Dave Byers Blog

Should a guitarist learn to read music?

Should a guitar player learn to read music?

There has certainly been many cases where a guitarist or musician had a terrific career in music and couldn't read a note of music. There is no question that not learning how to read music has not been a problem for some musicians. Chet Atkins was asked once if he read music and he replied, "yeah, but not enough to mess up my playing". Reading music can get a bad rap. Back in the day you would see a band of musicians that all had sheet music in front of them. But since the 60's you see many bands with no music stand in sight. Sometimes you’ll see hired musicians on TV or in a studio with music stands that have charts that give the musicians the chords and map of the song showing that a song might start with a chorus two verses, a chorus, solo and the end with a chorus for instance. At many churches the musicians will use chord charts that simply have the lyrics and chords used in the song. Another method used by guitar players theses days is reading tablature. Rather than musical notes there are numbers on six lines. The lines represent the strings and the numbers indicate what fret to play them on. It's an ingenious method for quickly showing a guitarist where notes are played on a neck. So what’s the point of a guitar player learning to read music anymore?

First a little background of where I am coming from as a musician and guitarist. Thankfully my mother signed me up for guitar lessons not long after I received my first guitar for Christmas back in 1979. I learned how to read music and all the notes on my guitar. I was taught in depth music theory. Along with this I was also taught how to rock out with tablature as well with the old “play what I'm doing right here watching another guitar player method. At one time I was taking three guitar lessons a week for three different teachers. One fellow was teaching me to read and jazz music, another was showing me music theory along with country and classic rock, and the last guy was a rocker who was tablature and play what I play sort of teacher. It was a group of teachers showing me completely different things and methods. I thought I died and went to Heaven. My mother would pick me up from lessons and instead of putting my guitar in the case I would play guitar all the way home. She might stop at a grocery store and I would stay in the car and play my guitar the entire time. Over the years I've written, recorded and taught music. I own a music store and have bought tons of musical gear and sold it over and over again for nearly two decades. I've read countless books, articles, magazine and interviews for the past thirty five years on music. It's just what I do. I've played in clubs, school musicals, churches and stages playing almost every kind of music there is as the main act, sub or member of the band.

Having taught many students I sometimes see a student who doesn't want to learn to read music. It seems like a fear that it might be hard. Reading music really isn’t that hard at all. The vast majority of time we musician's only count to 4 and start over again, and the musical alphabet only goes from A to G. The musical staff has only five lines and as guitarists we only play I the one clef. "Sure", you might be saying, but "what's the benefit to learning to read music?" When you can read music you can take a basic sheet of music tossed in front of you and play it. Obviously you can't if you don't read. One jokes ones like this: “How do you get a guitar player to turn down? Put some sheet music in front of him.” Reading music gives you fundamental skills and a terrific way to write out something that you want to remember later. You can easily discuss things with other musicians. You can also discuss basic notes and musical theory. I can talk about playing the A note for a quarter note, take a half note rest and play the triplets starting at the Db note to a musician and we all know what we’re talking about. I can look at the music with the keyboardist or horn section and see what they're playing and discuss it with them. Someone who doesn't read would be looking at me like a deer in headlights. I can talk about shuffle patterns and come in on the upbeat of the 3rd beat to my band they'll understand what I'm saying. I can tell the band that we’re going to take this song and transpose it up a step and a half for the new singer and not have them completely lost. I can discuss going from the one chord to the six minor and many other things because I know how to read music and I understand music theory. Also, reading music helped me better understand tempo and working with either a metronome or at least playing notes I was reading along with tapping my foot throughout the music I read made me a musician who has good timing. So often guitarists have terrible time and almost always that is a guitar player who cannot read music. They never went through all those drills with sheet music and their lack of timing shows it. Non reading guitarists almost always have worst timing of any guitar players I've seen.

Theory is often the next step beyond learning to read music. Because of music theory I can tell you what notes are in a particular chord or scale. I can tell you how it's made up and why it works. I can play any chord and find any chord at any spot on the neck. I can look at the notes and tell you what any chord is on my guitar and tell you exactly what scale would work with it. I can play a new chord and when I find that I like that chord I can play that chord in different inversions on my guitar and in different keys. I can transpose any song into any key for any singer to sing. I can tell you the chord formula for any song after hearing it or playing it and write it out in just a few minutes and I can explain that to the rest of the band. I can harmonize a solo section with another musician on the fly and discuss thirds, fifths and so on. I can discuss harmony vocals with the singers speaking of flat sevenths and so on. A guitarist who cannot read and certainly wouldn't know music theory couldn't do any of the things I've discussed in the last two paragraphs. So my question to you is why in the world would you not want to learn how to read music? If you seriously want to be a good player you are simply missing out on some much that will make you a better player and let you understand what you are doing and how to discuss, document and explain it.

Reading really music isn't that hard. It's gotten a bad rap. But I can't imagine being a musician and not knowing how to read music and understand music theory. To me it would just be silly to skip all this good stuff.

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