The average guitarist is a very different type of musician for a number of reasons. One reason is that, unlike a saxophone or piano player, they’re usually not formally trained and many of them can’t read Western standard notation at all. The vast majority of them rely on tablature instead.
It’s not uncommon for other musicians to think of guitarists as somewhat amateur because of this fact, although, that’s just an opinion I’ve seen around the web. Either way, all of this has people wondering why guitarists can’t read music, unlike piano players who almost always know how to read music, and they can usually read it well.
The reason why guitarists don’t know how to read music is they don’t need to because of the widespread availability of tablature and movable chord shapes. This means many of the songs they want to learn how to play don’t necessitate learning standard notation at all.
There are many other reasons why guitarists don’t know how to read music, and we’ll explore all of them in this article. Although a guitar player’s musical illiteracy may annoy many other types of musicians, guitarists simply don’t need to know how to read music even though there’s no doubt it would certainly help them. With all that said, let’s talk about some of the other reasons now.
The Main Reasons Why Guitarists Can’t Read Music
1) Guitarists Don’t Need To Read Sheet Music To Play
One of the main reasons guitarists don’t know how to read music as I said earlier, is that they don’t need to. If you think of the most common chords which are the chords of C Major – ie, A Minor, C Major, G Major, and D Minor – none of these chords necessitate learning how to read music.
A guitarist can simply look up the shapes of these chords online and then learn how to finger them on their own (you can also figure out how they’re named too with my guide). Incredibly helpful and free platforms like Guitar Tricks teach stuff like this as well.
Additionally, many guitar teachers wouldn’t start with learning standard notation, because chord shapes are motivating enough to keep their students interested.
That said, there is a lot more to learn than just simple chord shapes. The point being made here is that learning standard notation isn’t necessary to learn basic chords which are often enough to be a singer-songwriter.
Whereas if you were to learn how to play the piano, understanding how the notes look on the bass and treble clef would be taught almost immediately.
2) Tablature Is Much Easier to Learn
The next reason I consider the second most important is that tablature is just infinitely easier to read than sheet music.
All of the frets of the instrument are notated with numbers that every person understands, and the fundamentals of tablature can be taught in just a few hours and then learned over a few days, compared to standard notation which could take a decade to master.
As I briefly stated earlier, even for myself, I use tablature nearly 100% of the time because it’s just way easier to learn. Not only that but programs like Guitar Pro 8 (on my Product Page) allow you to slow down the piece to 10% of normal speed if you want to learn at super slow speed.
Or you could adjust it for 90% and learn it at that speed. Guitar Pro 7.5 has helped me learn some of my favourite pieces that I’m not entirely sure I would’ve bothered to learn otherwise.
It’s worth stating that tablature can often be drawn in a more nuanced way as well, for instance, rhythm can be notated in a way that borrows heavily from traditional Western notation. However, there are serious advantages of using standard notation we’ll touch on in a minute.
3) There Is More Tablature For Popular Songs Than Sheet Music Online
The next reason, which honestly could be the second or even the most important, is that there is a massive library of amateur transcriptions uploaded on the internet. All over the internet, there exists tablature for guitarists, even for songs that aren’t popular or well-known by the general public.
The vast majority of this tablature can be found on places like Ultimate-Guitar and other similar websites, and the majority of it is completely free to access. Additionally, the aforementioned Guitar Pro files can also be accessed here.
4) Amateur Guitarists Can Transcribe Songs And Upload Them Online
Related to the last point, part of what makes the guitar so easy to play is the existence of tablature and the fact this tablature is hosted online for free.
Very talented guitarists from all over the world have transcribed songs just by slowing them down and listening to them, learning note by note, writing them down, and sharing them with the rest of us.
Simply put, a lot of your favourite songs have been transcribed and uploaded to ultimate-guitar and other websites.
They don’t need to be purchased from a store or bought online as sheet music. That said, traditional sheet music is available for free as well on the internet, but not in the same way as for popular, mainstream music, that’s played on the guitar.
5) The Same Notes Exist In Different Spots on the Guitar
Because the same notes exist on different parts of the guitar, it’s also much harder to learn sheet music.
I remember when I took lessons as a boy, I asked my teacher how to tell the difference between notes played at the 12th fret and the 1st fret, as the notes are the same. He told me that you had to use context.
The E at the 2nd fret of the D string is the same as the 7th fret on the A string, although, the timbre and tonality is slightly different.
A guitarist has to infer from the way the notes are organized at what position they should play. So if the note is played at the 7th fret of the A string, it’s probable that the notes that follow will be at the 5th position, and not played at the 1st position.
