Why Most Guitar Players Don’t Need to Read Music, Ever!

Right off the bat, let me say that the purpose of this article isn't to incite a riot with those of you who believe strongly in the value of reading standard music notation. This article aims at giving the beginner guitar player, or the average experienced guitar player who doesn't know how to read music well (like me) some peace of mind, and the specific knowledge of why it's just not necessary anymore. If you're a guitar player, or thinking about becoming one, this article is for you if you have ever:

  • Felt guilty for not knowing how to read standard music notation, or read it better. (Don't feel guilty–I don't.)
  • Heard that in order to learn how to play guitar you must learn to read music. (It's just not true.)
  • Thought that without learning how to read standard music notation you are very limited as to what you can learn to play. (This used to be true.)
  • Felt that standard music notation is not intuitive, takes years to learn, and is too complex. (This is true! And in a moment we'll see why it's just not necessary.)

Why Standard Music Notation is Unnecessary for the Guitar Player

Let's not waste any time. The reason that standard notation is unnecessary is multi-fold:

  • Tablature existed before standard notation for stringed instruments and it is easier to learn and read. There's no guessing. Typically standard notation leaves you guessing which notes you should finger because all you get is a note, not the specific string and fret to play. You have to memorize what each of those black dots means, and then do it in multiple keys! This might be okay for piano, but it's unnecessary for guitar.
  • Tablature is more robust, and communicates more about how to play a guitar than standard notation. For example standard notation has no provisions for notating slides, note bends, or artificial harmonics. Nor is it very good at displaying muted notes, whammy bar effects, or the exact location your fingers should be on the fret board (as mentioned).
  • Tablature is now plentiful with the growth of online tabs and incredibly wide selection of tablature books available. 20 years ago, tablature for guitar wasn't as plentiful as it is now and you had to learn to read standard notation to play a wide range of music. Not anymore.

The One Area Where Standard Notation Has an Advantage Over Guitar Tablature

Standard notation has a very complex and thorough structure for conveying the duration of notes. Unfortunately with guitar tablature it is typically harder to convey time. One common method to help display time is to space the notation fingerings farther or closer apart depending on how long they are to ring out. And, often standard notation will be displayed above tablature, and this is just about the only time I look at the standard notation is to read the duration value of the notes. I have also seen tablature that uses a hybrid method of displaying time by putting standard notation note stems on the tablature fret numbers. This is similar to drum notation. So here are some options to tackle this issue:

  • Get used to and learn to read just the timing aspect of standard notation
  • Just listen to the song to hear the timing and then play along using the tablature
  • Pay attention to the space between the tablature fret number notation AND listen to the song to hear the timing

Personally I try to do the last option as much as possible and fall back on the first option above when I really need to understand the timing in detail.

Now Don't Get Me Wrong…

Of course learning to read tablature isn't something you can do over night, but it does take significantly less time to learn to read tablature proficiently than it does standard notation. If you already know how to read standard notation, then more power to you. And, if you can read standard notation, don't overlook learning to read tablature efficiently because in the end it saves you time, and it's a better fit for the guitar. I hope this article has been helpful to you and maybe relieved some of the feeling that you're missing out my not learning standard notation. Now-a-days, it's just not important. If you're one of those folks who believes that not knowing how to read standard notation is a huge disadvantage, let me know why below. Likewise if you think tab is all you need to know, share a comment below. 




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 Why Most Guitar Players Dont Need to Read Music, Ever!

About Michael Jae

Michael is a guitarist of over 18 years and has taught lessons, played in front of live audiences, and wrote and recorded his own acoustic fingerstyle albums. He’s especially fond of playing classic rock, heavy metal, classical guitar, and fingerstyle acoustic guitar in the style of Leo Kottke and John Fahey.




  1. What do Steve Vai, Lee Ritenour, Frank Zappa (when he was still alive), Larry Carlton, Mike Stern, Robben Ford and countless other top American guitarists all have in common? Answer=They can ALL read music and sight read it as well on their guitars—’Nuff said…

    • Whoopdeedo and goody for them. At 64 ALL I want to do is learn a bunch of songs and I can do just that with only tabs, a good video and Transcribe—’nuff said…

      Jesus, you Prima Donnas are a crashing bore.


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