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Reading at Sight

[A Practical guide for Guitarists]

By Raymond Burley

Almost from the outset it's essential for the classical guitarist to be able to read music. There are other styles of guitar playing where it could be considered less important ­even unnecessary although almost certainly there will be times when the ability to read music would be an advantage. Several playing styles utilise forms of tablature (TAB) but these rely on the music notation running parallel to provide a guide to the rhythm and, occasionally, left hand fingerings.

Unfortunately there is no magic wand when it comes to improving sight-reading; what I'm attempting to do here is point you in the right direction by offering tips and advice.

What is sight-reading?

Sight-reading is the process of interpreting music 'at sight' - that is, without any form of preparation.

Is the ability to sight-read really necessary?

There are many factors that contribute to a guitarist becoming a 'complete' musician, the more obvious being: a reliable technique, good aural perception, quality of tone; I believe the ability to sight-read should also be placed in this category. The term 'sight reading' can strike terror in the hearts of guitarists but it has a number of benefits, these include: substantially reducing the time it takes to learn a new piece and, in an ensemble situation, enabling guitarists to be on more equal terms with other instrumentalists. A poor standard of sight-reading can result in producing incorrect notes, inaccurate rhythms and it can be the cause of a player becoming frustrated or bored with a piece before it has been fully learnt.

It is often said that guitarists are generally much poorer sight-readers than, for example, orchestral players. It's easy for us to make excuses for this, such as: guitarists (unlike most orchestral instrumentalists) are required to play chords and a melody, bass line and accompaniment simultaneously, or guitarists' hands have different functions when playing, or they have what might be considered a rather unsympathetic playing posture. However, one of the most frequent excuses given is: Sight-reading on the guitar is difficult as many note pitches are duplicated in different areas of the fingerboard. Although initially this might seem like a stumbling block it will eventually make sight-reading on the instrument much more fluent. While, to a certain extent, these excuses are valid, I would have to say: if you chose the guitar as your instrument you must also accept the potential obstacles that go with it. Professional orchestral players are good sight-readers; they are performing new music regularly (and often in different styles) so this aspect of their musicianship is continually being challenged. Unless a guitarist includes sight-reading as a regular part of a practice regime, the relative standards of playing and sight-reading will quickly drift further and further apart.

I am of the opinion that many teachers, and indeed tutor books, introduce polyphonic (multi layered) music too soon in a student's development. Even though an additional 'voice' might consist of little more than the occasional open string bass note this can be enough to create problems for, not only music reading, but also for coordination and technique. At the beginner level it is essential to be able to produce a rhythmic, well shaped and phrased musical line before moving on to attempting any form of accompaniment.

A practical guitar examination will usually include a sight-reading test. There are valuable marks to be gained or lost in this section and this will, of course, have a bearing on the total mark or possibly whether the exam is passed or failed. The examiners in these types of tests are rarely guitar specialists; they are usually orchestral players and could be less than generous when it comes to awarding marks in this area. I feel it makes little sense to work hard on the pieces, scales and aural tests in an attempt to achieve good marks only to lose a percentage of these through poor sight-reading.

Some players will attempt to memorise the music they're playing as quickly as possible and although memorising music is not a bad thing it's often used as a means of monitoring the movements of the left hand fingers more closely, consequently incorrect notes or rhythms can easily go unnoticed. A danger of using music when a piece is partially memorised is that, when a mistake is made in performance, it may prove difficult to locate the relevant passage in the music when trying to get back on track.

Some might argue that a good standard of sight-reading is unnecessary as a guitarist who is a poor sight-reader can take as long as he or she likes to learn a new piece or, in the extreme, an entire concert repertoire. This is certainly true but it also means there will always be a large portion of the repertory that remains unexplored. One of the joys of playing a musical instrument is trying out new music and periodically refreshing or enlarging your repertoire.

Can anyone become a good sight-reader?

I am of the opinion that any guitarist can become a competent sight-reader although, in my experience, players who have quicker reactions to everyday circumstances often prove to be better sight-readers simply because they are able to assimilate the requirements faster. Quick, accurate anticipation and identification of the impending rhythms, chords, fingerings and dynamics is required. Those who have slower reactions can still make a significant improvement in this area -with the right training.

How can sight-reading be improved?

It's very easy for a guitar teacher to say to a pupil, {{Your sight-reading is poor, go away and work on it". This is all well and good, but how? Handing a pile of music to a pupil and suggesting they play through it may seem like a good idea but the teacher should not be surprised if when the pupil arrives for the next lesson there is little, or no, improvement. When wading through numerous pages of music it can feel as you are making progress but ultimately it can prove to be a total waste of time and effort. One should bear in mind that finding the correct notes alone does not constitute sight reading the rhythms must be interpreted correctly also. Eventually dynamics and articulation must be included also.

The first step to improving a poor sight-reading standard is admitting it's inadequate and this is not always an easy thing to do. Next, you need to establish why: is it slow or inaccurate note-finding, are the rhythms not understood? It could, of course, be both. If this is the case it's essential to isolate and work on one aspect at a time. If, each time you practise, a short period is devote to sight-reading exercises the standard should improve very rapidly. If your time with the instrument is limited you may begrudge spending valuable minutes on what you might consider to be the 'non-essentials' but, believe me, a huge amount of time will be saved in the long run.

