Reading Sheet Music for Guitar, Part One

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Expanding Your Musical Knowledge with Standard Notation

Many guitar music books use tablature these days. It is a very effective way of learning songs, especially if you are at the beginner to intermediate level in your playing. Indeed, many guitar players are content to stick to tabs. You can put yourself ahead of the pack by learning standard notation. Here we will go over the fundamentals that will help you get started.

Why Learn Notation?

Simply put, although most sheet music will have the chords illustrated in simple fingering graphics to make a piece easy to strum, the melody is not typically written out in tabs. The vast majority of published music is still written in basic notation. To learn basic notation is to greatly expand the amount of music available to you.

This can also give you an advantage professionally. Many studio sessions may be available for guitarists in your area, but those running the show may require you to read music. Another potential tactical advantage is in local bands and orchestras. You are not usually allowed to “wing it” in professional settings like that. The more serious the forum, the more likely it is that you will be required to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of music theory and notation: So let’s get started!

The Basics

Guitar music is written on the treble clef (the squiggly line at the left of the staff shown below). If you look at a piece of sheet music you will see a series of 5 lines and 4 spaces. The musical alphabet is A B C D E F and G. Each of these lines and spaces correspond to one of the letters in the musical alphabet. The lowest line on a staff is an E. letters repeat themselves over and over again. This is illustrated in the graphic below.


Let’s take a look at the names of the lines and spaces separately. The names of just the lines are E G B D and F. You can remember these notes by using the phrase “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” To remember the names of the spaces just remember the word “FACE.” This is the mnemonic most budding musicians use to learn the notes on a staff.


Play the F note on the 3rd fret of the 4th string of the guitar. This is the F note on the 1st space of the treble clef. This could also be placed in several other places on the fretboard. When you are reading music on the guitar, most notes have multiple places that you could choose to play them. It will take time to earn all of the different ways you could play a progression of notes on your guitar. This is what can make reading sheet music on guitar a bit challenging. For now, take time to memorize EGBDF and FACE, and find their corresponding places on the fretboard.
Practice until ready to learn more

This is only the beginning. In future lessons we will go into more detail about rhythms, charts, and other important components of sheet music reading.

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