Lesson 3 – Standard Music Notation For The Guitar


  1. Why Learn to Sightread?

  2. The Musical Staff

  3. The Grand Staff

  4. Accidentals

  5. Key Signatures

  6. Time Values of Notes in Music

  7. Time Signatures

  8. Right Hand String Picking Techniques

  9. Working with a Metronome

  10. Tips for Sightreading

  11. Sightreading Exercises




The purpose of this lesson is to help you build basic rudimentary skills for reading and playing music on the guitar. Do all sections of this chapter in sequence.


Why Learn to Sightread?

Why Learn to Sightread? Guitarists are notoriously poor at reading music. There very well may be several reasons for this, but the most significant reason is that the guitar factually enjoys more popularity now than at any other point in history. The last five or so decades have generated some of the most exciting and rich popular music in history (rock, jazz, pop, folk, blues, r&b, etc.). The guitar is such a physical and visual instrument and has been relatively easy for people to pick up and make pleasant sounds using only a few simple chord forms and a lick or two. However, the vast majority of this music did not require a great degree of technical skill or sight-reading ability. Thus, guitar-wielding masses formed without any appreciation of why it might be beneficial to learn to read music. There are, in fact, several ways that reading music can prove to be helpful. Good sight-reading skills allow you to learn new pieces from printed music and to learn music at a faster rate. A knowledge of written music will make it easier for you to communicate your own ideas to other musicians and for you to better understand their ideas. It will also make it easier for you to understand and analyze a piece of music. This will enable you to figure out how to vary a piece or improvise a part to make that piece your own. It is true that there have been virtuoso guitarists who never learned to read music, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The study of sight-reading can open up a whole new world of music for you and provide a valuable tool for improving your guitar playing and general musicianship.

The Musical Staff


The musical staff consists of five equidistant, horizontal lines upon which we write musical notes (symbols) that represent musical sounds or events. The placement of the note on the staff determines the pitch (how high or low the note sounds). The staff has both an x(vertical) and y(horizontal) axis. The x axis of the staff refers to how high or low the note is on the staff.


Bar Lines subdivide music on the staff into measures/measurements of time. The y axis represents the time element of music (left to right).


Combining the x and y axis creates music. The exact pitch is determined by where the note is placed on the staff. Notes are written and read from left to right to show time duration. The x axis allows you to play more than one note at the same time, as in a chord. This illustration shows the horizontal aspect of the staff, and how music goes from left to right (analogous to forward motion in real time).


In standard western musical notation we use a clef sign to designate where the notes will actually appear on the staff. Musical notation for the guitar is written in what we call the treble or G clef. This symbol is actually an old european style letter G.


This clef is used to pinpoint exactly where the note G is located on the staff. Thus, the G clef determines the range of notes, and their location, for all instruments in the treble or G clef range.

Staff Visualization and Pitch Recognition Drills (x axis)


Example #1 Notes that are located on the LINES of the staff.


Example #2 Notes that are located on the SPACES of the staff.

As covered in lesson 2, there are only seven natural notes in western music. These are the first seven letters of the alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F, G).

1. The musical staff consists of 5 lines and 4 spaces.

2. The lines and spaces of the staff are numbered vertically from the bottom to the top.

Notice that the letter names of notes on the spaces spell the word “FACE” .


Notes on a Keyboard

  1. All the notes are arranged in alphabetical order on a piano keyboard (from left to right). The same is true for each string on the guitar.

  2. The white keys on a piano produce natural notes only, while the black keys produce the sharp/flat notes only.

  3. The piano keyboard illustration above is shown as a reference aid to make it easier for you to visualize the sequence of notes. Think of each string of the guitar as a piano keyboard.


Note identification drills


Identify these notes and fill in the blanks. Note that these are just two examples provided for you. Take some blank staff paper and write in notes at random to create your own exercises.

  1. Simply visualize a musical staff in your mind.

  2. Call out the name of any one note at a time in random order, or in any sequence you prefer (just as long as you drill this repeatedly until you can identify any note on the staff quickly and easily.

  3. Pick up some sheet music (or any printed music book) and orally call out the names of the notes printed on 

  4. the staff.


