If you want to play a song on guitar, there are a lot of online resources to help you learn to play it. Knowing how to read music will cut down the time it takes to learn the song.
The first thing you need to understand is there are different ways of writing music for guitar. It’s important you know which way is right for you.
There are three different types of written sheet music for guitar and you need to learn how to read each one differently. The three ways music can be written for guitar are Standard Notation, Guitar TAB, and chord diagrams.
In this guide, I will explain all of the different ways music is written for guitar and which way is right for you. I’ll also include a link to a full lesson explaining how to read each type of sheet music.
By the end of this guide, you will know which type of sheet music you should learn to read (the answer is different for each guitarist), how to get started learning to read it, and online resources to find music for guitar.
Reading Music for Guitar: Standard Notation
Standard notation is the ‘formal’ way of writing sheet music. When most musicians say they can ‘read music’, they mean they can read standard notation.
The below image shows an example of what standard notation looks like for guitar:
The above example shows how to play the intro to Smoke on the Water in standard notation.
To be able to read standard notation for guitar, you need to know how to read the black dots on the lines and the different symbols it uses.
Many instruments such as piano and violin only use standard notation. If you wanted to learn how to read music for piano, you need to know standard notation.
The guitar is different in that we have more options other than standard notation.
If you buy a sheet music book, it will almost definitely use standard notation. But recently, sheet music has been including both standard notation and Guitar TAB.
Here is an example of what you might see if you bought the sheet music for Smoke on the Water:
You may notice that the standard notation looks the same as the earlier example. But this time it is connected to something else with lines and numbers. This is called Guitar TAB and is covered later.
In the lessons and guides on this website, I include both Standard Notation and Guitar TAB so everybody can read the examples.
Read this Ultimate Guide to Standard Notation to learn the basics of how to read it. The guide covers everything you would want to know to start learning to read standard notation.
Who Should Learn to Read Standard Notation
While many musicians will argue that everybody should learn to read standard notation, that’s not necessary.
As an example, if you want to play classical guitar in an orchestra, then you definitely need to learn how to read standard notation. Your career will depend on it.
On the other hand, if you only want to learn how to strum chords to accompany your singing, then learning standard notation will be overkill for your goal.
Or if you want to play in a local band for fun, you can learn everything you want with Guitar TAB.
For most guitarists, you have the choice between learning standard notation or Guitar TAB. Both will give you everything you need to learn to play music. Many guitarists choose to learn both so they can read any type of music they are given.
Where to Get Sheet Music in Standard Notation
Any physical sheet music book you buy should include standard notation. Even if the book says Guitar TAB on the front, they will likely include standard notation as you saw in the earlier example.
If you are looking for free alternatives, you might want to look into Guitar Pro 7 (link to my review).
You might know Guitar Pro 7 as Guitar TAB software, but that’s not quite true. Guitar Pro allows you to toggle between standard notation, Guitar TAB, and rhythm notation as you like.
This means you can download any Guitar Pro file from one of many free Guitar TAB websites and use it to show you standard notation.
You can even use the software to write your own music in standard notation.
Reading Music for Guitar: Guitar TAB
While Standard Notation is the formal way of writing music, we have another option as guitarists: Guitar TAB.
Guitar TAB (short for tablature) is an alternative way of writing music that exploded in popularity as people realized they could easily write and share Guitar TAB online.
Standard notation uses dots on a staff to tell you what notes to play. Guitar TAB uses numbers on six lines to tell you what notes to play.
Here is an example of Smoke on the Water in Guitar TAB:
To be able to play this, you only need to know two things: what the numbers mean and what the dots mean.
The numbers tell you which frets to play and the lines tell you which strings to play.
Guitar TAB will often use a lot of symbols to represent different techniques such as palm muting, bends, slides, vibrato, etc.
To be able to read Guitar TAB, you need to know what all these symbols mean.
Some Guitar TAB also includes rhythm notation to let you know the timing of each note or rest. In the above example, you can see the rhythm notation in the lines dropping down from each note. Rhythm notation is usually added when the Guitar TAB doesn’t include the Standard Notation staff.
