Do guitar players need to know how to read?

Yes and no. Don’t get hung up on thinking that in order to be a great guitar player, you need to read notation. Some of the greatest musicians on the planet don’t have that skill. However, in certain situations, it’s not a bad idea to know how to read.

I learned to read music after playing by ear for many years because I realized I was doing some of my students a disservice. Notice I said some. I strongly believe that it’s a good idea for kids to learn to read music. Their brains are built for learning and there are cases where knowing notation is a good thing – see below – so they might as well learn it now. For adults, it’s not quite as important, especially if you just want to sing around the campfire or jam with your friends.


Notation – formal music with notes.

Tablature – specific to fretted stringed instruments like guitar, mandolin, ukulele, banjo, bass and lap dulcimer. It shows you where to put your fingers.  There’s a line for each string with numbers on the lines that indicate which fret.



It’s essential for classical and helpful for other styles, particularly jazz. In fact, you won’t find a lot of classical pieces in anything but notation.

You can communicate with other musicians. A pianist can read the same piece of music a guitarist can.

It gives you a better understanding of how and why a particular piece is constructed the way it is. Sure, you can hear what might sound right in a G scale but music theory will tell you why those intervals work.

If you plan to play in a band for a musical or in similar professional situations, you’ll need to know how to read. Sometimes you’ll only need to know the Nashville numbering system and while you’re not reading notes, a basic understanding of music theory is required.

There will be more pieces that are accessible to you.  For example, you could take a piece written for the piano and play it on the guitar.

Music notation is a universal language. If your first language is English and you’re playing with someone who only speaks Mandarin, you can still play from the same piece of music, as long as your instruments are in the same range. (For instance, a flute player would have trouble reading music for a bass instrument.)


It tells you where to put your fingers. You don’t have to think, “Okay, it’s an E note, where can I find that on the guitar?” Or “Which E note do I play?”

It’s easier to learn. When I give a student a simple melody in tab, they’ve usually got it in one sitting.

You can find it everywhere. There are lots of tab sites – see my previous post for more.



It takes longer to learn, especially for adults. I had to struggle to learn it after I was an adult. It was like learning another language after only speaking one for your whole life. (They tell you to keep your brain active as you get older and I never have to worry about that – I just pull out a piece of music with a lot of sharps and sixteenth notes and I’m good to go.)

It doesn’t always tell you which fingering is best for you. “Do I play the B note near the headstock, or further down the neck?”


It’s difficult to discern rhythm. Sometimes there are notes above it so you have keep looking up to see what the rhythm is. Some tab has a method of showing rhythm but it can be clunky and hard to understand.

It doesn’t explain why you play certain notes. In notation, you see what the key and rhythm structure should be at the start of a piece but with tab, you’re just following blindly along. If you’re not a geek who wants to understand everything, this point may not bother you.

It only works for one instrument. A mandolin player cannot use guitar tab. In fact, tab means nothing to other instruments. Show it to a flute player and he’ll just beat you over the head. Well, he might be a little nicer than that.

Chord diagrams are neither notation nor tab but they’re a really great way to learn chords. Maybe I’ll write more about that in a future post. Until then, go forth and make music!


Want to know more? I teach guitar, mandolin, ukulele and songwriting via Skype. Contact me here. Live in Ottawa, Ontario? You can come to my studio.

About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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3 Responses to Do guitar players need to know how to read?

  1. aarondoerr says:

    Notation Schmotation – the main hardship of using written notation to aid in one’s playing, especially in the early stages, is that of sight-reading. Most beginner students have to look at one hand or another while playing. Even a quick glance up at the page will throw them out of whack. I practice reading (TABs and chord charts) with all my students but when thrown in to any kind of performance situation they consistantly rely on their memory first and foremost, if not completely. This is because of the challenge of “sight-reading” as opposed to “reading”.

  2. Pingback: “I didn’t practice” and nine more things you should never say to your guitar teacher | Jamiebobamie

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