How to read guitar sheet music: a beginner’s guide

12.03.2022 Ben Maloney Guitar

You’ve made the plunge. You’ve bought a guitar, and so you’ve made the first and most important step to becoming a guitarist. Now there’s only one thing standing between you and greatness – sheet music. 

The guitar might enjoy a reputation for spontaneity among musical instruments, but there’s a lot of guitar sheet music out there. Seeing as you’re about to become a great guitar-player, it’s well worth learning how to read it.

This guide offers you a lesson in just that. There are three major types of notation used in guitar sheet music: tablature, staff notation and chord diagrams - we’re going to go over them one at a time. 

Getting to grips with each of them will help you to become a rounded and versatile player. There’s a good chance that one will serve you best, though, depending on what type of music you want to play, and what type of guitarist you want to be. 
 

Types of guitar sheet music
 

  1. Tablature
  2. Staff notation
  3. Chord diagrams

Tablature


Tablature is a form of notation used in sheet music for fretted string instruments. Many of these instruments are in fact ancestors of the modern guitar. For centuries, tablature developed alongside staff notation, having first appeared in the Middle Ages. 

It’s a representative notational method which, by depicting the strings on a fretboard, indicates fingering patterns instead of musical pitches.

The great thing about tablature is its accessibility – it’s simple to understand and quick to read. Thanks to this, it’s no doubt the most widespread type of notation used in guitar sheet music today.

It’s particularly prevalent when it comes to popular music. If this is the kind of style you want to engage with, then it might be best to focus on learning tablature. 

Altogether, tablature can’t quite match staff notation for efficiency or detail, but even the most complex pieces of guitar music can be successfully notated and learned through this medium. 
 

How it works


The image below shows a simple passage of guitar tab. In it you can see six horizontal lines. They’re not dissimilar to the lines on a stave, but instead of depicting musical pitches, they represent the strings of a guitar.

Strings will of course be tuned to certain pitches, though. Let’s assume that we’re working with strings in standard tuning, in which case - from the lowest and thickest string to the highest and thinnest string - they'll be tuned to low E, A, D, G, B and high E.

Tabs that aren’t in standard tuning should say as much. If they do, you’ll just need to make sure that your guitar is tuned accordingly, and then read as per the instructions below.

When a number appears on one of the lines, you should strike that string. ‘0’ indicates that the string is to be played openly - unfretted. Anything above a ‘0’ requires you to fret the string. 

‘1’ indicates that you should place your finger before the 1st fret - the one closest to the ‘nut’ at the top of the fretboard. ‘2’ instructs you to place your finger between the 1st and 2nd frets - ‘3’ the 2nd and 3rd. And so on.

Interpreting the extract above, the player’s told to finger and play the 3rd fret on the lower E-string (the note G), before moving to the 2nd fret on the D-string (the note E), an open G-string, and finally the 1st fret on the B-string (a C).

These aspects of tab take care of pitch, but rhythm is an equally essential parameter of music. Take a look at the extract below. Above the lines and the numbers you’ll see symbols that denote rhythm.  

The forms of those symbols broadly correspond to those of note values in staff notation. Using the time signature to help us interpret the notes, they span two bars of music and consist of: 

  • One minim (or half note)
  • Two crotchets (or quarter notes)
  • Three quavers (or eighth notes, followed by a quaver rest),
  • A dotted quaver
  • semiquaver (or sixteenth note)
  • One crotchet

If all that doesn’t make much sense to you - don’t worry about it. It should all become clear if you read the rhythm section in this article on how to read piano sheet music
 

Extended notation


Those are the basics of guitar tablature. But if you’ve been playing guitar for a while already then you’ll know that there are a few simple techniques commonly used in guitar-playing. The passage shown below shows how some of these are notated in tab.

Looking at the rhythmic illustration, we can see that the second and third notes are slurred. As are the fifth and sixth notes. To carry out these instructions, the player will need to execute first a hammer-on, and secondly a pull-off.

We can also see a tie on the final note of the first bar, meaning that the note should be held across the barline. Finally, the curved arrow attached to the final note of the passage denotes a string bend. The word ‘full’ can appear above the arrowhead, referring to a whole-tone bend, while a ‘½’ indicates that a semitone bend should be played. 

These are just some of the most frequently used techniques. There are many more that can be notated in tablature, but if you’re learning to read guitar sheet music for the first time, you definitely don’t need to worry about them just yet. 

Staff notation


If you’re a newcomer to traditional staff notation, you’ll find the article on how to read piano sheet music mentioned above useful to read first before continuing. Even if you aren’t a piano-player, the basics of interpreting standard notation are covered there.

Here, the focus is on how that form of notation is utilised in guitar music, and how you can read it. You’ll learn not only how the notes correspond to the motions of playing, but also how sheet music is uniquely tailored to the guitar, as it is with many instruments. 

Staff notation is widely used in guitar sheet music. The great majority of classical guitar works are written using this method, and so are many jazz pieces. Even tabs for popular songs are often paralleled by a traditional staff.
 

