Reading music is not sight reading.
Learn the neck first.
Then learn to speak rhythm.
Skip reading in open position.
Think long term.
Reading Music ≠ Sight Reading
There’s a key distinction here that frequently gets glossed over.
Reading Music is exactly what it sounds like: you look at what’s written, read it, and play it. Maybe you need a few passes at something tricky, or you slow to a glacial crawl while you try to find the spot on the neck where it makes sense to play this.
Maybe you’re brand new to reading, and it takes you half an hour to read 8 bars of music and figure out what it says. There’s absolutely zero shame in that––you gotta start somewhere.
(And you gotta start.)
Sight Reading, on the other hand, is when you look at music you’ve never seen before and translate it into sound in real time. The band leader calls a tune, you pull out the chart as the drummer starts counting off, and away you go.
If you botch a tricky passage, the band keeps playing. There’s no slowing down, no going back. This is sight reading, and it’s freaking hard.
But don’t be discouraged. “Reading music” is not a yes/no binary thing. It’s not a back flip, where you can either do it or you can’t (I believe the medical term for half of a back flip is concussion).
There is a continuum. A whole spectrum. On one end is Total Music Illiteracy (sadly, a unnecessarily common ailment). On the other end is Sight Reading Badassery.
If you’ve attained the level of Sight Reading Badass (and you’re not a total asshat or complete flake), congratulations: you’ll never need a job ever again.
If you’re totally music illiterate, don’t worry. There’s an orchard’s worth of low-hanging fruit that you can pick to drastically improve your playing.
Even small amounts of effort pay big here. Get a few of these big wins under your belt, and your playing, your understanding, and your opportunities to get paid all skyrocket.
Learn The Neck First
For you to be even a little bit good at reading music, for you to reap the massive benefits that come from understanding music, you need to know the neck.
If you can’t look at your guitar, point at any note, and instantly know the name of that note, then looking at notes on a page is stupid waste of your time.
Learn the notes on your guitar, one string at a time, over the course of a couple weeks. Click here for a detailed guide on learning them the creative & fun way.
There is a huge amount of meta data stored in every song you learn (and the ones you already know), but you can’t access it if you don’t know the note names.
Understand Rhythm & Basic Rhythmic Notation
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: notes are overrated. Rhythm is at least as important, but it gets the short end of the rock stick.
If you learn to understand and “speak” rhythm, your ability to communicate with other musicians will improve. But also your sense of time will improve, which means your playing will improve.
That’s a huge win.
If you spend 5 minutes each with them every morning, your understanding and playing will grow by leaps and bounds.
Don’t Learn Reading In Open Position
I hate hate hate the way that music reading is taught in the popular method books.
Of their many sins, one of the most egregious is teaching reading in open position. Reading in open position is easy from a playing perspective, at least in the small handful of keys we invariably start with.
But open-position reading is a completely non-portable skill. So after you’ve spent a whole bunch of time learning it, you end up throwing it away and learning “positional” reading.
If you know the note names, and you’re comfortable with basic rhythms, you can skip ahead to positional reading.
If I’ve convinced you that it’s worth it to learn basic reading skills, and that the path forward is clear enough and easy enough, then the single most important thing for you to do next is to commit.
Nothing about learning this is particularly difficult or even time consuming, and the rewards are very real and massive.
But you absolutely cannot get there without showing up every day for a long, long string of days.
Spend a trivial five minutes on this each and every morning, and by this time next year you will be a completely different guitarist, if not a completely different person.
Benefits accrue with astonishing speed if you show up consistently.
If you’ve never given yourself the opportunity to experience this, now’s the time.