Guitar Technique Tip of the Month

Your Personal Guitar Lesson

Douglas Niedt

Question: "How do you get a guitarist to be quiet?"
Answer: "Put a piece of sheet music in front of him."

How to improve YOUR sight-reading.

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Classical Guitar Technique:


By Douglas Niedt

Copyright Douglas Niedt. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reprinted, but please be considerate and give credit to Douglas Niedt.

This article is being revised. Please check back later.

There is an unfortunate joke out there that goes like this:

Question: "How do you get a guitarist to be quiet?"
Answer: "Put a piece of sheet music in front of him."

Yes, it's funny. Yes, it hurts. And it's unfortunate because it's true much of the time. Many guitarists are poor sight-readers. In a musical world where the guitar is still not always respected as a "legitimate" instrument, Iím sometimes embarrassed when colleagues who play other instruments tell me they tried to play chamber music with this or that guitarist (sometimes well-known guitarists!) but found it frustrating or impossible because the guitarist couldn't read well enough.

Or, closer to home, Iíve had students at the Conservatory of Music, University of Missouri, who simply couldnít keep up with the demands of our guitar program, because it took them half of the semester to learn the notes and rhythms of their pieces. This left little time to really master the details and interpretation of the pieces.


Most musicians recognize the obvious importance of sight-reading in areas of the profession such as accompanying, teaching, ensemble playing, and radio, television, and film studio work. But what about the amateur guitarist, or the guitarist who aspires to be a solo performer? Of what value is sight-reading to them?

Faster and More Efficient Mastery of Pieces

The ability to sight-read gives a guitarist fluency. It makes the journey of learning a new piece so much easier and efficient. It shouldn't be a battle to learn the notes and rhythms of a new piece of music!

It is essential that a guitarist be able to read well enough to begin playing a piece from ANY point. In every new piece there is always a chord change, a rhythm, a scale, an effect, a new technique, a difficult measure or part of a measure that requires specialized repetitious practice.

For example, if the difficulty is changing from chord "x" to chord "y" in the middle of the piece, the student who can't read well often has to back up several measures to figure out where he is. If wants to practice the chord change twenty times, imagine the amount of time he wastes having to also play the several measures leading up to the change (which he may play perfectly well). If his reading skills were up to par, he would be able to start immediately at the difficult spot, work the chord change, and not waste time practicing measures he already knows. In a piece that has many such spots to practice (and that would be the norm), the poor reader wastes an unbelievable amount of time practicing material that he can already play.

Let's look at the following example from an Andante by Fernando Sor:

Ex. #1

If the part that needs practice is measure twenty-eight into measure twenty-nine, then the obvious segment to practice is:

Ex. #2

But instead, the unskilled reader will have difficulty figuring out where that spot is and unfortunately, will start at the beginning of the line!

Imagine a student driver trying to learn to parallel park a car. He finds a place on a street with an empty parking place. All he really needs to do is practice pulling into the space over and over until he gets the hang of it. But instead, the automotive version of a bad music sight-reader decides to drive around the block after each attempt to pull into the parking space. Or at the extreme, the student driver decides to drive home, park the car in the garage, and then goes out to find the same parking space and practice pulling into it again. Over and over! The poor music reader is doing the same thing when he has to back up several measures or more every time to practice his chord change. Obviously, thatís a very bad waste of time, expense, and energy.

Good Reading Skill Results in Better Guitar Lessons

In a lesson or master class, if your teacher says, "Let's start here," you need to be able to read well enough to begin reading from "here" and know exactly where "here" is. Having to back up to the beginning of a section, line, page, etc. wastes a lot of time, not to mention your money. Try this: take out a piece of music you are learning. Close your eyes and randomly point to a spot on the page. Keep your finger on the music, open your eyes, and begin playing from the spot your finger is pointing at. If you can't play immediately from that point, you have weak reading skills.

It's hard to over emphasize how much more efficiently you will practice and how much more you will accomplish in your lessons or a master class if your sight-reading is really good.

Good Sight-reading Ability Provides Access to More Music

On another level, good sight-reading skills provide access and familiarity to a wide variety of literature that we otherwise might not get to know. Yes, we can listen to recordings to hear unfamiliar literature, but not all the good or interesting literature is recorded. There are hundreds of brilliant compositions waiting to be discovered. In fact, for the guitarist aspiring to be a concert performer, it is almost imperative that he find music that has not been recorded to help establish his own artistic profile and personality. The good sight-reader has an open door to a broad acquaintance with a wide range of music. Those guitarists interested in transcribing music will find the ability to sight-read a wonderful gift. It will save time in finding suitable works to transcribe and make the process of transcription quicker, more accurate, more efficient, and more enjoyable. It will also open up more creative possibilities and resolutions to technical problems in the transcription process.

Good Sight-reading Skill Will Enable You to Discover the Meaning of a Piece Within a Greater Context

Finally, on yet another level, extensive sight-reading will introduce many new technical, stylistic, and interpretive experiences that will contribute directly to the artistic grasp of the pieces selected for more formal study. Thanks to this wealth of experience, one may study a particular fugue or sonata not in isolation, but in relation to the whole literature of fugues or sonatas.

