SMG Guitar Lesson #6: A Beginners Guide to Reading Music!

It’s never too late to learn! Check out the Beginners Guide to Reading Music!



If you’re like an overwhelming majority of guitar players, chances are you probably learned to mostly play by ear, are mostly self-taught, are pretty good at reading “tabs” but have little or no experience when it comes to reading music. While it can take years of music lessons to fully be able to read music and develop a keen sense of rhythm, this should be no excuse for taking the first step. After all, a little bit of note reading goes a long way. So here’s a quick guide to help get you started!

Only the letters of the alphabet from A through G are used in music. So you’ll never encounter a “Y sharp” note or a “Z flat” chord. Just A through G… that’s it. Obviously there are a lot more notes than just these seven letters because of their octaves and all the sharps and flats in between. So it really helps to be able to break these up into four groups, spanning the entire four octave range of the guitar: low notes, middle notes, high notes, and upper notes. Here’s a quick reference guide for being able to recognize them on the music staff.


As far as reading music is concerned, there are three basic groups of notes on the music staff that you can learn to begin recognizing: top and bottom notes, “FACE” notes, and “Line” notes. Top and bottom notes sit just above and below the music staff. “FACE” notes are the four notes located in between the spaces of the five lines of the music staff. “Line” notes are the five notes located on each line of the music staff. Here’s what all this ‘mumbo-jumbo’ looks like, along with silly little sayings to help you remember.




You may have noticed that the notes illustrated here are all within the first four frets, what I call the “open” range of the guitar. This is a good place to start. While there is often more than one way to play a given note on guitar, (in fact, there can be as many as five or six ways to play the exact same pitch, and this is part of what makes learning to read music difficult for guitar) it’s a little easier to learn to read music in the open range first before venturing out onto the fretboard. You’ll find that in the open range,  most of your low-high range notes are within reach.

It’s also extremely beneficial just having a general idea of how fast or slow notes are supposed to be. Whole notes are typically the longest and slowest notes used in music, while sixteenth notes are among the shortest and fastest notes used in music. In other words, sixteen sixteenth notes can be played in the time it takes to play just one whole note! So when you look at the traditional music, don’t be intimidated. Just think to yourself, “whole note = really slow, half note = kind of slow, quarter note = not too short or long, 8th note = fast, 16th note = pretty dog-gone fast!” and you’ll be able to hang in there.


Rests are structured similarly. It takes sixteen sixteenth note rests to take up the same amount of space as one whole note rest. Rests create pauses in the music, breaking it up, making it more rhythmic and interesting, and keeping it from becoming monotonous. Like a lot of situations in life, sometimes it’s what you don’t say that matters!



If you’ve been playing for a while by ear, chances are you can play better than you can read music. You may be even one of those players who can zip up and down the fret board and blaze through a repertoire of songs, but wish you had more of an idea about what notes you’re playing and why it sounds the way it does. If that’s the case, learning to read music can feel like starting all over again.

My advice is to take it slow at first and work on it a little bit each day. For best results, you can even incorporate some simple note-reading into your daily warm-up routine, and you’ll be amazed at just how steadily you begin to improve your musical literacy. And remember, there’s no quick fix, no silver bullet, and absolutely no substitute for practicing your guitar for hours on end! I hope you’ll take this to heart, and I’ll see you in the next lesson.


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  • While I enjoyed your rudimentary lesson in note reading one thing is usually left out of attempts at this. WHERE?

    Where on the neck does one find the notes? Which position and why? I had a friend once who is a trumpet player. In fact he won the International Improvisation Contest in Latvia years ago. He mentioned to me one day that the guitar would seem to be much like the piano in that the sweet note are in the middle of the neck.

    For example, one doesn’t usually see a piano player spending a lot of time at either end of the keyboard itself but in the middle. While the lesson is not to difficult in the in the open position it becomes much more difficult in the 8th position, or the middle of the guitar. A challenging way to learn the notes, an octave off mind you, is to play a Jazz tune with chords not moving up or down from the 8th position or sweet spot.

    Just something that stuck with me…I hope this helps someone!

    B. Douglas Daugherty

  • If someone has zero experience reading music, you’ve got to start somewhere…and it’s best to start in what is classically referred to as “first position”, i.e. within the first five frets. It’s a lot to take in, that’s why I recommend my students learn this first before moving on.

  • Great lesson! I have one question though. Is there any kind of shortcut or do I have to memorize every note and its position on the fretboard?

  • Eventually, the goal is not only know every note on the fretboard (at a glance without second guessing or hesitating)as well as to know how it’s notated on the music staff.

  • This is such a very helpful post. I am a beginner in music reading but I am so determined to learn this skill. Thank you so much for these lessons. Certainly, I have learned something from your blog. Thank you again.

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