The Grand Staff


Now that you have some familiarity with the notes on the musical staff (for the treble clef), we can introduce the Grand Staff which uses a wider tonal range (with notes down into the bass clef). Observe the Grand Staff uses both treble and bass clefs bracketed together. The bass clef provides us with a method of representing a lower range of notes for various instruments that have lower tonal range than guitar (bass, trombone, left hand piano, tuba, etc). The Grand Staff is always used for piano. We will now look at how the notes on the staff relate to the notes on the guitar. This illustration shows how “Middle C” separatres the treble and Bass clefs).


The treble clef symbol is actually an old European-style letter G. It pinpoints exactly where the G note is located (as seen earlier in this lesson) on the staff. The G clef, determines the range of notes, as well as their location, for all instuments in the treble or G clef range. Guitar music is always written using a single staff (not the grand staff) and the treble clef. The lower notes of the instrument are written using ledger lines.


The bass clef symbol is actually derived from the letter F (think of the two dots as lines and this should become apparent).

As was briefly explained at the beginning of this section, the bass clef pinpoints exactly where the F note is located on the staff. The F clef determines the range of notes, as well as their location, for all instruments in the bass or F clef range. This is the lower range of the Grand Staff and these notes correspond to the ledger lines written below the staff in guitar music.


The F notes shown here are the same pitch represented in both the treble and bass clefs.


The complete range of notes for the guitar. Ledger lines are used to help identify notes above or below the staff.


This example shows the placement of notes with the same name on the staff. Observe that notes appearing on lines on the staff fall on spaces above and below the staff, and notes that appear on spaces on the staff fall on lines above and below the staff. Rather than learning the notes from left to right, examine each example vertically to view the note groups sharing the same letter name.

  1. Look at all of the E’s shown on the left side of the example.

  2. Memorize the location of each of these E’s (the E below the staff is 4 space below, the E above is actually in the top space of the staff, and the E on the staff is on the bottom line of the staff).

  3. Repeat the two steps above for the remaining note groups.


Ascending and Descending. The notes shown here have the same letter name on each of the staves.


Accidentals are used in music to indicate notes that fall out of key. They are indicated as either being sharp or flat. A sharped note is one half step above the indicated note. Thus C would become a C# (pronounced “C sharp”).

Sharp (#): A symbol that raises a note by one half-step.

Flat (b): A symbol that lowers a note by one half-step.

Natural: A symbol that removes the effect of a sharp or flat sign, so that the note represents a pitch that is not, sharp or flat.

Key Signatures

The key signature is a sequence of sharps and flats appearing just to the right of the treble clef or bass clef on a staff. Sharps or flats that appear in the key signature are valid throughout the entire piece of music, or until a new key signature appears in the music.


All F notes in this example are sharp.


Natural signs cancel the effect of the sharp found in the key signature, but only for the duration of the measure that they appear in. The next bar line cancels accidentals for all of the following measures.


This example is in the key of F which contains one flat (Bb). This does not alter the effect of the sharps or naturals included.


This example is in the key of G which contains one sharp (F#). This does not alter the effect of the flats included.

Time Values of Notes in Music

The time value of a note, or the duration for which the note should be played, is represented by the shape of the note. The most common notes used in music are whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes and triplets. The name of a note is derived from how much of a measure it takes up time-wise. Every numerical count falls on a downbeat, and every downbeat has an upbeat. In addition to notes, there are rests. Rests indicate time values for periods of silence.


Whole notes (so called because its duration is for the entire measure)


Half note (has the duration of two beats/half of the measure)


Quarter note (has the duration of one beat/quarter of the measure)


Eight Note (has the duration of half of one beat/eighth of the measure)


Triplet (is splitting each beat of the measure into three eighths)


Sixteenth Note (has the duration of one quarter of one beat/sixteenth of one measure)


Whole note rest


Half note rest


Quarter note rest


Eigth note rest


Sixteenth note rest


Time Signatures

Music occurs in real time. Printed music illustrates the occurrence of musical events (sounds and periods of silence). In standard musical notation we use a system of dividing the written music into equal units of time known as measures.