Vladimir Horowitz, perhaps the greatest pianist of the twentieth century, once said in an interview:

"This year I play two pieces of Faure. First of all, I studied the whole composer. I play everything he wrote. Ensemble music, everything, I play myself--not listen to recordings. Records are not the truth. They are like post cards of a beautiful landscape. You bring the post cards home so when you look at them you will remember how beautiful is the truth. So I play. I'm a very good sight-reader. The texture of the music talks to me, the style. I feel the music, the spiritual content of his compositions."

Yes, feeling the style of the music and the spiritual content can only be experienced by playing it, not by listening to records. Like Horowitz, I believe the concert guitarist cannot truly feel and understand the style and content of say, Bach's Lute Suite No. 4 without also studying, at the very least, the other three Lute Suites and their alternate versions for unaccompanied violin and cello.

What About Great Musicians Who Canít Read Music?

Those of you who are reading this article who can also play styles of music other than classical, may say, "Wait a minute. Some of the greatest jazz, pop or rock musicians can't even read music, let alone sight-read. But they're great artists. Maybe learning to sight-read isn't really that important."

My answer is that those artists have a fantastic natural ability to play by ear. We also have to acknowledge that those styles of music are very different from classical, and are learned and studied differently too. But my bottom line answer is why not be able to play by ear AND be able to read well? There are good sight-readers who can't play by ear. That's no good either. I have also heard it said that reading music stifles the creative ability or hinders learning to play by ear. That is absolutely untrue. It seems to me the ideal goal is to develop a great ear AND good sight-reading ability. Have the best of both worlds.

So what is the best way to learn or improve your sight-reading? That's easy: READ, READ, READ. The prescription for learning to sight-read is to sight-read. One need not practice reading for hours every day. Just ten minutes daily every day will result in tremendous improvement in one month.


You Have To Know Your Notes

To start, you should already know the notes on all six strings from the first through the twelfth fret. Although you could learn the notes as you work on your sight-reading, it's best if you already know them.

1. First, work vertically, naming the notes on each string from open to the 12th fret and then backwards. Here is the fourth string:

Ex. #3

2. On each string, one string at a time, pick frets at random and name the notes. For example, on the fourth string: Second fret=E. Fifth fret=G. Ninth fret=B. Fourth fret=F#.

3. Then, name a note at random (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) and find the fret where it's located. For example, again on the fourth string: A=seventh fret. F=third fret. C=tenth fret. B=ninth fret.

4. Next, work horizontally: pick a fret at random and name the notes at that fret from the 6th string to the 1st string and back to the 6th. Concentrate particularly on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th, and 10th frets. For instance, the next example shows the notes across the seventh fret:

Ex. #4

5. Find all the octaves and unisons. Name a note at random and find that note on every string within the first 12 frets. For example, here are all the B's:

Ex. #5

6. It's also valuable to write out the notes on manuscript paper. When you do the exercises in the previous paragraphs, write out the notes! You need to make the connection between fretboard and paper. Knowing that the fourth string at the seventh fret is an "A" won't improve your music reading if you don't know where that "A" is on the staff.

To improve your knowledge of the fretboard, also check out the Learn the Guitar Fretboard trainer and Note Trainer here on my website.

After you are secure in your knowledge of the fretboard and where the notes are on the staff, begin by sight-reading fairly elementary single-line melodies. The goal is to be able to read any single-line melody in any position of the guitar. A position is a four-fret span. The number of the position is determined by the fret number that the left-hand first finger plays:

Ex. #6

Ex. #7

Ex. #8

Sight-reading is best done in positions, which minimizes shifting and having to look at the left hand. We want to keep our eyes on the music as much as possible.

Recommended Book and Music to Practice Sight-reading.
Also, What Books NOT To Use

There are many sight-reading books out there. But most of them have a serious flaw. The exercises in the books are written by the author of the book. The problem is that you have no idea what the melody you are playing is supposed to sound like. And here you are, trying to read it in the middle and upper positions of the fretboard, an unfamiliar area compared to the first or second position. You could be playing it entirely wrong or be making some serious errors and not realize it, because you are unfamiliar with this unknown (and often unmusical) tune the writer/composer of the book has written.

Instead, I highly recommend a book titled Mel Bay's Deluxe Guitar Position Studies by Roger Filiberto, published by Mel Bay Publications. This book uses many common, well-known melodies like Home on the Range, America, Auld Lang Syne, Down in the Valley, etc. Therefore, if the student is sight-reading Home on the Range in the unchartered territory of ninth position, if he messes up, he will realize it. There is some danger that students who play well by ear will play songs like this without really reading the music. But if they name the notes out loud as they play, the note-reading aspect will be preserved. The book goes through the entire fretboard beginning with second position and working up through ninth position. The pieces selected present a good mix of rhythmic challenges as well. The only minus to the book is that possibly too much left-hand fingering is given, resulting in some students sight-reading fingerings instead of notes.

Another path to take is to sight-read beginning method books for single-voice instruments such as violin, clarinet, etc. Beginning violin methods are easily found in music libraries and some public libraries. They can also be purchased. But remember, weíre sight-reading. Once you have read through a book once or twice, you wonít use it again. Buying music to sight-read could get expensive. Pop "fake books" are okay, but the songs can sometimes be too rhythmically complex for the beginning sight-reader.