3 Tips To Improve Your Sight-Reading For Guitar
By Michael Gumley
Sight Reading is one of the most important skills needed in the arsenal of any professional
guitarist. It is useful for many reasons including the ability to play through music on the fly,
accompany other artists, or lay down songs in the studio with little-to-no notice. The ability to
sight read will make you a much more valuable and sought after musician, with the better
and often higher paying gigs going to guitarists who have mastered this skill. Even If you are
not a professional player or have no ambition of being a working musician, learning how to
sight read is a very beneficial skill and will be well worth the time you invest into developing
Before we begin let me set you up with my own principles for sight reading.
1. Just like you learn how to speak before you learn how to read and write, you should
learn how to play guitar comfortably before you learn how to read the notes.
2. If you know the fretboard and the location of the notes well, sight reading will be
3. Practice reading music without the guitar in your hands.
When learning how to play guitar the order of which you do things matters and can make a
huge difference to your ability to progress on the instrument. If you follow these 3 principles
you will have a much easier time of learning how to sight-read. Let’s expand on each of
these principles below.
Just Read The Music
You probably don’t remember much about the process you went through when you first
learned how to read and write as a child. You probably also forgot how much effort you put
in over a longer period of time. The process went something like this:
1. learn the alphabet
2. learn some basic words
3. put the words into sentences
4. put the sentences into a meaningful story
You spent most of your first year learning the alphabet and small three letter words. (around
the age of 6)
In your second year you started reading basic sentences and even some picture books with
similar basic sentences. (Around the age of 7)
In your third year you were able to read more challenging books that perhaps had small
paragraphs in them, but were still 80% pictures (around the age of 8)
In your fourth year you were probably introduced to short children’s novels (Around the age
So in your primary schooling it took you over 3 years to get a basic grasp of reading, and
that is with daily practice ! No wonder people get frustrated when they try to improve sight
reading on guitar and get frustrated that it doesn’t happen as fast as they would like it to.
You are probably putting in 15 minutes of practice a week versus the 5 hours you did back at
If we take that analogy and compare it, learning how to sight-reading looks like:
1. Learning the pitch and rhythm values (the musical alphabet)
2. Arranging the pitches into phrases (basic words)
3. Arranging the phrases into melodies (sentences)
4. Putting the sentences into a meaningful song (the story)
See! There is a lot more that goes into sight-reading than you first thought! Now back to our
school analogy. At school you allocated time each day just to reading. The biggest mistake I
see guitarists make is that they never practice JUST READING. They are always trying to
play along at the same time with their guitar in their hands. This is like trying to drive a
manual car for the first time. On guitar you have to concentrate on what note each dot
means, how long it goes for and whereabouts on the guitar it is located. When driving you
have to coordinate your hands, feed and avoid crashing into things all at the same time, it’s
all too much to think about and can be very overwhelming to a beginner.
If you want to improve your sight-reading, just read music! Find yourself a music book and
read it for 5 minutes a day. Go over each line 3 times if you have to, even use your finger to
keep your place like you did when you were a kid. Do not have a guitar in your hand at all
during this process. You will be amazed at how much quicker you are able to develop the
ability to read when all of your attention is on reading instead of playing. When you do go
back to trying to find the notes on your guitar you will have a much easier time of doing it.
Learn All Of The Notes On Guitar First
The biggest mistake most guitar teachers make is trying to teach beginner students how to
sight-read from Day 1. The biggest reason most beginners who start sight reading fail is
because they don’t have the knowledge of where the notes are or the technical ability to
execute yet. This results in 80% of their practice time just going to finding the notes rather
than actually developing any skill. With my students I put a strong emphasis on knowing
where to find the notes because when you know your fretboard (and can already play well)
you will have a much easier time of finding the notes you are reading off of the page.
A great exercise is to select a string and go up and down that string 3 times saying the
natural notes and their fret location out loud. Eg on the e string you would say “E0, F1, G3,
A5, B7, C8, D10, E12” three times forwards and three times backwards. When you are done
move onto the next string. Do this for 5 minutes a day on all 6 strings and in two weeks you
will have memorised the fretboard. Go back and sight read and you will not only have eliminated the need to find the notes, but you will have multiple positions at which to play the
melody you are reading.
Practice Playing Through Chord Charts
When people think of sight-reading they often focus entirely on single note melodies and
forget that learning how to read and navigate your way through a chord chart is also an
important part of sight-reading. If you are doing any sort of big band, large ensemble or even
acoustic duo playing you are most likely to be accompanying people using chords so it is
very valuable to get better at reading chord charts. If you are a jazz player, get yourself a
Real Book and practice comping your way through a new standard every day. If you are a
rock player buy yourself a transcription book or a buskers and work on playing through the
progressions as they appear on the page. The more you do it the easier it will get, and the
more songs you learn, they easier they will come to you when you are in a gig. It is also
worth brushing up on your music theory so that you understand the symbols for repeats,
codas, first and second time endings and a host of other navigational tools that will get you
from start to finish.
Sight reading is one of the most valuable skills you can have as a musician but before you
start working on it, make sure you already have a basic facility on guitar and know the
location of each notes across the entire fretboard. Once you do choose to start working on
your sight-reading, follow a similar process as you did when you first learned how to read;
short bursts of daily practice without a guitar in your hand! If you follow the 3 tips outlined in
this article you will have a much easier time developing your sight reading ability and will
experience huge breakthroughs in your guitar playing in no time at all.
If you would like my eBook on sight-reading email firstname.lastname@example.org
and I would be happy to help you out.
Michael Gumley is a professional guitarist and guitar
teacher hailing from Melbourne, Australia. He has toured
both nationally and internationally with his band, held
endorsement deals with Ormsby Guitars, ESP Guitars,
Blackstar Amps, Line 6 Effects, Yamaha, Ernie Ball Strings
and is the owner and head teacher at Melbourne Guitar
Academy. If your guitar playing is lacking confidence,
transform your guitar playing with the best guitar lessons in Essendon at Michael’s Academy. Life’s too short to
suck at guitar, book a free lesson now!