Like any other instrument, classical guitar music is written on a staff. There are great resources all over the web that teach and train reading on the staff. Notation reading should be fluent and effortless.
Starting from the bottom line of the staff, a sentence can be used to figure out each of the notes on the lines. “Every Good Boy Does Fine” is the most common sentence. “Even George Bush Drives Fast” is another. A young student came to me and he had made up his own sentence, “Elmo Gave Barny Dead Fish”
The spaces spell a word from bottom space to top: FACE.
With these tools a beginning player should never guess the note which they are going to play. It’s not about putting your fingers down and hoping, it’s about knowing. That means at the beginning stage of reading music, one should talk through the sentences or words if need be and know the notes. Often time students have a disassociation between the actual note names and where to put their fingers. Their intellectual concept of the staff is well developed but their muscle memory is not. The key is to train both at once. This can be accomplished very simply by saying the note names aloud while playing them. This works well playing melodies but fails with polyphonic music. Practice reading individual melodies, in multiple positions on the guitar, first.
Numbers, Letters, and Strange Markings
In addition to all the standard notation stuff, classical guitar music has some very specific things that go on in it. To notate left hand (LH) fingering, we use numbers:
- LH index
- LH middle
- LH ring
- LH pinky
To those former pianists (recovering pianists?) this can be a bit confusing as the thumb is normally considered 1. For the right hand (RH) we use letters:
- p = RH thumb
- i = RH index
- m = RH middle
- a = RH ring
- c = RH pinky
Most times the pinky is not used on the right hand, but sometimes a “c” pops up.
The other strange markings or words are going to be musical instructions on things such as tempo, articulation and dynamics. It’s also possible that some markings or words are indications of special or extended techniques, but most pieces of music will have a legend or key for those markings. Here is an online dictionary of music terms for your reference. It can also be helpful to have a reference around like The Harvard Dictionary of Music. If you’re still a college or graduate student check out your school library website. Most schools will have online access to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians which is a tremendous resource.
The key to getting better at reading is doing more of it. Which sucks. A lot. But there’s no way around it. With all the free music (check out the free guitar music page for some sheet music and links) floating around online there should be no shortage of music to read. A book of jazz licks can also be a great way to practice reading: just play the lick in multiple positions. Good luck! and happy reading!