Excel Music - Serving Tampa, New Tampa & Wesley Chapel


Guitarists Can't Read!

I admit I was a little offended when I was asked to write this article. Then I remembered that there are many misconceptions surrounding the guitar, especially among non-musicians and beginner musicians. I realized that this article was meant to educate those who do not understand what is required to be a competent guitar player in the year 2011. A common misconception is that guitarists are not good at reading music. While it is true that guitarists often rely on their ears more than their eyes (it is music after all - not reading class), the truth is that guitarists use a more complicated system of notations than other instruments. Hopefully this article will clear up some of these misconceptions for both beginner guitarists and their families.

When most people think of written music, they imagine 5 horizontal lines with little black dots all over the place. This is a very old system used in western music, more commonly referred to as standard notation or staff notation. But when it comes to guitar music there is a system called tablature that is equally as old, and equally as important. The story doesn't end there however because there is also a third system known as chord chart notation. Many songs for the guitar

are played by strumming chords, and chord charts are by far the simplest way to read and write these types of songs.

Why do we need these other forms of notation for the guitar? Staff notation works fine for every other instrument, why is the guitar special? Well, the staff does have some advantages. It gives a musician all the information necessary to play a piece of music, right there in one place - even if he/she has never heard the music before. Also it makes it possible to switch the music from one instrument (or voice) to another. But there are also some disadvantages. With the guitar, the same exact note sometimes appears at several different positions on the neck. Standard notation does not have a way to specify in what position to play the note. Most modern guitar music is published using standard notation accompanied by tablature. Tablature (or tab for short) consists of six lines that visually represent the guitar's six strings. Numbers on these lines represent what frets should be played. This eliminates any ambiguity about what position to play a note. Because of this, tabs are easier and therefore faster, to read and write. One problem with tablature alone is that there is no rhythmic information. This is why it is important to combine the tab with either staff notation or rhythm notation so that each note's rhythmic value is known. Some popular guitar magazines and guitar internet sites have invented their own hybrid system of notation that

combines tablature with rhythm notation.

Staff notation with tablature is suited for guitar music that involves riffs, melodies, or even guitar solos. But guitarists spend most of their time strumming chords. In these situations a simple chord chart will do. Chord chart notation is just like how it sounds - it arranges the song showing what chords to play and in what order to play them. Sometimes a rhythm, or strumming pattern, is given or sometimes the guitarist must use his/her own judgment to decide how best to strum the chords.

So what is the right notation to learn first? Ultimately an intermediate or advanced guitarist should be well familiar with all three, but for a beginner guitarist it really depends on the student's goals and their previous experience. If coming from another instrument, it is sometimes easier to start with standard notation since it is already familiar. Or if a student is interested in classical guitar or in joining the jazz band at school, more time should be spent learning the notes on the staff. Otherwise, most modern guitar music is written with a combination of tablature, rhythm notation and chord charts. But don't forget - all these notations are used to write music that we use our ears to listen to. Training to use your ear is still the most important priority in music!

- Ian Medhurst

Ian Medhurst has been an instructor at at Excel Music since its founding in 2006.

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- Tune Yourself Up - by Robert Yaniz - New Tampa News, September 2006
- Excel Music Owners Share The Joy Of Music With New Tampa - by Melissa O'Brian - New Tampa Neighborhood News, May 2007
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