Remember also that once your sight-reading reaches a good standard it is important to continue working to maintain the level and hopefully improve it further.


A guitar teacher will often stress that, when sight-reading, maintaining the rhythm is more important than playing all the correct notes this is sound advice. So, if the rhythms are the most important aspect of sight-reading why then do I suggest beginning with note-finding? The answer is simple; the rhythm provides the deadlines to arrive at notes and, when sight-reading, you may encounter a note or chord that you are unable to find in time, consequently the pulse is lost. It can be very tempting to go back and correct an error than occurred. Avoid doing this at all costs as time doesn't stand still and certainly doesn't go backwards. If you were playing in an orchestra or ensemble it would be unrealistic to expect the other players to stop and wait for you to catch up.

Unlike the piano keyboard, where there is a clearly recognisable pattern of white and black notes, the frets on the guitar fingerboard all look very similar. Many guitars have position dots located on the upper edge of the fingerboard; if your guitar does not have these you may find it helpful to add a tiny drop of correction fluid or sticky paper at the 5th or 7th fret as a visual aid to left hand accuracy.


We can begin by choosing a landmark note. I suggest E as a number of them can be found in the low to middle positions of the fingerboard. If you are a player of less than intermediate standard it will be a waste of valuable time learning the notes above the 12th fret. Judge the required range by the notes encountered in the more advanced pieces in your repertoire. Notes should always be identified by their letter names rather than simply fret positions the reason for this will become apparent very shortly.

Find all the Es: the ones shown below include those up to, and including, the 1st fret. Don't move on until you are able to locate them quickly and accurately. They will be found as follows:

1·         1st string: open and twelfth fret.

2·         2nd string: fifth fret.

3·         3rd string: tenth fret.

4·         4th string: second fret.

5·         5th string: seventh fret.

6·         6th string: open and twelfth fret.

Set a metronome to crotchet (quarter note) = 60, i.e. one beat per second and repeat  the open 1st string E exactly in time with the metronome -while you are doing this, think where a different E is found. Without interrupting the rhythm switch to the new note. The metronome provides you with a deadline to arrive at the next note. Think now where a further E is located, and so on. Avoid playing the notes in the same sequence each time. When the process is secure continue the exercise by repeating each E twice  before moving (thus giving yourself less thinking time), and then just once. You can, of
course, stretch yourself a little further by setting a quicker tempo. 

Once Es are secure, repeat the procedure using the note F-if you know where each E is found, F will be one fret (or one semitone) higher. As there are no open Fs, left hand position shifting will be a little trickier. Continue the exercise by choosing another note; it could E flat (D sharp), F sharp, perhaps G. Initially, the closer to the original landmark E note the better. Avoid taking on too many different pitches in a short space of time as the notes will quickly become confused and little will be achieved.

Fingerboard patterns

Fingerboard knowledge can be accelerated considerably when octave patterns are discovered and utilised, an example being two Fs: 1st string at the first fret and 4th string at the third fret -the notes are two frets apart. When the shape is moved one fret higher both notes will become F sharp, a further fret higher will be G and so on up the fingerboard. In other words, if the letter name of the higher note is known, the lower note will have the same letter name and vice versa. There are several other similar octave patterns:

     ·         C on the 2nd and 5th Strings

·         A on the 1st and 3rd Strings

·         F on the 4th and 6th Strings

·         E on the 2nd and 4th Strings


If the 1st and 6th strings are tuned to E, then both notes found at the first fret on these strings will be F, and so on along the fingerboard. I apologise if any of these points are obvious but, in my experience, some of these quite basic facts are often overlooked.

Once fingerboard knowledge is confident take a short, tuneful phrase and play it in as many different positions as possible up and down the fingerboard. To fix the phrase in your mind play it in 1st position before moving. You may find your chosen phrase can be played in one hand position on the fingerboard. Try also playing it with leaps in between each note. Take the exercise one stage further by deliberately playing each adjacent note on a different string. Initially this may appear to be an impossible task but with time and patience it should become possible reasonably quickly.

A further note-finding exercise is to play scales in this way. Try it with a C Major scale starting on the 5th string, then a G Major scale starting on the 6th string. Minor and chromatic scales can also be used, of course.

There are many published scale books on the market, including those linked to the various examination boards but unfortunately the featured scales are often overburdened with numbers: left hand fingering suggestions and position guiding Roman numerals. Although these are provided to help, what this means is that once the left hand is located at the correct starting fret the entire scale can be played by following the numbers with little or no thought as to the names of the notes being played.

The above exercises work well for anticipation as not only do you need to think of where the next note is found but also which left hand finger might be the most suitable to play it. The procedure could almost be compared to playing chess or snooker as it's not only the move you're making currently but what it leads to. Be aware of the fact that major and minor scales beginning on the 6th string will only work from G upwards as the low E, F and F sharp cannot be duplicated on any other string. Chromatic scales played in this way are generally trickier as they contain more notes and the notes are closer together. The lowest possible starting note is G sharp (A flat).

If everything has gone according to plan your knowledge of the fingerboard should by now be quite comprehensive.

page last modified 8th January 2015