Here are some short cuts to sight-reading on the guitar.
My three main points are:
• Positions: Read where the key of the piece occurs under a well-known scale in that key.
• Rhythm and syncopation: Realize there are a finite number of rhythm patterns, and try to recognize the popular ones in all styles of music.
• Training the eyes: Even when you screw up, let it go. Keep reading ahead.
Here are a few more ideas that will take some of the mystery out of sight-reading on this difficult instrument.
Connect the Dots
To elaborate on point #1 above, it’s important to realize that not all music you’ll encounter lies under a single position on the neck. I once played a chart starting at F# on the low-E string with a melody climbing up to a high F# on the 14th fret of the high-E string. For this reason, it’s important to practice connecting your scales up and down the neck without looking at the fretboard. Doing this every day will soon give you the confidence to read in multiple positions without taking your eyes off the paper—which can be fatal! One of the harder things I’ve ever had to do was read notes on slide guitar. You almost have to look every once in a while to keep your intonation together, and it’s easy to lose your place on the page.
There’s an App for That
The iRealPro app for iPhone and iPad is an amazing tool for anyone who has grown up with The Real Book of lead sheets. With backing tracks provided, I can set the tempo slow enough to read difficult Charlie Parker heads and work on syncopated melodies. It’s a great training resource for those occasional live-on-stage sight-reading gigs, and a nice way to explore tunes you’ve never heard.
Look to the Future
As your reading chops improve, you’ll discover the rhythm of training the eyes to read ahead. The reality is you’re actually playing beats one and two, while you’re reading beats three and four (in 4/4 time). This sets you up for what’s ahead, especially with changing positions.
TAB Is for Sissies!
In an effort to constantly deal with music on the written page, I always write my musical ideas down in standard notation. Drummers, bass players, keyboard players, string players, and horn players won’t be able to communicate with you—or read your music—if all you know is TAB. Read for an hour a day with a fellow guitarist, and you’ll be a good reader in two months. The benefits are too numerous to mention regarding “hire-ability” and knowledge input, but consider this: You’ll have the mind-blowing experience of being able to tap into the mind of Bach, and play things he heard in his head and furiously scribbled down in the early 1700s. The Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin are some of the heaviest licks ever!