The Difficulties of Reading Music on Guitar (And Helpful Resources For It)

While much of this article is targeted at guitar players, musicians on any instrument are encouraged to check out these resources!


A Common Problem

Of all the obstacles guitarists face, one of the most ubiquitous stumbling blocks is learning to read musical notation. In particular, sight-reading can feel like an impossible task! Where do you put each note? How do you connect all the lines? How do you deal with slip ups?

It may seem obvious (and understandably frustrating), but the best way to get better at reading is by reading. Sight-reading is simply a highly-accelerated form of regular reading: it engages pretty much all of the same processes and knowledge. The difference is that your brain becomes a perpetual motion machine while you sight-read, constantly finishing one task and moving to the next without pausing.

Before we get started: if you're completely new to reading music, don't worry! It's not difficult to learn what things mean. There are a variety of resources on the Internet that can quickly get you started playing notated music on the guitar. The entire process boils down to looking at the musical staff, seeing what note is indicated, and translating that into a fret position on the guitar. I'll be posting a few resources to that effect very soon!

The Process: Divide and Conquer

It can seem incredibly daunting to jump right into a full-on piece of music and "just read". To that end, splitting up your tasks and working on each one independently can be hugely beneficial. There are two main things you're after when you (sight-)read: getting the rhythms right, and getting the notes right. There are also a few sub-goals: maintaining focus, staying ahead of the music, proper technique and tone, and awareness of your musical environment.

If you're brand new to sight-reading, I would strongly suggest visiting Jesse Clark's From here, navigate to the Rhythm page. You'll see a short excerpt appear. Check out the controls along the bottom of the page, and play around with them for a bit to see what changes you can affect.

To get started, you'll want to pick a single note on the guitar to play (an open string might be a good start). That string is your entire instrument for now. Set your metronome and play just that one note, reading down each exercise and moving on to the next.

During sight-reading practice, the absolute most important thing to remember is not to stop to correct mistakes. It may seem counter-intuitive, but playing "all the right notes" is very much a secondary goal. At the early stages of learning this process, you need to develop your brain's ability to look ahead and start digesting the musical information that's coming up.

Start with your metronome at a slow, comfortable tempo. You should be going slow enough that you're not struggling to catch notes as they come up, but not so slow that you lose a sense of where the beat is. 35 bpm might be too slow, but if you're just starting, 140 bpm is almost guaranteed to be too challenging. It's up to you and your teacher (if that's someone other than you!) to find that comfort zone. You'll work your way up from here--probably much more quickly than you might think.

Where do you look while you play? Your sheet of music is of the utmost importance: it's tough to read ahead when you're looking at the note you're in the middle of playing, or when you're looking at the guitar. Try to stay ahead of what you're playing now. Start developing a resistance to the urge to look or think elsewhere; stay focused on the music that's coming up.

As you start to feel the exercises get easier, increase the metronome tempo little by little. Keep things challenging, but don't overwhelm--if you find yourself missing more than a few notes, go ahead and back the tempo down a few notches. The more patient you are with the process, the more reliable the outcome will be.

Onward and Upward

Once you start getting comfortable with reading just rhythms, it's time to branch out to melodies!

Even if you aren't much of a classical music fan, reading through classical guitar pieces can be very beneficial. Much of the repertoire was written by guitarists, for guitarists, and so contains a lot of logical fingerings, note patterns, chords, and the like. While it can definitely be fun and challenging to read music originally written for other instruments, you'll find that those pieces sometimes require out-of-the-box thinking in order to play certain lines and chords.

On guitar, knowing where to place a line can be daunting. Middle-register notes can have as many as four or five different positions! The most important thing to remember is that the entire line should be accessible from whatever position you choose. That usually means aiming for the middle of the neck for the lower-pitched strings, and the headstock side of the neck for the upper strings. While it's definitely a possibility that you'll need to move from here, these middle areas are a good starting point because they offer you the option of moving up or down as necessary as the piece progresses.

For pieces to play, I would highly recommend visiting Eythor Thorlaksson's Eythor's site contains hundreds (possibly thousands, by now) of pages of material for guitar players. His content includes original works as well as arrangements of important pieces in the classical guitar repertoire, and ranges in difficulty from beginner to advanced.

Beginners are encouraged to check out Eythor's Guitar Moment Collections. These super-accessible works include left and right hand fingering suggestions for classical players, although non-fingerstyle players are encouraged to consider his notes on left hand position and fingering.

The Petrucci Music Library (or International Music Score Library Project) is another fantastic resource for those seeking free material. The IMSLP is an enormous collection of the world's public domain music. The pieces here span nearly every genre, and range in date from the Medieval period up to contemporary works.


Rhythms First

  1. Go to Jesse Clark's
  2. Select a level (1 and 2 are recommended for beginners)
  3. Set your metronome to a manageable tempo--go as slow as you need to play correctly and comfortably
  4. Whatever you do, don't stop and correct any mistakes!

Add In Melodies

  1. Go to or the Petrucci Music Library
  2. Find a piece you feel confident you can learn (on Eythor's site, this a good start for beginners)
  3. If you need, only read the top line of a piece with multiple voices (two or more notes played at once)
  4. Set your metronome to a manageable tempo--go as slow as you need to play correctly and comfortably
  5. Again, don't stop and correct any mistakes! If you really enjoyed a piece, make a note of it's title/location, and you can revisit it later.

As You Play:

  • Try not to look at the guitar. Your eyes need to be focused on the upcoming music, and you need to ingrain the feeling of collections of notes and intervals under your fingers.
  • Similarly, don't look at the notes you're playing, look at what's coming. This is possibly the most important technique you're trying to develop.
  • While your main goal in sight-reading is getting the notes right, don't completely abandon technique and tone. Play slowly enough that you can still make nice sounds with the instrument.

As You Progress:

  • Gradually increase the metronome tempo
  • If you started with just the top voice of a multiple-voice piece, add in another (try adding the outer voices first, then add any inner voices)
  • Try not to revisit pieces daily. There isn't as much benefit to reading if you start falling back on a detailed memory of how to play a piece
  • Once more, don't stop and correct any mistakes! Get used to looking ahead, no matter what.


Sight-reading is definitely one of the most challenging hurdles for a guitarist to overcome, but it is certainly possible! Slow and steady wins the race here: even with just a few minutes of practice each day, you'll find that your ability to sight-read will jump by wide margins in a short time.

As always, feel free to comment below, and stay tuned for more!


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