, it is in no way essential for making good music for music’s sake, and it can also be quite limited – in this case exemplified perfectly via the music of Queen, and specifically Brian May’s legendary guitar parts.
The first Queen song in the set was We Will Rock You. If a guitar player had somehow managed to avoid ever hearing this song, and was also a fantastic sight-reader, there is still zero chance they would end up sounding anything like Brian May just by reading the music in front of them. As we all know, Brian’s sound, equipment, touch, feel and – as someone who has previously played guitar next to him at a gig, I can attest to – ear-crushing volume all contribute much more than the notes alone. So, before this concert for the festival, I spent a week brushing up and properly learning the Queen repertoire in the set.
This contrasted sharply with the Celtic album recording session. Aside from the obvious difference of one gig being live and the other being a recording session with just the composer, producer and myself in the studio, these two gigs couldn’t have been more different in terms of the ability to sight-read. It won’t come as any huge surprise that studio work is generally much better paid than live work, either, so this is another reason to brush up on your skills as a working musician.
Jody Jenkins and Frank Gallagher, the composers, come from a mostly orchestral background and, as such, rightly expect things to be done quickly and efficiently. This project mostly involved acoustic guitar, with doubles on mandolin, bouzouki, nylonstring and Nashville-tuned acoustic guitar. It therefore also involved the ability to sight-read on all these instruments, often doubling fairly complicated Irish fiddle lines on mandolin.
In order to facilitate ease of reading, I admit to adjusting the mandolin and bouzouki to guitar tuning. I’m not sure I know any jobbing session players that can sight-read efficiently in the traditional tuning of these instruments – and, to be frank, for the most part it makes absolutely no difference in a commercial music setting. We recorded an entire album in one day, and not only was it a very rewarding musical and social experience, but it paid my bills for a couple of months. After Covid, this is obviously a welcome day’s work for a musician and another example of why, in the age of necessary skills diversification, sight-reading is a great skill to learn.