Should Guitar Players Learn to Read Music?

Updated: Oct 13

Do I need to learn to read music to play guitar?

In short: it depends, but probably not.

New students and parents of aspiring guitar players often have the expectation that reading music (also called standard notation) is required to play the guitar.

In fact, you absolutely do not need to know how to read music to play guitar.

Many of the greatest guitar players of all time learned to play guitar without learning to read music, including:

  • Jimi Hendrix

  • Eddie Van Halen

  • Paul McCartney

  • Eric Clapton

  • Stevie Ray Vaughn

  • John Lennon

So how do I learn guitar if I can't read music?

TAB, Chord Diagrams, Chord Charts, and Playing By Ear

When you see a guitarist perform, they are often playing by memory. If not, they are reading chord charts that contain a combination of chord names and/or chord diagrams.

When studying music academically or digging deep into music theory, standard notation is required. But it's incredibly rare that standard notation is necessary to play guitar with a band.

If you understand how to read TAB and chord charts, you'll be able to play your favorite songs in no time at all!

At Bones Jones Music, we have seen how learning to play guitar is more fun, efficient, and rewarding with a combination of TAB (tablature), chord diagrams, chord charts, and playing by ear.

But are you sure I shouldn't learn to read music to play guitar?

Though out high school, I studied music theory where I began to delve deeper into the construction of music and standard notation. I went on to study at Berklee College of Music and focused on reading bass clef notation, as I was an electric bass player at the time.

During my time at Berklee, I began working as session musician, and on recorded project, plus I played in cover bands and bands playing original music. I went to countless rehearsals and performances. Do you know how many times I was asked to read standard notation for bass or guitar?

None. Not once.

I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 where I performed with, auditioned for, wrote and recorded with all types of musicians in many different style of music, including rock, folks, jazz, blues, funk and pop. Do you know how many times I was asked to read standard notation as a professional musician in LA?

None. Not once.

I invite you to consider your goals for guitar playing and review this handy checklist to decide if learning to read standard notation is required for you!

Ready to start your guitar learning journey? Contact us for a free introductory lesson!

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