Do you need to know how to read sheet music in order to play the guitar?

Do you think you need to know how to read sheet music in order to play guitar well? Maybe you read in a magazine or heard some other guitar player say that it is a MUST in order to be able to play the guitar the way you want to. Or perhaps, you heard the exact opposite…that there will ever be an instance ever in your guitar playing life where you will need to know how to read sheet music. Well, what’s the truth?

The truth is that the objective of learning to read sheet music for guitar is totally dependent on your goals as a guitar player. Think about it like this…if you are trying to become a guitar player who specializes in writing folk style campfire songs, would you spend your time trying to learn 2 hand tapping and playing sweep arpeggios with diminished chords? Of course not! Learning how to read sheet music is the same thing. It depends on what your goals are.

Let’s look at some cold hard truths.

1) Learning to read sheet music for guitar is pretty damn difficult. You have to know ALL of the notes on the fretboard. You have to know how to read the rhythmic notation. You have to know how to what notes go on lines and what notes go on spaces. You have to know key signatures (what notes are in what keys). You have to know time signatures. Then….you have to put ALL of that together in addition to paying attention to your technique. To say that it is a long process is quite the understatement.

2) Learning how to read sheet music will totally make you a better guitar player and overall musician. If you are able to master sight-reading sheet music, you can actually “see” music. If you ever wondered how someone who is deaf is able to compose music, they are more often than not very well versed in music theory and can read sheet music. In addition to feeling the vibrations of their instrument, they can actually see the music. This is obviously massively beneficial to all musicians. It will help develop your ear, improve your creativity, make communicating with other musicians easier, and make it easier to learn other instruments.

But…is it for everybody?

Here is a list of types of guitar players who should totally learn to read sheet music…followed by a list of people who would be best served focusing on other areas.

Guitar players who want to go to college to study music

If you are thinking about going to college to study composition or performance, than you better believe that you are going to be seeing a whole bunch of sheet music. Sight reading proficiency is usually part of entrance exams to music schools, so it is crucial that you know how to read it and read it well.

Guitar players who want to become session musicians

If your goal is to work as a professional session guitar player, either in the studio or on tour, it would be wise to know how to sight read sheet music to a good degree of proficiency. While not all instances of session work require being able to read sheet music, it’s a situation where it would be better to be able to do it and not need it than to need it but not be able to do it.

Advanced guitar players who want to take their musicianship to the next level

If you are already pretty proficient at the guitar and want to kick it up a notch, then learning to read sheet music will definitely open up new doors for you. What do I mean by “pretty proficient?” I would say if you already know all of the notes on the fretboard memorized inside and out, if you know all positions of the pentatonic scale, the major scale and all of the modes, can play any chord in multiple different voicings, have a good grasp on your playing technique (you can play consistently clean and at around 500 notes per minute), and have a remedial understanding of music theory, than I would say you are ready to learn how to read sheet music.

Now…here’s a list of guitar players who don’t really need to learn to read sheet music.

Beginner guitar players

If you have never played guitar before or if you are still relatively new to the guitar, than starting out with reading sheet music is 100% completely unnecessary. Guitar is hard enough as it is…don’t make it harder on yourself. There are literally hundred’s of other things that you need to be working on before you need to worry about reading sheet music. Develop the core skills first and then, if it aligns with your goals, start learning how to read sheet music.

Guitar players who are just looking to play for fun/their own enjoyment

There is absolutely nothing wrong with just wanting to be able to player guitar for your own enjoyment. There is nothing wrong with not trying to become an elite, virtuoso guitar player. I teach a lot of adult guitar players that have families, jobs, and other obligations that turn to guitar as a means of relaxation and fun. They just want to mess around and become better but understand that they don’t have the time and burning desire to become a virtuoso. That’s perfectly OK and players in this group need not worry about having to learn how to read sheet music. Again, there are hundreds of other things that you would be best served working on that will make you happier with your playing.

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