Knowing how to read guitar sheet music is not all that common among modern guitarists. Many rely on guitar TAB and chord diagrams. While these are perfectly valid ways to learn and communicate with other guitar players, it isn’t the best way to communicate with other musicians who may not play guitar. 

If you learn how to read sheet music, “the classic way” on a notation staff, you can express ideas and music with any musicians who know how to read music. This is also a key skill to learn if you’re looking to play guitar in any kind of orchestral setting, like in the pit playing in the band for a Broadway play for example.

Furthermore, developing a basic understanding of how to read sheet music allows you to visualize music differently which in turn can help you with the orchestration aspect of music and performing. 

In this article, you will learn how to:

  • identify notes on a notation staff
  • read rhythm with four exercises to help you practice

If you’re interested in how to read guitar TAB, check out this blog post. Let’s dig in.

The difference between guitar TAB and sheet music

Guitar TAB is a guitar-specific system of music notation that’s much more straightforward than standard notation.

In the image below, we know exactly which fret to play on which string. TAB’s limitation comes in that it often provides little to no context about how notes should be played rhythmically.

Sheet music, on the other hand, is created for all instruments (including voice). Below is the same musical phrase as above. 

  • These few bars tell us a lot more about the musical piece itself. We know which notes to play (not just fret number), the rhythm, and the time signature. 
  • Even the harmony could’ve been written on the staff below. 

Sheet music can be read and understood by the guitarist, pianist, trumpet, bass player, etc. By knowing the notes and the key of the song, the rest of the band can work with this sheet music.

Learning how to read sheet music for guitar

There are two components to reading and understanding sheet music:

  • Identifying each note on the staff
  • Understanding the rhythm of these notes

The first thing we will take a look at here is how to identify the notes on the staff. Learning the notes is a matter of memorization. Further down we give you tips on how to make it easier to remember all the notes. 

What are we looking at in this picture?

There is a lot of information in this image, and some information is not literally disclosed to us. Here is what we are seeing:

  • Two bars (measures)
  • The notes on the staff
  • 8th notes
  • Time signature
  • Treble clef
  • Rest notes

Let’s dissect this a little bit.

You might’ve noticed three aspects regarding the notes on the staff.

  • There are notes on the lines, in between the lines, and even outside of the staff itself. 
  • The notes themselves are 8th notes, which we will discuss in greater detail below.
  • The notes that extend beyond the staff are written on ledger lines
  • The note is written either above, underneath, or through the ledger lines (such as C and A pictured above). 
  • As you can see we are told the time signature - 4/4, which is also known as common time.
  • There are different kinds of clefs used for different instruments, depending on their range. The guitar is notated on the treble clef 𝄞
  • Lastly, we also see two rest notes. They indicate the length of silence.

How to memorize the notes on the staff

There are two common acronyms used to help you memorize the notes on the staff. The notes in between the lines spell the word FACE if you start at the bottom.

The notes on the lines we can memorize by saying Every Good Boy Does Fine.

The next step is to understand the notes in the context of actual music. A prerequisite to reading sheet music is knowing scales and knowing the difference between natural notes, and sharp or flat notes.

Key signature 

The key of a piece of music is written on the staff in terms of how many flats or sharps are in a given key. 

In the first example, there is no mention of any flats or sharps, which would suggest we are in the key of C Major (or its relative minor key of A minor) because these two keys have no flats or sharps. This was a piece of information not literally disclosed to us, but it was still useful.

If we add one sharp, like this, we are in the key of G Major.

We are in the key of A major if there are three sharps written on the staff, and so on. 

How to read rhythm

This next section will cover the second aspect of learning how to read sheet music for beginners: rhythm. 

Only knowing which notes to play isn’t all that helpful unless you also know how to read the duration of the note.

Note duration

A musical phrase is made up of bars, also called measures.

  • One measure is made up of beats. 
  • How many beats you fit within one measure is indicated by the time signature. 
  • In 4/4 you can fit 4 beats in one bar. 
  • In 3/4 time one bar contains 3 beats, and so on.

Vertical lines indicate where a measure begins and ends.

Let’s start with the whole note. It has a value of four beats, meaning one whole note will last the entire duration of one measure.

Half notes have a value of two beats – half the length of the measure. In other words, you can fit two half notes inside one measure of four beats.

The process of dividing up the beats is called subdivision. The more we divide a beat, the more notes we can fit in one measure.

If we continue to subdivide we get quarter notes:

Quarter notes = one note per beat. This is normally how you count when you’re starting a song and want everyone to start at the same time. 

