How to read guitar sheet music

The guitar is probably one of the handiest instruments to learn how to play. Perhaps, you might have even learned the rudimentary skills in playing guitar by yourself.

You might have gotten well with self-taught rock guitar skills but it is only a matter of time until you get interested with jazz, electric or classical guitar.

With these, you might need to learn how to read guitar sheet music especially if you are a beginner. 

Do you really have to learn to read music to play guitar?

learn to play guitar

Well it depends on the innate talent of a guitarist wannabe if you ask me. Some people have an innate inclination to music or even specific instruments (thanks to genetics and early exposure) that they could play songs on the guitar by just listening to it and automatically picking up the tabs for the song. This is called playing by ear. 

On the other hand, some musicians really start with undergoing the process of playing the guitar through music sheets and following music notations.

The trebles, note measurements, G-clef, sharps and flats might look daunting to look at but know that famous guitar players like Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen always were rumored to practice on guitar music sheets no matter how inborn their talents were at playing the guitar. 

So to answer the question, yes. At some point, knowing how to read music sheets will come in handy and not just with the guitar but will all musical instruments that you might want to explore next. 

How to read guitar sheet music if you are a beginner

The key to reading a guitar music sheet is knowing the symbols found in it and knowing some guitar fundamentals. Let us have a breakdown. 

1. Guitar fundamentals

First of all, you must know that a guitar follows a three-octave range. This means that when you play C, its lowest note will be three octaves away from its highest note.

It is also important that you know that guitar notes always sound one octave lower than how it is written in the music sheet, thus, the high C in piano is just like the middle C on the second string of a guitar’s first fret. 

2. String notations

Guitar music sheets also indicate string notations for fingering and fretting through finger numbers that are written in every chord diagram.

In some instances of unique fingering, a letter T can be read in the chord diagram. This happens usually when you play jazz guitars. String notations also differ depending on the guitar being used because each has a different number of strings. This means that there is a unique guitar music sheet for every type of guitar. 

3. Reading rhythms

This is the part where you have to memorize a lot of musical symbols to know how they will be played in the guitar. Since there are a lot of them and we can’t squeeze them all here, might as well check them in Reading Guitar Charts

Are guitar tabs easier to read than guitar music sheets? 

The debate between guitar tabs and music sheets has been here forever. So to settle it once and for all, I guess we have to look at the options and their pros and cons. 

Let us start with guitar tabs. Of course, one of its well-known pros is that you can master it in minutes without memorizing notes and other musical symbols.

It is easy to generate since you only need six straight lines to represent the strings, numbers and letters. And if you are too lazy to come up with a guitar tab, there are a gazillion uploads that you could look up online. But this is where the cons come in. Not all guitar tabs are accurate.

Online guitar tabs can be edited and if you are a beginner, this is not a good idea. Most importantly, guitar tabs don’t show timing symbols and this is important in complex songs. 

Now let us look at guitar music sheets. For starters, music sheets are very detailed. Timing symbols are there and no notation is misplaced. More so, music sheets are universal. As we have mentioned, learning how to read one will come in handy in playing other instruments. Plus, it is also visually meaningful.

This means that if you know how to read music sheets, you can actually hear the notations in your mind and you would know exactly what to do with it. The only downside to it is that it takes time for someone to memorize and master the symbols, how they are written and how to come up with one for an entire song. 


To conclude, playing the guitar can be essentially self-taught through playing by ear but learning how to read guitar music sheet truly has its upsides.

One of its most important benefits is being able to use the skill in all types of guitars should you wish to learn how to play them in the coming years. A beginner who knows how to read guitar music sheets will be a promising musician in the long run so it is never too late to learn how.


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I am an avid Mac-user, nerd, musician, freelancer, and gamer. Ask me about my collection of M:TG cards! I've also got a horrible habit of needing the absolute newest technological wonder, whether it's stable or not. If they made a home-version of the LHC, I'd have 2. Additionally, I've been playing music for the better part of 14 years. I'm self-taught on piano, guitar, trumpet, trombone, sax, clarinet, bass, drums and other percussion, and around 10 other instruments. I also spend quite a bit of time dabbling in synthesizers, sequencers, and samplers. I'm also founder of Quotelicious where I collect and share the quotes I love.


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