How it works


Now that we’ve covered tablature, a more easily understood system of notation, we’re going to use it to help you understand how to interpret guitar sheet music written in traditional staff notation. 

Each pitch and its corresponding note on the fretboard is shown in the image above. Bear in mind that it is possible to play higher pitches than the final B♮ - continuing the established pattern, each higher fret raises the pitch played by a semitone. 

If you understand how to read notation, then this extract serves to show how notation relates to the physical motions of playing guitar. Seems simple enough so far.

The difficulty with staff notation arises when you realise that there are in fact several ways to play most of the notes shown above on a guitar. The fingerings indicated previously are simply fingerings in first position.

The fifth-position fingerings shown here are entirely different from those displayed in the previous extract, but many of the pitches overlap. Move higher up the fretboard and there’s even more overlapping. 

In short, when you see a pitch on a stave, you’re faced with a range of fingering options. You have to determine the optimal way to sound that pitch and articulate the passage of music it’s part of. 

Certain fingerings will be better than others. The right fingering will be one that’s easy to execute and sounds the right timbre - the various ways to sound a treble C on a guitar all sound subtly different. Tablature doesn’t have this issue. That’s another reason why it’s easier to comprehend. 

Sometimes there’ll be numbers around the notes, helpfully indicating which finger you should stop the string with (1-4, index to little finger). If the number is inside a circle, it refers to which string you should play (1-6, from high E to low E). You might also see Roman numerals, which designate the fret at which the note should be fingered. These instructions are demonstrated in the extract above. 

But very often there’ll be no such instructions and you’ll have to sort things out for yourself. In general, try and stay as close to the nut of the guitar as possible. 
 

Extended notation


The passage of music below corresponds to the example above that detailed extended tablature notation. Once again, slurs denote hammer-ons and pull-offs, but the symbol that indicates a bend is different to the curved arrow. The miniature E-flat is an appoggiatura, or grace note - this note should be sounded only fleetingly, before the string bend takes the pitch up to the F-natural.

To reiterate, there are a wide range of extended techniques available to guitarists. Staff notation’s versatility allows it to easily instruct the player to use these techniques when playing. Many of these techniques are indicated by alternative noteheads.

The cross notehead indicates that the string is to be muted when struck, a technique that eliminates a clear pitch and creates a percussive sound. Square noteheads, on the other hand, can be used to denote natural harmonics.

The slashed notehead indicates that a chord (usually appearing above the stave as D (D major) or Bm (B minor), for example) is to be strummed, in any voicing you like, at the rhythm indicated. 

Regardless of the style or genre of guitar music you want to play, if it’s written using staff notation, you should now have the tools to read it at your disposal.

Chord diagrams


This is the third main type of notation used in guitar sheet music. Compared to staff notation and tablature, chord diagrams - or chord boxes - are far more restricted in scope, only being able to delineate chord voicings. 

Nevertheless, diagrams are clear and easy to understand. In certain circumstances, they’re actually a more useful form of notation. They’re particularly helpful for beginners as well. In terms of application, they’re mostly limited to jazz and popular music. 

You can outline chords with tablature and staff notation, but chord diagrams, which outline the precise fingering for the chord, have the illustrative edge. 
 

How they work


Chord diagrams resemble a snapshot of the fretboard. They appear as grids in which vertical lines represent the guitar strings (from left to right, low E, A, D, G, B and high E) and horizontal lines represent frets. 

Here you can find a chord chart that includes chord diagrams for all the guitar chords a player is likely to encounter.

Unless indicated by a number near the top-left corner of the box, the highest horizontal line represents the nut. The second-highest line represents the 1st fret, and so on. If there is a number there, the corresponding fret then becomes the highest line. 

The circles indicate where the fingers should be positioned. For example, a circle found on the far left vertical line and between the second and third horizontal lines, should be placed between the 1st fret and the 2nd fret on the low E-string - if there’s no top-left digit. That’s an F♯ in standard tuning. (Remember that the top line is the nut.)

An ‘X’ above a vertical line indicates that the corresponding string should be muted, while an ‘O’ above a vertical line indicates that a string should be played openly.

These chord voicings function as templates, which means the fingering can be shifted to different frets to change the root note. If there’s an open string indicated then you’ll need to use a device called a ‘capo’ to move that particular chord shape around the fretboard.

Above you can see an example of chord diagrams in action. The slashed noteheads introduced earlier are also visible. To play this passage, a guitarist must finger the chords indicated by the boxes, and strum them in the rhythm indicated by the notes themselves.  
 

Your next steps for guitar sheet music


The best way to get to grips with these different types of notation is by confronting some real-life sheet music and working through it with your guitar.

The nkoda library contains works spanning not only the types of notation outlined here, but also all the genres of music that you can think of. Check out our collection of guitar sheet music to get better acquainted with reading these different styles.

As we said before, it’s best to familiarise yourself with all three systems. But focus most on the system that’ll help you develop the particular playing skills that you’ll need in order to be the guitarist you aspire to be.

Additionally, learning how to write guitar sheet music will further develop your understanding of guitar music in a shorter amount of time, but start small.

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