In my last blog, I talked briefly about the importance of learning proper music fundamentals and addressed some of the problems with relying only on guitar tablature or youtube videos for guitar education. Now we talk about learning to read and understand standard notation and music theory. Why is it important? What practical use will it have for you as a guitarist?


Ok. I'll admit it. There is definitely a learning curve when starting to learn standard notation. It will take some practice and dedication, but everything good in life takes perseverance and hard work. That being said, it's not as bad as people make it out to be. I'm not going to teach you how to read standard notation here (that's for another day), but I will convince you of the greatness of it. 

If you've never seen Standard Notation or aren't sure what I'm talking about it looks like this (with guitar tab pictured below):
So, you're a tab reader and you see the above example. The bottom half looks easy. The top part looks crazy. Why would I want you to learn to read music when the bottom part is so much easier to understand? 

      1. Because it will potentially make you a great musician. 
               Only you can make you a great musician. But being able to read music will open many doors for you.
       2. Learning to read music lays the foundation for being able to understand music.       
              If you don't have a basic understanding of how music is written you won't be able to understand the more  
              advanced concepts that come later. Imagine if you had only learned how to read picture books as a child. 
              Without the ability to read words and phrases you are severely hindered in what you can accomplish when 
              you are on your own. Sure, you can have people read to you or show you what you are supposed to do  
              but even the most simple tasks (making sure you use the men's restroom instead of the women's    
              restroom, for example) can be frustratingly difficult because you never learned the language of the world 
              around you
       3. You will be able to communicate with other (read: non-guitarist) musicians.               
              Let me be very clear here. The times are few and far between (read: almost never) that you will be handed 
              tablature in a band or studio situation. If you're in a band or group setting and a new song comes up there 
              won't be tab available. If you're in a basic garage band, one of the other musicians may quickly teach you 
              your part by rote (monkey see-money do). But in most cases (or if you're the only guitarist) you'll be 
              handed a chord chart or lead sheet with basic chords and changes on it and be expected to play. 

              I can vividly remember one of my first gigs as a guitarist when I was a teenager. I had a cool lead part to 
              play, but the keyboardist also needed to play the part with me. I handed her my guitar tab and was ready 
              to go. Of course, she has no idea what tab is or how it corresponds to the keyboard. So, I took the time 
              to explain how tab works and then expected her to figure out what to do from there! After quite some time 
              we managed to use the relatively small amount of music theory that we shared to figure out what notes I 
              was actually playing so that she could play it on the keys. Had I known then what I know now, the whole 
              problem could have been averted or solved within minutes. 

        4. Learning to move notes to other locations on the guitar.               
             Quick Quiz: Play your first string (E string) open. Name at least four other places on the guitar where you 
              could play the exact same note *answer below*. Sure, if you have a good ear you could sound out the 
              note on different strings and find it that way. But if you don't know what note you're playing, it's really hard 
              to locate that note efficiently on another string and location on the fretboard. I cannot tell you the number 

              of times that I've pulled up a guitar tab for a student online and found that a few of the notes (if not the 
              whole riff) was in a really awkward playing position. With a little knowledge of music theory, I was quickly 
              able to locate 2-3 other places to play the riff and found one that was much easier for my student to play.
              Without this knowledge you are simply stuck at the whim of whatever tab you currently possess. What if 
              you needed to play the above music example at a different location on the fretboard? Could you do it?

        5. Instant Gratification. 
              Here is what it really comes down to. If you want to play the above example and you only read tab, then it 
              may in fact be easier to simply read the tab. But what happens when we get to more complex pieces of 
              music? What happens when you need to transpose it to a different key? What if you need to explain the 
              part to a keyboardist so that he can play the part with you? If you simply want to learn whatever song is in 
              front of you, tab may be an easier solution. But, if you want to understand what you are playing and pick 
              up songs/riffs quicker in the future it is beneficial to understand reading music and music theory. 

So, there you go. That's my take on why you should be learning to read music and music theory. Feel free to leave a comment or question. Stay tuned for part three: Can't I learn music theory without learning to read music?

***Answer to Quick Quiz: B string 5th fret, G string 9th fret, D string 14th fret, A string 19th fret, E string 24th fret***
8/17/2011 02:52:05 pm

I tend to agree with you. Having took 7 years of piano before I started guitar really helped me. I learned tab after already knowing how to read music. Kind of backwards from how a lot of folks learn today I guess. Thanks for sharing.

6/25/2012 02:16:55 am

Which template is this for your blog?


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