Whether or not you should learn to read music as a guitar player depends on your goals, and your strengths as a player. If your will to learn the guitar stems from a desire to be able to play some chords along to your fav songs, sitting around the campfire with your best mates, you probably don’t need to learn.
But if you want to progress as a musician, learning more and more complex techniques and skills which are required to make you an excellent guitarist, learning to read music could potentially play an integral part in that process.
If you want a career in music and want to progress as a musician, it’s highly recommended that yes, you learn to read music.
If you’re just looking to play simple riffs and your favourite songs, you’ll be able to get by with reading tablature (or TAB).
It’s not that simple
With most classical instruments, learning to read music is an absolute integral part to both your progression as a musician, and your acceptance into musical society. The guitar is somewhat different. The origins of guitar playing, in many styles at least, stem from outside of ‘traditional’ music playing traditions, making the debate over whether learning to read music is essential to your development a far more nuanced topic than it would be with most other instruments.
As such, a lot of excellent players and styles have evolved in a manner apart from both theory and standard music annotation.
Different types of guitar music annotation
The first thing to point out is that there are a few different types of guitar sheet music, most notably standard notation, chord diagrams, and guitar TAB. Standard notation is the ‘classical’ method of music reading, where notes are written out in progression on a staff (5 running lines) with different symbols showing how long each note is supposed to be played for. When people say they can read music, or ask if you can, this is generally the type of sheet music they are talking about.
Chord diagrams are a symbolic demonstration of how to play various chords, and would suit those looking to strum along to their favourite tunes very well. Like Guitar TAB, chord diagrams use 6 lines which directly correlate to the strings on a guitar, using dots to show which frets are to be played. In some cases, the dots will be numbered, to help the player work out which hand position to use. Chord diagrams are the easiest to learn, and can allow you to play a wide variety of chord based music!
Guitar TAB is broadly similar to standard notation, except it has been altered to be specific to the guitar. It uses six lines, each of which represents a string of the guitar, and instead of a symbol, a number is written to show which fret should be played. It’s far more intuitive than standard annotation, as the lines directly correlate to something physical, and it may suit those who struggle with standard annotation very well.
By ear or by sheet?
Clearly, you can still become an accomplished guitarist and not know how to read music, but will it make it easier? Perhaps frustratingly, at least for those looking for clear answers, there is no set answer to this. Learning to play by ear can come incredibly naturally for some, and those same people might be put off from ever playing the guitar as a result of the frustration of trying to learn to read sheet music.
Other people however may find sheet music almost instinctive, while struggling to replicate melodies by ear. Music and our relation to its creation is an incredibly subjective thing, and there is no right or wrong way as to how we should approach it. There are however certain genres which suit one method better than the other, which I go into more detail below.
Classical guitar music is perhaps the most suited to ‘traditional’ music reading techniques. As a genre, its history lies in the written rather than oral tradition, and as a result, it’s hard to progress as a classical guitarist without an understanding of both music theory and music reading. While it may be possible to pick certain things up by ear or using tab music, an inability to read sheet music will leave the majority of classical music inaccessible to you, hindering your progression greatly.
Jazz musicians tend to learn and play, when not improvising, from a jazz chart, otherwise known as a lead sheet. This sheet gives an overview of both the chords and melody of the song, with the chords illustrated with chord symbols, and the melody shown using a staff beneath the chords with music notation. Depending on the type of jazz you’re playing, you may mostly be improvising, which would obviously mean that music becomes somewhat redundant, however this depends on the types of jazz music that interest you.
Who do you play with?
For a lot of people, music is a highly social experience. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy playing alone, indeed some people exclusively play by themselves; however for many people, one of the best ways of sharing their love of music is by playing with their friends. Now if none of you know how to play from sheet music, and you improvise and play by ear together, then not knowing how to read music won’t affect your ability to create with one another.
However, if your musical partners like to play from sheet music, and they also tend to notate the music that you create together, then not knowing how to read whichever form of notation they use might inhibit your ability to musically interact with the group.
It’s up to you
At the end of the day, unless you’re trying to get into music school, you can learn to play the guitar either way, with sheet music or not. It depends on what you find the easiest, and what style of music you like to play. Most guitar music can be learned without knowing how to read standard annotation, however that doesn’t mean that it’s easier to do it that way.
If you’re unsure, at least give learning to read music a go, and if you really struggle and decided it’s not for you, you can take solace in the fact that you’re following in the footsteps of musicians like Eric Clapton, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix, all musicians and groups who found stardom without knowing how to read music!
I’ve also covered this topic from an alternate stance if you’re still in two minds… check out the guide to whether you actually need to learn music to start playing the guitar.