Learn to Read Music, Part 3

Learn some more building blocks of musical notation.
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If you applied yourself to the past two months’ columns, you should now be able to recognize all the notes from an open low E up to a high G at the 15th fret of the high-E string. You should also be able to count them as quarter-notes (one note per beat) or eighth-notes (two notes per beat, as in “one-and-two-and, etc). Sharp-eyed readers (which we all aspire to be) have also noticed that sometimes bars contain things we haven’t really discussed, such as rests—corresponding moments of silence that are divided up just like their notey siblings: quarter-rests, eighth-rests, etc. Hopefully you figured that out on your own, because for these lessons to avoid getting bogged down in minutia (or drag on forever), you’re going to need to take some initiative, put two and two together, and draw on the musicality you already possess to keep cracking this code. All of this info is readily available on the web. What we’re trying to do here is keep it fun and guitaristically relevant. To use the language metaphor yet again: I’m not trying to teach you how to conjugate 1,000 verbs in Spanish. I’m trying to give you enough info so you can order a beer and crack some jokes on your next trip to Cabo. Still, though, we need some building blocks, so here you go.


Most rock music is in 4/4, as designated by the fraction or “time signature” you see at the beginning of a line. Think of the top number as the number of beats per measure, the bottom as the type of beat, so in this case four quarter-notes (or their equivalent) per measure. If you see 3/4 (waltz time), think three quarter-notes per measure. 6/8 would be six eighth-notes per measure, and so on. But back to our friend, 4/4. You can fill up a bar of 4 with any combination of what you see in Ex. 1. (Yes, Yngwie—you can also cram in thirty-second-notes and sixty-fourth-notes.)

Ex. 1 also introduces whole-notes and whole-rests, which are worth four full beats (or a “whole” measure of 4/4, get it?), half-notes and half-rests (two beats each), and sixteenth-notes and sixteenth-rests—four equally spaced notes per beat. You can count sixteenth-notes as “one-e-and-a, two-e-and-a,” etc.

We start with some whole-note action in Ex. 2 (once again, no tab—you can handle it). Hit ’em hard and you will hear the heaviest riff in the heaviest song that shares its name with the heaviest band. Whoa. That last whole-note is tied to a dotted half-note. We haven’t talked about dotted notes, but you can suss it out with that aforementioned “initiative.” It lasts three beats, so the dot adds half of the note’s value to it. That is true for any dot you see after a note.

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Now for some sixteenth-notes in Ex. 3. Tap your foot, say “one-e-and-a, two-e-and-a” to yourself, and dig into Ex. 3. The first two bars are straight sixteenths, but bar three has a little bit of everything. Here’s how you count it: The downbeat is a quarter-note, so say “one” as you hit it. Beat two is a rest, so you can say “two” to yourself (or better still, say “rest”), but don’t play anything. Beat three gets a little tricky. It has an eighth-note, a sixteenth- rest, and then a sixteenth-note, which make up beat three’s four sixteenths: The eighth-note takes up “three-e,” the “and” is silent, and we come back in on the “a.” Beat four has a rest on the down and a note on the upbeat (“and”). So, I’m going to tap my foot, keep that sixteenth-note pulse going in my brain, and count this whole bar like so: “One, rest, three, a rest and.” Now here it is with the silent or sustained parts in parentheses: “One (two) three (e-and) a (four) and.” Tap your foot and say it, slowly, over and over. Internalize the rhythm as you memorize the notation and what it represents. Then hit the chords on the words you say, or on one, three, the “a” of three, and the “and” of four. This is how it’s done folks.

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In closing, I would just like to say, don’t let this column be the only reading you do each month. Find every bit of notation you can and dig into it. Glance at the tab to get your bearings but then truly immerse yourself in the notes, rhythms, and articulations (as in vibrato or slides). Get a chart for a tune you know and reverse engineer it (“So that’s what the riff to ‘Smoke on the Water’ looks like!”). Go to a used bookstore and buy some of those “Piano/Vocal/Guitar” books from the ’70s and have at it. Again, there is a vast amount of info in every bar of notation and the only way to get comfortable with it is by working with it a lot. That, my friends, is the thrill of the fight!