As a kid, learning new things to play on the guitar centered around my love of certain kinds of music. Back then we had the radio and phonograph players, so I was building my record collection and appreciation of music around what I heard on the radio; mostly Top 40 hits. That was my motivation at large.
Later, as my skills increased, my taste in music grew more specific. So, my skills narrowed somewhat as I focused primarily on a few artists that I really liked.
But also, as a concert band member in school, I learned to read a lot of music I wouldn’t have otherwise introduced myself to. This gave me a broader perspective about different kinds of classical, jazz, folk, and rock styles. I didn’t really think about it much, but that influence indirectly made me a more versatile player and increased my appreciation for lots of musical styles.
Now, especially as a teacher, I would enthusiastically recommend learning to read music with the guitar, right alongside learning those licks and songs that got you interested enough to play in the first place.
Here are some more reasons why I think learning to read music is important.
- The availability of notation (sheet music) on the internet is endless.
- Reading (and being able to play) someone else’s creative work gives you a more versatile skill set.
- Left to ourselves, we will tend to get in a rut musically. Learning to play another style (like bluegrass, etc.) will deepen our well.
- If you become a journeyman of sorts, knowing more kinds of music will land you more gigs.
- If you want to write songs, understanding a lot of musical styles will help you be more creative.
- Once you’re in a situation where you are implementing another’s musical taste, like a band member or taking your cues for songs to play from someone other than yourself, your ability to interpret, musical style, tempo, dynamics, key changes, playing in uncommon keys, etc., will come in handy.
- Your band leader or ‘wedding planner’ asks you to learn a particular song before the next gig. You’re already pretty skilled at learning songs from tracks, but there’s a section in the piece that’s just too complicated. Notation is readily available, but unless you have the ability to read music you may have to pass on the gig.
So, reading music can really give you an advantage, but it can also put you in a place where you can serve your band mates or the folks who have given you the task. I’ve found that it facilitates an atmosphere of trust quickly, especially if time is short for working out the arrangement.
Today, if you’re in a rut or just looking for another song to learn, pick a style and go find something that’s new to your fingers (and muscle memory). It’ll make you a better player.
Until next time…
Bill Maxwell has over forty years of guitar playing experience and over twenty years of teaching students how to master the fretboard.