Dividing quarter notes in half will result in 8th notes:

… and then 16th notes.

Any beat smaller than a quarter note is often grouped with other smaller notes, as you can see. A single 8th and 16th note has a flag on its side. When grouped together the flags turn into connecting beams.

Scroll further for your first exercise!

Want to take the next step as a guitarist?

Reading Guitar Sheet Music - Exercise #1

A good place to start is clapping along to the rhythms below. 

  • The reason you want to clap, rather than play on your guitar is so that you won’t have to worry about the notes on the staff. 
  • Just focus on the rhythm and timing to start.

For a demonstration of this exercise, check the video below. You can find Jamey Arent’s demonstration of the exercise in the video linked below at the 2.51 mark.

It’s important to focus on the beat as you’re completing this exercise. To help you with this, you can even subdivide the counting. This will help you visualize where on the beat the note is. 

Rather than counting each beat separately, we can count every half beat instead. This is achieved by saying the word “and” in between the beats (the “and” is written as a plus sign).

You can subdivide even further when you’re working with 16th notes. 

With 16th notes, you can count it the following way: 1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a-4-e-and-a.

Subdividing the beats when you’re counting them helps you to better visualize where the notes land within a beat. This is especially useful when you’re dealing with quick rest notes, dotted notes, and overall interesting rhythmic patterns. 

Complete the measure

Before we go on, it’s crucial to know that a measure must always be complete. That means the value of the beats (decided by the time signature) must be contained within the measure. 

If you play only a half note in one measure, you must still have the value of another half note within that bar. If you want the rest of the bar to be silent, you can use a half-note rest. 

Musical rests

Naturally, you’re not playing on every single beat and every single subdivision of that beat when you are playing guitar. Interesting rhythms and good melodies leave gaps and rests in them. 

The resting notes (the notes that indicate silence on your part) also have value to them. They’re subdivided the same way as the beats we’ve just covered. Rests consist of whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, etc. 

Here are the symbols for each rest.

Whole-note rest

Half-note rest

Quarter-note rest

8th-note rest

16th-note rest

Reading Guitar Sheet Music - Exercise #2

Clap along to the rhythm below and incorporate the rest notes. Remember to subdivide the counting to mark the half-beat with a syllable.

Tip: If you are struggling keeping the rhythm, use an online metronome for help.

Dotted notes

  • The dot means the duration of the note it succeeds is longer than usual.
  • The dotted note is worth the value of the note, plus a half. In this case, we are talking about the dotted half note, which you see in the picture above
  • The half note has a value of two beats. The dot adds half that value to the note, which is one beat. That means the dotted half note is worth three beats. 

See if you can clap along to the rhythm with the dotted half-note included.

Reading Guitar Sheet Music - Exercise #3

In this exercise, you’ll clap along to a ¾ time signature, and we have included the dotted half note.

The names of all the notes still remain the same even though, technically, the quarter note doesn’t have a quarter-note value in ¾. 

  • The important thing to know is that the quarter note still gets the beat. 
  • You count it as 1 & 2 & 3 &.

16th notes

These notes have divided a beat until you can fit 16 notes inside one measure of 4/4. 

  • The 16th note has two flags on its stem, whereas the 8th note only has one. 
  • This is how you distinguish a 16th note from an 8th note.
Exercise #4

Once again, clap the rhythm below. Start at a slow tempo to keep up with the 16th notes and rests. Pay attention to where each note lands on the 1-e-and-a-2 subdivision.

Once you’re comfortable clapping the rhythms, try them again using your guitar. Pick one note and repeat all exercises.

Conclusion

When you’re learning how to read guitar sheet music, it’s crucial to remember that learning to read music for guitar is a journey. You’re essentially learning a new language. 

Learning how to read guitar sheet music is not the same as being able to sight read, which is a skill on its own. You’ll get there eventually, but for now, focus on basic rhythms, learn to recognize rhythmic and melodic patterns, and learn how to identify chords and notes on the notation staff. 

With time you’ll abandon subdivided counting and will develop an internal sense of how music is intended to be played when looking at sheet music. It will become part of your musical vocabulary.

A great exercise for getting comfortable with reading music is to transcribe it yourself. Pick a riff or a lick you know well and transcribe it on the staff. When you start implementing these into your real-life playing it will start to mix with your previous knowledge in a practical sense.

If you’re looking for guidance in your sheet music learning journey, check out our Sight Reading for Beginners Master Class – you can try it out wiht 14-day free trial to Pickup Music.