Measure: a single group of beats in which the first beat is accented. A measure has a set number of beats, and usually this pattern recurs consistently throughout a piece of music. However, there are examples of music which do not utilize consistent measures (that is, the number of beats changes with each measure). Music is divided into units of time (measures) by drawing bar lines on the staff. Music is generally theme-like, or thematic in nature. Double bar lines are used to indicate the beginnings and endings of sections of a piece of music.

Immediately to the right of the key signature, one finds two numbers, one on top of the other. This tells you the meter that the music is written in, or in other words, it tells you how many beats there are in each measure (top number) and what type of notes lasts for the duration of one beat (bottom number). For example, in 4/4 (pronounced four four) time there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note lasts for one beat, while in 6/8 (pronounced six eight) time, there are six beats in a measure and an eighth note lasts for one beat.


4 beats per measure, quarter note gets the beat.


6 beats per measure, eighth note gets the beat


Right Hand String Picking Exercises

One of the most common barriers to playing written music is a lack of basic rudimentary right hand skills. When I say basic I mean the fundamental ability to hit the right string at the right time. Additionally, a player should not need to look at his right hand to ensure that the correct string is being played. The following is a list of steps to help you to develop basic right hand picking skills.

  1. Place the heel of the right hand palm over the strings very close to the bridge. You want to actually feel the strings against the heel of your palm.

  2. While actually looking at the right hand begin plucking the strings from the lowest or sixth string to the highest, in sequence (6,5,4,3,2,1). You want to actually feel the strings vibrating against your hand as you’re playing.Notice that you are working with a fixed distance from the low string to the high string of about 2 1/2 to 3 inches. The point here is that the tip of the pick, and thus the right hand itself, does not travel any great distance. Staying in tune with this idea, you want to follow a very zen approach to the right hand. This means maximum efficiency for minimum effort. In other words, you want the least amount of wasted right hand motion. This means no Pete Townsend windmills or glam-rock poser moves. At least not until you get some real control over your right hand.

  3. Pick the strings in different sequences (adjacent strings, alternating strings, etc). Challenge yourself by creating and playing as many different patterns as you can think of (1,3,6 – 2,5,3,6 – 3,1,5,2,4,6 – etc.). You want to keep working at this until you get to a point where you can create a pattern to play and then play it without looking at the guitar at all.

  4. The final step is to remove the palm of your hand from the strings. Once again, try playing the strings in different sequences and avoid looking at the strings. The previous steps outlined here should give you a good feel for the location of the strings. However, if you still find it too difficult to remove your palm from the strings and hit the correct string without looking at your guitar, then you must review the previous instructions and keep trying to wean yourself from dependence on having your palm to guide you. You may ask how you will know if you really are hitting the correct string if you can’t look at it. The answer is that you will develop sonic recognition for each string (high or low pitch) and you will began to recognize the way individual strings feel to your fingers (mass, tension, etc.).


Working With A Metronome

Time and rhythm are truly the most important elements of music, however, they are most often overlooked and neglected by guitar players. The difference between a professional and an amateur can often be traced down to the element of time. Both players may be using the same equipment and even playing the same music, but the professional has rock solid timing. Every musician must develop a solid sense of time (even if your goal is simply to play for family and friends in your living room) to achieve a level of quality in their playing that they and anyone else will enjoy listening to.

A metronome is a time keeping device. They come in all shapes and sizes and a wide price range. I usually recommend the “pocket calculator” type because they are small, portable, inexpensive, and they do the job. The metronome provides a steady, stable pulse that you use as a reference when counting beats for a piece of music. A variety of settings (slow to fast) are provided. Start slow (in the range of 60 to 70 beats per minute)! It will take some effort to get used to working with a metronome. You will find that you will deviate from the pulse dictated by the metronome. As with any new skill, the more you work at it the easier it will be.

Tips For Sightreading

Sight-reading actually can and should be fun. A positive attitude is essential. Students generally do enjoy playing written music when they have the right material presented to them in an organized manner, and in the correct sequence.

I. Visual: Make sure that your music stand is in front of you at a comfortable viewing height and distance. Look at the music while sight-reading, not the guitar. The more you look at the guitar the longer you will be dependent on doing so. If you absolutely must look at your left hand, then you should just glance at it out of the corner of your eye. The less you rely on this the better. If you are still having difficulty with the right hand picking the correct strings, you should do the right hand string picking exercises.

