Can You Play Guitar Without Reading Music?

As a guitar teacher, I know how intimidating it can be to start learning guitar. The thought of learning how to read music puts off a lot of people.

If you’re wondering whether you can learn to play guitar without reading music, this guide is for you.

You can learn to play the guitar without reading music. A lot of guitarists can play guitar without reading music by learning to play by ear. Playing guitar by ear takes longer to learn and is hard in the beginning, but is possible to become an accomplished guitarist without reading music.

In this guide, I will go through the different ways you can learn to play guitar with or without reading music.

I’ll also explain why some guitarists don’t learn to read music and help you decide what is the best option for you.

If you want to learn how to read music, check out this visual guide on the different ways you can read music for guitar.

Why Some Guitarists Don’t Read Music

While reading music can help you learn to play songs faster, it the only way.

Some guitarists don’t read music because they have learned to play guitar by ear. They can listen to a song and figure out how to play what they have heard.

Guitarists who have learned to play by ear usually don’t see a need to learn to read music. Why bother reading dots on a page when they can listen to a song and immediately know what to play?

The big advantage of learning to play guitar by ear is that it helps you develop a fantastic sense of pitch that makes you a better musician.

Guitarists who can play by ear are able to jam along with anybody without having to ask what the key is or see some chord charts.

While I highly recommend beginners learn to read at least one type of written music, I also recommend guitarists try to learn to play by ear.

Find out how you can learn to play guitar by ear in this guide on ear training.

Famous Guitarists Who Can’t Read Music

Not being able to read music doesn’t mean you won’t be able to become a great guitarist. There are many amazing guitarists who can’t read music.

Here are some famous guitarists who can’t read music:

  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Eric Clapton
  • John Lennon (and the rest of The Beatles)
  • Elvis Presley
  • James Hetfield
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • B. B. King

You shouldn’t take the above list as a recommendation to not learn to read music. There are benefits to learning to read music you should consider (covered later).

The point of the above list is that it is possible to become a great guitarist without knowing how to read music.

In Eric Clapton’s autobiography (link to Amazon), here’s what he has to say about reading music:

“I felt so nervous because I couldn’t read music, and they were all playing from music sheets on stands.”

The fact that Eric Clapton felt nervous about not being able to read music shows how intimidating sheet music can be for many guitarists.

Eric Clapton

Some musicians look down on others who can’t read music but those people are missing the point.

None of the Beatles could read or write music, but they were able to become amazing musicians due to the countless nights they spent performing.

Whether you choose to read music or not, the important thing is to find a way to play or write great music. Sheet music is only one possible tool you can use to help you reach that goal.

How Long it Takes to Learn to Read Music

There are three different ways you can read music for guitar as covered in this guide: Standard Notation, Guitar TAB, and Chord Diagrams.

Let’s go through each one so you know how long it takes to learn them and what you can play if you learn to read them.

Chord Diagrams

This is a chord diagram:

G Major guitar chord diagram

You can learn to read chord diagrams in about 10 minutes. Check out this tutorial to learn how to read chord diagrams.

Once you learn how to read chord diagrams, you can start learning a wide range of open or barre chord shapes.

Then you can look up what chords a song uses and start learning to play that song.

Learning how to read chord diagrams is a great option if you want to play chord-based songs. If you like the idea of strumming along with a song, then it only takes 10 minutes to learn to read chord diagrams.

Check out this lesson to learn how to play some easy strumming based songs.

Guitar TAB (or Tablature)

This is what a Guitar TAB looks like:

Guitar TAB example

Guitar TAB is an alternative way of writing music for guitar and is incredibly easy to learn.

You can learn the basics of Guitar TAB in 10 minutes and start learning some songs using it.

Find out how to read Guitar TAB in this lesson.

Guitar TAB uses a lot of symbols for different guitar techniques, so it takes a while to learn what all the different symbols mean (covered in the above lesson).

It doesn’t take long to master Guitar TAB. Within a few months, you will feel confident reading almost any guitar part (whether you can play the part or not).

The good news is that once you learn to read Guitar TAB, you can learn pretty much any song you want.

There are websites where you can view and download Guitar TABs for almost any song you want.

Check out the best Guitar TAB websites here.

While some musicians look down on Guitar TAB for various reasons, it is a useful tool you can use to learn songs faster on guitar.

If Guitar TAB suits you, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

Standard Notation

This is what Standard Notation looks like:

Standard Notation for Guitar example

Standard Notation is what most musicians mean when they say reading music.

The big benefit of learning to read Standard Notation is that it is used across most musical instruments. This means you can use it whether you play guitar, piano, violin, or most other instruments.

If you plan on learning other instruments as well as guitar, you should consider learning Standard Notation.

The downside of Standard Notation (when compared to Guitar TAB) is that it takes longer to learn.

It can take a few weeks to feel comfortable reading single notes on the staff, then finding where to play those notes on the guitar.

It can take a few months before you get to the point where you’re able to play basic parts and it can take years before you’re able to play by sight at a decent pace.

Find out how to read Standard Notation in this lesson.

For a lot of guitarists, Standard Notation is worth learning. Being able to read all three forms of written music for guitar means you can learn from any resource you want.

Some people feel Standard Notation is more intuitive than Guitar TAB while other people feel the opposite. Try both and you can decide which feels best for you.

How Long it Takes to Play Guitar by Ear

If you don’t want to learn to read music, you need to learn to play guitar by ear.

Learning to play guitar by ear takes a long time. It can take a few weeks to figure out simple melodies (think nursery rhyme simple) by ear and play them on guitar.

Being able to figure out chords can take months if not years (depending on how you practice).

To play something by ear, you need to first figure out what note or chord you’re hearing, then figure out how to play that note or chord on the guitar.

Instead of seeing the note or chord on a page, you need to use your ears to figure it out.

While learning to play guitar by ear does take a lot of time and effort, it is an incredible skill to learn.

The good news is that you can start working on your ear skills using a simple ear training app. Practicing with an ear training app every day can help you learn to play guitar by ear sooner.

Find out how to play guitar by ear in this guide.

Ear training apps

Once you understand how ear training works, you can use one of these ear training apps to start practicing.

A video is included in the above guide showing how these apps work and how to use them.

Why You Should Learn to Read Music

You should learn to read music as it gives you a way to learn songs faster. Learning how to read either Guitar TAB or Standard Notation allows you to pick up almost any guitar sheet music book or download transcriptions and immediately start learning songs.

While learning to read music is intimidating at first, it is a valuable skill to learn.

You can easily look up the sheet music for any song and instantly start learning to play it.

Guitarists who know how to read music are even able to play songs they have never heard before. That’s how useful it is to be able to read music.

Why You Should Learn to Play Guitar by Ear

Being able to play guitar by ear is an impressive skill that can completely transform your musical abilities.

You should learn to play guitar by ear because it will help you develop a powerful sense of pitch. Guitarists who can play by ear are able to listen to any song and instantly start learning it.

Being able to play something by ear feels like a superpower as you don’t need any sheet music to tell you what to play.

Even if you already know how to read music, I recommend learning to play guitar by ear.

Developing your ear skills is something every guitarist should work on.