Check out my Ultimate Guide to Reading Guitar TAB here to learn how to read Guitar TAB and all of the symbols.
Where to Get Sheet Music in Guitar TAB
Once you know the basics of how to read Guitar TAB, you can start downloading Guitar TAB for songs you want to learn.
Check out this Guide on the Best Guitar TAB websites to start finding sheet music in Guitar TAB. The guide explains the different Guitar TAB formats used on each site so you can choose the one you like the best.
Reading Music for Guitar: Chord Diagrams
While most guitarists will want to learn how to read either standard notation or Guitar TAB (or both), some guitarists might only want to learn how to play and strum chords.
If you’re a vocalist and want to be able to strum chords to accompany your singing, then there is a quick and easy way to learn how to read music for your guitar playing.
Chord diagrams are visual representations of different chord shapes to play on guitar.
Here are some examples of chord diagrams:
Once you learn how to read chord diagrams, you will know everything you need to play different chords and start strumming.
Many sheet music books include chord diagrams used in the songs at the start, then simply list the chord names throughout the sheet music as highlighted below in yellow:
This means if the song is based on strumming chords (like this one is), you can learn to play the song without knowing standard notation or Guitar TAB.
Simply use the chord diagrams to learn the chords, then follow the chord name changes to change between them. If you want to learn the strumming pattern, you can learn to read the rhythm notation or figure it out by ear.
Where to Get Sheet Music Using Chord Diagrams
Most sheet music books will include chord diagrams at the start of each song, so you know which chords to learn.
Alternatively, once you know how to read chord diagrams, you can look up lyric and chord sheets for any chord-based song.
These lyric and chord sheets will tell you everything you need to know to play the song except the strumming patterns (sometimes they are included).
Here is an example of a lyric and chord sheet found online:
Once you know the chord names, you use this sheet to tell you when to change between chords.
You still need to figure out the strumming patterns, but once you learn that easy skill, you’ll be able to strum along with any song.
Find out How to Read Guitar Chord Diagrams in this guide. It will tell you everything you need to know to get started.
If you want to start by learning some basic chord-based strumming songs, check out this lesson. The lesson includes strumming patterns and Guitar TAB if you want extra information.
Reading Music for Guitar FAQ
Here are some common questions you may have about reading music for guitar.
Do you need to read music to play guitar?
You don’t need to read music to be able to play guitar. Many great guitarists don’t know how to read music.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn to read music. Knowing how to read at least one format of written music for guitar will speed up your learning.
If you’re a beginner, if you learn how to read standard notation or Guitar TAB, you’ll be able to learn songs lightning fast compared to learning to play them by ear.
Should I learn to read Standard Notation?
Whether you should learn to read Standard Notation for guitar depends on your goals. If you want to play classical or jazz music, learning standard notation is a must because most music you will be given will be written in standard notation.
Should I learn to read Guitar TAB?
Unless you want to learn a style of music that tends to only use standard notation (eg: classical or jazz), learning Guitar TAB is a quick and easy way to start learning to play music.
You can learn how to read Guitar TAB in a short lesson and immediately start playing full songs. Learning standard notation takes more time and effort but is still useful to know.
Some guitarists learn both methods so they can pick up and read any sheet music they are given.
Is Standard Notation Better Than Guitar TAB?
This is a heated topic with many guitarists and you’ll see many forum debates over why one method is better than the other.
Don’t get involved in such petty debates. Learn the method you feel is right for you and accept that other guitarists may choose differently.
One of the reasons some guitarists say Standard Notation is better than Guitar TAB is because Standard Notation used to have an advantage when it comes to rhythm notation.
Rhythm notation is the symbols used to tell you the rhythm of a song.
Old-style Guitar TAB didn’t include any rhythm notation, so you would have to figure it out yourself. In other words, Guitar TAB lacked the information that standard notation included.
But Guitar TAB has changed and modern Guitar TAB now includes rhythm notation, so this advantage is no longer relevant.
The key point to remember is that Standard Notation and Guitar TAB are two different ways of writing the same information. Learning either one will help you learn songs faster.