No doubt about it Learning to sight read guitar parts is an important part of playing jazz guitar. Everyone has heard the classic joke, “How do you make a guitarist turn down? Put some sheet music in front of them”.

Having being in many sight reading situations myself and with other guitarists I can say this is certainly true.  Sight reading isn’t an easy task when learning to play jazz guitar considering that one note can be played a countless amount of times across the neck spanning all 6 strings and frets.

There is going to be a situation that comes up sooner or later when you need to sight read for a gig, recording session or just to play something you want. Not everything is in tab and we need to be able to read rhythms.

When sight reading situations happen you want to be prepared as you possibly can. There’s nothing more embarrassing than being the only one in a rehearsal not being able to sight read something everyone else can.

Over the years I’ve discovered a few tips and tracks that have helped me get through this daunting task and will hopefully break down some barriers for you.


sight read guitar


Waste No Time


Quite often in class or rehearsal situations you have a few minutes to look over a chart before playing it. Instead of noodling or talking, use the time wisely by reading through the chart and look for anything in the piece that might slip you up.

Occasionally a conductor or a leader will need to address problems with a section or another instrument. Use this time wisely too, any time where you’re not reading should be spent looking through the chart.


Check the Pitch Range


I can’t tell you how many times I’ve began reading a piece of music and half way through realized I’ve ran out of frets and not being able to continue. Doing the following simple task will ensure this won’t happen:

Before you play the first note on the page, look at the entire section you have to play and first find the lowest pitched note and then the highest pitched note. Then find these two notes on the guitar neck.

There will be some positions on the neck that will work better than others and by doing checking the pitch range with various positions you will be able to find the smoothest one before reading the piece through


Avoid Open Strings


This point applies more to reading jazz based material than other styles.

Ideally you should be confident at reading all over the guitar neck, however, in reality you rarely see a jazz guitarist playing a melody or a lick with open strings.

I’ve found that most jazz melodies work best around the 5th position of the guitar neck and above, especially bebop lines and heads. Written music always seem to fit best around this area, and results in less awkward position shifts.


Keep a Pulse


For most guitarists pitch recognition is the easier part of reading and rhythms are often what causes the most slip ups.

I’ve seen students trying to read something and getting no where, because they aren’t keeping a sense of time. Keeping a clear pulse is essential when sight reading and will make reading rhythms easier.

In a live situation I recommend tapping your foot or counting quietly to yourself. In a long practice session at home you could also use a metronome.


Work Out The Harmony


If you can look a chart and quickly see that a melody that derives from a scale, arpeggio or mode it will make the piece much easier, because chances are you will have a fingering that you can relate the dots to.

Before you begin playing a piece always examine it and see if you can work where the notes are coming from harmonically and the pitch range discussed earlier.

Sight reading a chart note by note is tough and by doing the procedures mentioned you will already have a good idea about where to play on the neck before picking up your guitar.


Sight Read Guitar with a Jam Buddy


Some of the biggest improvements in my own playing have been made by practicing with other musicians. Not entirely through jamming but through working on reading and aural exercises together.

Practicing alone is great and it’s what we do most of the time, but most of us get distracted quickly, and by having someone else there a practice session is more productive.

Even if you could just find one hour every week to practice sight reading with another musician you would notice a huge difference after just a few weeks. After all sight reading is musical and there are some great duet pieces to get stuck into.


Now that you know how to make sight reading easier you might be seeking some good reading musician to check out. What material should you use to practice reading? Anything and everything.

In sight reading situations we never know exactly what we’re going to be faced with so it’s important that we are prepared to reading a variety of material.

Saying that one great resource I found for learning to read jazz based material was the Charlie Parker Omnibook. Not only is this great for practicing reading it has tons of great heads and lines to get under your fingers and should be part of every guitarist’s bookshelf. I also recommend going through a real book and picking random tunes to read. Not only will this improve your reading it will also get lots of melodies in your head.


Have you found any useful tips for learning to sight read guitar pieces or do you have any funny incidents involving reading you can share in the comment section below.



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