Sight Reading Tips for Classical Guitar

Gohar Vardanyan (via sponsor Strings by Mail) gives a lesson on Basic Sight Reading Tips. This comes via her YouTube channel where she posts many great lessons. Good advice for beginners trying to get a handle on the reading over the fingerboard. I was just going to post this video quickly but then I kept oozing text below!

How do I usually teach my students?

  1. I use my two method books and encourage daily sight reading of very easy music, there’s no substitute for that. Go through multiple beginner method books until it’s easy for you.
  2. Memorize single-string chromatic scales. There are only 6 strings and if you know your musical alphabet it’s easy to learn the entire fingerboard. One string a week is easy to memorize even for youth students so in six weeks they have a pretty solid grounding. Also play tons of any kind of scale and say the notes out loud so you aren’t just using fingerings. Not in your head, say the note names out loud!
  3. A great starter book I use with my students is Sight Reading for the Classical Guitar by Robert Benedict as it covers a variety of melodic and harmonic textures, form, phrasing, dynamics, and rhythmic skills. I love this book because the small examples are like having the student play tons of different pieces in half the time.
  4. For a more methodical study, my students learn all the moveable major scale patterns and the C Major pages only from Scale Pattern Studies by Aaron Shearer which has great scales with melodic sight reading after. After learning all the C Major pages (a long task) they can play over the entire fingerboard with some confidence. Then it’s on to the entire book page by page (the forever plan).
  5. Jazz guitar and jazz method books. These are often very useful for understanding music on the fretboard without the reading aspect getting in the way. After even some very basic jazz coverage students are really all over the fretboard and can see triads, scales, and chord patterns all over. If they can see the pattern they can make connections to the notation versions of the same patterns. Takes time though.
  6. Music theory and musicianship classes usually take over at this point which help students make the connections between reading and the guitar on their own. I can’t stress how important this step is. It’s the only way to really do it right.
  7. At more advanced levels I use some specialty books such as Rhythmic Training by Robert Starer which is not a guitar book but is filled with intense rhythmic studies. I need to carefully work with them on these as they are difficult to do without help.
  8. At the most advanced stages students need to go through many different method books clearly understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. If they’ve taken theory and musician classes and completed a solid number of methods they can probably devour content at this point so that’s what they need to do: devour all!

Reaching advanced levels: Theory and musicianship classes are beyond important. Remember that pros have almost certainly taken theory and musicianship classes (that don’t involve the guitar). That means that they understand how music works and they speak and read the language of music. Musicianship classes and choir singing have enabled them hear or sing the music on the page so their mind knows how to translate music. Once you can do that the guitar is far less of a mystery and just the tool of musical delivery. There is no book or easy do-it-yourself way for this. You need good teachers, classes, advice, and practice. It takes years and you can’t skip steps if you want to reach advanced levels.

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  1. I think part of the problem why a lot of guitarists have difficulty with sight reading is TAB. A lot of guitar books and sheet music come with standard notation and TAB. The TAB notation is so much easier to read than standard notation. So a lot of guitarists will read the TAB to learn the song. But the problem is that he is not learning to read and play the notes. If the TAB notation was taken away, he would have a really difficult time learning the song. If he joins a church group, for example, and he has to play a song along with the piano, violin, cello, he will be given music that is written in standard notation. I would think that it would be unacceptable to say, oh, wait, I need a couple of hours to rewrite the guitar parts in TAB.

    • True, you are correct but TAB itself is not the problem, it’s the attitude toward pedagogy and study that has been adopted by the general public and music publishers. Because of the popular nature of guitar there is so much ‘self-teaching’ going on. Guitarists often exist in a guitar-centric bubble unlike string players that interact with orchestra and chamber music more readily. In the end, if you take lessons with a good teacher with the intention of becoming a solid and well-rounded musician than you will learn to read music. TAB has it’s place both historically and in modern settings but less so in the teaching studio and even less in the composed music world where understanding the composer means understanding the score. And, as you said, it is essential for chamber music.

  2. My original intent for posting my comments was to ask if you could recommend any intermediate level books with standard notation only. All the classical guitar books I’ve found online have standard notation and TAB. I’m really trying to improve my sight reading, and I only want to read standard notation. I like pieces like Romance, Etude in Em (Francisco Tarrega), Lagrima, etc. Thanks.

    • Hi, all the books I link to in the article are notation-only books with no tab. Furthermore, all the sheet music on my site includes notation-only versions (almost all free) so go for it!

  3. Time is an issue too ,its hard to fit everything in ,we all want to play pieces well ,learning new ones ,keeping old ones in touch ,do our scales and technique work ,I do theory lessons as well ,I struggle to fit in sight reading practice even though its a super useful skill

      • Hello Bradford, speaking of 5 minutes I would like to recommend the Sight Reading “Study of the Day” ( I think it’s a great resource for guitarists and really fun to check out on a daily basis (I have subscribed to the newsletter). Even if I don’t find the time to play the day’s study, I try to put in a few minutes to at least “read” it.

  4. This is an excellent and important topic. I invite anyone interested in building sight reading confidence to check out my article in the Fall 2017 issue of Classical Guitar. If anyone is interested I would be glad to send them a copy of the article.

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