Additionally, the E at the top of the treble clef staff is not the same as the E on the 3rd ledger line below the staff.
If an E is notated below the staff on the ledger lines, you can bet that it’s not played at the 12th fret. So it can be figured out, but a guitarist has to figure this out on their own. It’s not notated.
However, in some cases, Roman numerals are added to indicate at what position the piece is played, although, these Roman numerals aren’t always there as it depends on who transcribed it.
6) Sheet Music Is Harder to Read As a Guitarist
And because it’s not notated as clearly, it’s just a lot harder for a guitarist to learn how to use sheet music. It’s one of the reasons why I said in my other guide that piano can be more difficult.
As I write this blog, it reminds me that I should practice reading music again because it can be quite a bit of fun. It is hard though.
One of the many reasons that it’s harder, other than the existence of the same notes at different parts of the neck, is that standard notation isn’t built to notate many of the qualities that are seen in guitar-focused and guitar-created music.
7) Standard Notation Doesn’t Notate Rock Music Very Well
And that brings me to my next point, which is that standard notation doesn’t rotate rock music very well. There simply isn’t a way to notate some of the things that are used in rock music, although, many attempts have been made, some more successful than others.
One good example of notation done right is the use of up-strokes and down-strokes. The order of upstrokes and downstrokes on the guitar can be notated on sheet music and it’s done through arrows pointing downward and upward.
Another good example is the use of a wah-wah pedal. Sheet music can be drawn up in a way where the opening and closing of a wah pedal is notated above the staff. If I recall correctly, it’s done with a ‘+’ and ‘-‘ sign.
On the other hand, if you wanted to designate things like distortion, guitar tonality, effects units, or even timing, then guitar tablature falls short, although, there exists more advanced tablature that includes timing. However, I can’t imagine there is a way to notate a band like The Dillinger Escape Plan or Botch.
There is a chaotic nature to some heavier music that seems like it would be nearly impossible to notate with traditional notation methods.
8) Guitarists Are Commonly Self-Taught
All of these factors play into how guitarists are commonly self-taught as well. You don’t need an instructor to learn how to play guitar because of the existence of tablature, online tutorials, free-to-try platforms like JamPlay, and other things that are created as a result of the sheer popularity of the guitar.
Because many guitarists don’t need to read sheet music, they can teach themselves how to play using information online, and then they can also become teachers as well. This brings me to my next point.
9) You Don’t Need To Read Music To Be A Guitar Teacher
A guitar teacher who can’t read music is a possibility, and it may even be quite common. This would be essentially unheard of as a piano teacher, on the other hand.
In other words, it’s like a guitarist’s inability to learn how to read music is a self-perpetuating system in the sense that guitarists who don’t know how to read music become teachers, and then those guitarists also become teachers and the cycle goes on and on.
10) Guitarists Have To Learn Non-Rock Music to Learn Standard Notation
The final reason why guitarists don’t know how to learn standard notation is that much of the material they want to learn is not the “classics,” to put it one way. The average teenage guitarist doesn’t care to learn “Autumn Leaves” or “Moonlight Sonata” or other standards.
They want to learn how to play their favourite rock songs, and their favourite pop songs, they want to learn how to play the licks in some of their favourite hip-hop beats.
Many of these songs don’t have sheet music for them or if they do, they have to be bought officially from a store, either online or in person.
And this issue extends far beyond just rock music as well. Many songs haven’t been transcribed as sheet music at all, however, you could easily find the tab for it on ultimate-guitar or any other website that hosts guitar tablature like guitartabs.cc.
Can You Play Guitar Without Reading Music?
If you’ve gone through the whole post, you already know the answer to this question. But I think it’s worth re-stating once again in more lucid terms.
You can learn to play guitar without reading music because you can learn every guitar chord without knowing standard notation and you can also learn how to play any song with tablature. Some tablature even has timing notation like traditional sheet music.
Important Things to Note About Tablature vs Sheet Music
1) There Are Advantages To Both Tablature and Standard Notation
I wrote this in my last article, but I’m hardly an “either/or” person. I think there are great advantages to learning both tablature and sheet music because they both have unique strengths.
The first one off the top of my head is that understanding standard notation means you have the means to learn any other instrument. It’s a universally used musical language that all other instruments use.
If you wanted to learn how to play the saxophone and you know how to read standard notation on the guitar, learning to play the saxophone at that point is mostly just mastering the techniques rather than having to start all over with a new transcription and notation system.
I think learning both is the right move.