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Why Johnny Can’t Read

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Is it important for guitarists to be able to read music? Can seasoned players who don’t read music make the jump into reading (and I mean the notes … not tab)?

Any non-reading guitarist who has ever been asked to accompany someone via reading their music, been asked to learn a song from written notes or been asked to perform by sight-reading a piece of sheet music knows the awkwardness that always accompanies the reply, “I can’t read,” often followed by, “hum it for me and I’ll play it, or, can you give it to me on tape?” I have witnessed guitarists lose gigs following this scenario.

As a career jazz educator, I have encountered over and over again the phenomenon of guitar students appearing for their first college lesson, only to discover they cannot read music, or they read so slowly that they are not functional. Invariably, I will put an easy-to-read, bignote song in front of a new student and ask him or her to play it, in order for me to help gauge where we need to start work in the reading area.

The answer is often something like, “I can read … it just takes me awhile.” What this really means is that the student can name the notes on the staff, they can maybe locate the notes on the neck of the guitar, they might be able to tap out the rhythms, but they can’t put all three together. Guitar students who have come up through the band system playing a horn will often fare better in reading on the guitar, as horn players have historically recognized that the music world communicates in notes, not in tab.

Throughout the history of popular music in the U.S – which began with Minstrel shows in the 1840s – the banjo and guitar have predominantly been in roles where reading music was not so vital as it might have been for the other instruments. Oftentimes the music was passed on and performed in an aural tradition, especially in Dixieland, blues, jump swing, and rock styles. Thus, the history and system have made us lax, compared to our brass-wind and woodwind brothers and sisters who consistently read music in marching bands and orchestras.

Still, any guitarist can move to a higher plane of functioning, learning, and participating in the music community if he/she learns to read. Although this can prove to be a Herculean task after going through life without it, it can be done. Here are some suggestions for getting it started:
  • Accept that it will take a long time and require a daily commitment in your practice schedule. Keep as your goal the idea that reading will open many doors, doors which will make you a stronger and more marketable player.
  • Use easy reading intro guitar books – Mel Bay and other intro methods – to learn the notes on the staff and on the neck. Make sure you are reading and not memorizing the songs; play them in different places on the neck after you have learned them in the first position. Memorize the note names/locations on the neck of the guitar.
  • Practice rhythms separately at first. Clap out the rhythms before trying to play them on the guitar. The hardest thing about reading music for guitarists is reading the rhythms!
  • If you practice one hour per day, use 15-20 minutes of that time and work on reading. It is a tedious task that can have great results in your playing; accept this challenge.
Can you go back and learn to read? Absolutely. Is it tough? You bet. But here are the benefits of doing it: you become marketable in more performance situations, you will be able to study the books/music of others, you will be able to write down your own ideas so others can now read them, you will be able to write down (transcribe) what you hear others play, you will acquire the language of the entire music community. And you no longer have to say, “I can''t read.”

Tune in next time when we will discuss the Jazz Guitar Hardball topic of “practicing”; what to practice, how to practice, and does it help.




Jim Bastian
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a 10 year veteran of teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and has published 6 jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar (available from Jamey Aebersold). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast. An avid collector and trader in the vintage market, you can visit Jiim’s store at musicianshotline.com (dealer: IslandFunhouse).
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