II. Time: Generally, you should be using a metronome (see metronome setup under working with a metronome). You should tap your foot while counting and playing sight-reading exercises. In some circles this is a fairly controversial point. Some do feel that you should learn to develop a rhythmic sense in your head without relying on body movement, but I do feel that its easier to develop that sense if your body does have a reaction to the rhythmic pulse of the music (traditionally that means tapping your foot). Stay in time: do not stop and go back to the beginning if you make a mistake. Keep going forward. Follow the music and jump back in as soon as possible.

III. Oral Drills: To increase your speed of note recognition (rapidly identifying every note instantly), it is very helpful to just orally (without guitar in hand) call out the names of notes from sheet music. (See staff visualization exercises earlier in this chapter)

Sightreading Exercises

When first learning to sightread, the most important tool is your memory. The ability to rapidly identify a note on the staff, and to know what finger, fret, and string are to be used is essential. This process of rapid note identification and correct finger placement to play the desired note needs to be drilled regularly in order to strengthen your memory. Thus, the first section of this chapter is provided to greatly increase your memorization skills.

Important note: Once initial memorization is accomplished it is imperative that you do not try to perfect or memorize any one exercise. Sight-reading means just that, reading what you see. Memorizing any one exercise defeats this purpose. In order to really increase your ability, it is essential that you do not play the same exercise over and over again. Instead, play several exercises in sequence and then review the series in sequence.

Note: later on in these lessons you will be introduced to the patterns by which the various scales and modes used in Western music may be reproduced on the guitar. When you have reached that point in your studies you will begin to notice how you may use those patterns to allow you to more quickly find notes, and thus, ease the task of sight-reading.

Sight-Reading Key of C


C major Scale in First Position. Numbers above the staff represent fret number and finger number (zero represents an open string). The strings are represented by numbers below the staff.

The links below will take you to exercises you can use to practice sight reading. Try them all. Be sure to move on if you feel you are just memorizing an example and are not sight reading anymore.

You can print out these exercises by using the “print frame” or “print” option in your browsers menu.

The links below will take you to exercises you can use to practice sight-reading. Try them all. Be sure to move on if you feel you are just memorizing an example and are not sight-reading anymore.

  1. Lesson 3A – Exercises Using Half Notes

  2. Lesson 3B – Exercises Using Quarter Notes

  3. Lesson 3C – Exercises Using Half and Quarter Notes

  4. Lesson 3D – Exercises Using Eighth Notes

  5. Lesson 3E – Exercises Using Quarter and Eighth Notes

  6. Lesson 3F – Exercises Using Sixteenth Notes

  7. Lesson 3G – Exercises Using Triplets

  8. Lesson 3H – Exercises Using Sharps, Flats and Naturals

  9. Lesson 3I – Exercises Using Rests


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 Lesson 3A – Exercises Using Half Notes

In 4/4 time, there are 4 quarter note beats per measure. Thus, the half note lasts for 2 beats.



















































Lesson 3B – Exercises Using Quarter Notes





























Lesson 3C – Exercises Using Half and Quarter Notes

































Lesson 3D – Exercises Using Eighth Notes






































3E – Exercises Using Quarter and Eighth Notes

The eight note is half the time value of the quarter note. Thus, the eight note lasts for half a beat in 4/4 time. You can keep time by tapping your foot and counting “one and two and three and four and, one and….”







































Lesson 3E – Exercises Using Quarter and Eighth Notes

The eight note is half the time value of the quarter note. Thus, the eight note lasts for half a beat in 4/4 time. You can keep time by tapping your foot and counting “one and two and three and four and, one and….”
































Lesson 3F – Exercises Using Sixteenth Notes

The sixteenth note is half the time value of the eight note. Thus, the sixteenth note lasts for one quarter of a beat in 4/4 time. As you can see, you count sixteenth notes using “one e and a, two e and ah…”
































































Lesson 3G – Exercises Using Triplets

The triplet is an irregular division of the beat. In 4/4 time, the eighth note triplet lasts for one beat. Triplets are counted by “one and a, two and a…” or “trip-el-let, trip-el-let…”


















































Lesson 3H – Exercises Using Sharps, Flats and Naturals

















































Lesson 3I – Exercises Using Rests




































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