Is a lack of musical theory a hindrance to the musical development and growth of the guitarist? Guitar Jar contributor Warren Greig shares his thoughts on the effectiveness of modern guitar tuition books vs traditional methods of reading musical notation.
…so as boring as it sounds, learning how to read to music can only help a guitarist develop their abilities. Learning the notes on the fingerboard is necessary to be able to read music and deal with fingering challenges…
Most guitar players don’t know how to read music. Most pianist, sax, trumpet and trombone players read music. Reading music at an early age gets players involved in understanding how rhythm is notated and counted.
There are a huge number of method books out there for the guitarist and most of them communicate musical ideas with tablature. Therefore key signatures, rhythmic duration and other critical aspects of music are glossed over. Many of the books show one aspect of playing or try to cover everything in 60 pages. Sometimes I think out of 20 books, there might be a grand total of 4 useful pages. A bunch of guitar books that show only a partial view of the music are more of a hindrance to development and can actually slow down the development of a player.
As an example, chords are illustrated with fingerboard diagrams. I’ve never seen a guitar player hand a piano or horn player a bunch of diagrams and say, let’s play this tune. Diagrams are a short cut to playing sounds and the player doesn’t even know what notes are in them or how to construct a major chord vs a minor chord.
Needless to say, horn and piano players on balance pick up on jazz quicker than the typical guitarist. Not only for the above noted reasons but the guitar is unique in that one note can be played in four to five places as opposed to one place on the piano. This creates all kinds of fingerings scenarios and alternate pathways on the fingerboard which can be challenging for someone starting out on guitar.
So as boring as it sounds, learning how to read to music can only help a guitarist develop their abilities. Learning the notes on the fingerboard is necessary to be able to read music and deal with the above noted fingering challenges.
Having said that, hearing music is far more important than reading music but being able to study music and play in ensembles with other instruments can serve to fast track development in the areas of keeping time, phasing, articulation and dynamics. My point is; reading and understanding music fundamentals can be an excellent springboard to continuous improvement.
Listening to music, singing along with melodies and solos, and playing them on the guitar by ear is also a great way to develop. Wes Montgomery didn’t read music but could communicate with other musicians by describing what chords were in a tune and his ears were at a genius level. His brothers played piano-vibes and bass, so it was natural for him to play with other instruments from the beginning which certainly would have helped him progress.
In the article above, I tried to be clear that talent or the ability to play jazz is not dependant on being able to read but can increase the number of professional opportunities for the guitarist. Some of the obstacles to reading on the guitar are related to the fact the same pitches can be played in different locations. Another barrier is that the guitarist assumes it’s a lot more difficult and mysterious than it really is.
There are two fundamental aspects, recognizing notes on the music staff and knowing where these notes are on the guitar. To use an example given to me by one of my first teachers, touch your nose with your finger, not a problem. Now play Db on the fifth string, um… Much like real estate it’s all about location. If you use standard tuning the Db will in the same place every day just like our nose is.
So learning all the notes on the guitar and identifying notes on the music staff in real time is a great way to start. Trying to read with a song book (not tablature) with recognizable tunes will let you know if you are on track. I would recommend worrying about note values, scale fingerings later. Once the initial barrier is broken the scale fingerings will be more useful to you in developing a logical fingering system.
Lastly, many musicians don’t read and play beautifully so reading does not make you a better musician necessarily. However, if you increase the number of paid jobs you get and meet different musicians it can be a great tool. Also it should be noted that just because you are reading a passage doesn’t mean you are not hearing it, reading can also be viewed as playing by ear with a guide.
Have you got any tips about reading music to share with the guitar playing community? Have you struggled in your development as a jazz guitarist? Please add your comments below.
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