How to Read Guitar Sheet Music

Knowing how to read music is one of the best ways to learn how to play a song on the guitar. Depending on the style of guitar you want to play, reading guitar sheet music is a necessity. While some musicians go their whole lives without reading music, relying on playing by ear, it is much easier for beginners to learn when they understand sheet music. Lucky for beginner guitar players, there are three different ways to write music for the guitar. We will look at those three types here and discuss which style is best for you.

Standard Notation

The first writing style we will cover is standard notation. This is what you are most likely to see in any given sheet music book. It is the more formal way of writing music for guitars and other instruments. In order to understand this style of notation you will need to learn the music notes and scales. For guitar, notes will be placed on either a line or a space, telling you which note to play.

Because this is a more formal notation style, it may be more difficult for beginners who lack any previous music knowledge. Below is an example of standard notation. For comparison there is also the same music written in TAB format, which we will cover next.

guitar music standard notation

Guitar TABs

The next type of notation for the guitar is called TAB. TAB stands for tablature and uses numbers and lines on the scale instead of notes (like in standard notation). The numbers on guitar TABs correspond to frets, where as the lines correspond to the strings you need to play. TABs may also include different symbols dictating different guitar techniques, like slides or palm muting. 

TABs are useful for beginners who may struggle with standard notation as it is a more visual way of learning to read music. What’s even more useful for beginners is that TABs can often include rhythm notation so you can time your notes and rests correctly. Refer back to the sheet music example above. Notice the differences in guitar TABs and standard notation.

Chord Diagram

The third way to write guitar music is with chord diagrams. Chords are the building blocks of any guitar song. To play a chord, you need to hold down certain strings on specific frets. Because chord diagrams are visual representations of the hand positioning you will need to make, they are great for beginners. 

As you can see from this example of a chord diagram, the diagram shows a section of the neck of a guitar. Note the 6 strings of the guitar as well as the shaded circles. Those circles tell you which strings to hold down with your fingers. The X’s and O’s at the top of the diagram signify which strings to strum (and which to avoid) as you maintain the proper hand position. Once familiar with chord diagrams you can play any song, even if you can’t read standard notation or guitar TABs.

guitar music chord diagram

Which Is Right For Me?

With three different options for reading and writing guitar music, how do you know which notation style is right for you? The answer is, it depends! If you are a more visual learner, it may make more sense to start with chord diagrams. If you are coming into guitar practice with some basic music knowledge, standard notation may be more appropriate. TABs are great for working your way up to standard notation. 

Summary – How to Read Guitar Sheet Music

Ultimately, select the notation that works best for you and your learning style. If you are working with a guitar teacher, talk to them about the various notation styles and maybe try them all out. Do what makes the most sense for you and remember to keep practicing!

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