the art of guitar

Do I Really Need To Learn How To Read Music? (Subscriber Question)

I was lucky enough to learn to read music in Jr. High for violin, and then -through sheer personal will- I forced myself through multiple piano courses and Mel Bay guitar books. After two and a half decades of playing I can think of many times when being able to read made the difference between me (and many musicians I know) getting the gig or not. Here's one instance:

My friend called and said that Whitney Houston's drummer was putting together a band to play a fundraiser. The pay was so good I couldn't say no, plus I wanted to work with the high-level musicians who were in the project. We met at a local music college for practice and the director pulled out sheet music (to everyone's surprise) and basically expected us to sight-read right off the bat. My sight reading skills were akin to an old book you put on the shelf years ago that had collected layers of dust. The first run-through was brutal. I looked over at the other guitarist and he was sweating bullets. I did the old "turn your volume way down and pretend to play" trick until I got my bearing back at which time I acted like nothing had been wrong. In the pressure of having to read, all of my past skills came rushing back and I ended up getting the gig. It was then that I realized how learning to read not only gets you out of tough situations, it can also get you INTO great ones. 

Reasons FOR learning to read music as a guitarist:

1. You get a greater understanding of the fretboard. Trust me, playing Mary Had a Little Lamb with notes can feel a bit embarrassing at first, but you will never forget those few notes again. When you learn to read on guitar, you learn in positions and this is a sure-fire way to memorize the notes on the entire fretboard.

2. Your rhythm counting will go through the roof. When you're forced to play everything in time (I highly recommend playing with a metronome when learning to count rhythms) you naturally become a better, more solid, musician. You learn to trust your inner clock and what follows is the ability to explore and use new rhythmic strumming patterns and melodic phrases. 

3. You can learn to hear a song just by looking at the music. Because of sheer repetition, you begin to almost hear the notes come off the page even though they're just dots on lines. It's a magical time when this happens and you realize it's no different from hearing your inner voice say the words as you read letters in a book. I once heard it said that amusician who can't read music is like a person who can only speak a language but lack the ability to read it or write it down. 

4. You have a deeper understanding of intervals. A good reader can instantly recognize intervals when they see sheet music. This deepens your understanding of the relationship between notes and how melodies and chords interact with each other. Once again, this just adds to your toolbox of knowledge and boosts your confidence as a musician. Higher levels of playing/composing such as note and chord substitutions become much more obvious. 

5. You can find common ground when working with a variety of musicians and instruments. There've been times during recording sessions when musicians insist that they need their parts written down. I find this to be the case with horn players a lot. Even with a limited amount of reading/writing knowledge, you can at least get them on the right path during a session with just a few strokes of a pen. You'll also discover how many people learned their instrument strictly by the book and rely heavily on the written note. It's good to have the ability to bridge the gaps with these types of players. And though it's true that different instruments can have different clefs (Google Clefs ;), they can usually take whatever you give them and transpose it to fit their needs. Also, isn't it cool to know that the notation you write down can be played by musicians all around the world? Yes, music notation is truly a universal language.  

6. You'll get more gigs. If you ever plan to play in jazz combos, orchestra pits, studio sessions, commercial work, etc, you'd better get cracking on that Mel Bay book. Just binge learn and in a few short months you will forever lose your reading insecurities. Sure, if you just plan on playing rock covers around town you probably won't ever have to read music, but why take the chance? ;)

7. You don't want to just rely on TAB. We've got it pretty easy as guitar players. We have TAB (short for tablature which is a simpler number-based alternative method for writing guitar music). If it wasn't for TAB, I would never have learned 90% of the songs I did when I was a teenager. Even though most magazines and books included both TAB and notation, my eyes always skipped right to the TAB, using notation (notes) only if I was having rhythmic issues. Although TAB is amazing, and most guitar magazines eventually ditched notation all together, it does very little to advance your knowledge of music. Yes you can now play Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson, but do you really understand what you're playing? Do you know what scales, intervals, chords, etc, are being used to construct the song? Does you knowledge of the piece go beyond just the physical reproduction of the notes?

8. Learning how to read from a method book exposes the flaws in your technique. For example, the tendency to kill a note before you play the next one. It's easy to not even realize you're doing this until you're forced to play each note slowly and in time. Also, because it's such a tedious process, you'll begin to feel discomfort if your technique isn't perfect. Like if your thumb is resting incorrectly or if you're pushing too hard on the strings. So I like to think of method note reading as a great way to refine yourself technically and tighten the loose screws in your playing as well as your knowledge. 

Reasons AGAINST learning to read music as a guitarist.

1. Getting good at reading takes time, getting great at reading can take a LONG time. Steve Vai once spent an entire summer dedicating himself to bettering his reading skills. He said that after the long three months he felt he hadn't improved very much if at all. My guess is that he was already decent at it, but didn't do enough in that amount of time to reach the next level, which is the insantly high level of sight-reading. So if you're satisfied just playing songs, riffs, and licks, reading TAB could be enough for you. 

2. You may never be in a situation that requires it. This is a pretty weak reason not to learn to read because you can't predict the future. You may think you'll only ever jam in your basement or with some friends, but you can't really know. What if you keep getting better and better and suddenly someone wants you to play at their church or something. You'll always have that voice in your head wondering if you're going to have to read music when you arrive. Trust me, the few months it takes to get a decent handle of reading is worth it. 

3. Reading requires the use of the logical part of your brain. A lot of guitarists worry that learning too much theory or how to read can hamper their creative side. Like I said before, you don't need to read music to be a great artist (I believe someone told me that Paul McCartney never learned how to read or write music notation). However, I don't believe that learning how something works takes away from the ability to create art. I actually see it coming from different parts of your brain. When I first learned how to read, I really felt like I was doing math problems, which I hated. "Can't I just play music???" is all I could think to myself. Then a funny thing happened. After about three months of practice, I began to "read without reading." I can only describe this as how you feel when you tie your shoes; It's more of an automatic sensation. Once your reading hits a certain level, you no longer feel it coming from the logical part of the brain. That being said, it can take some time and some people aren't willing to put in that much effort for something that doesn't pay off right away. 

Well I thought I'd have more arguments against reading music but I guess not. So it's 8-3 in favor of you learning to read! People ask, "Why don't you teach reading music on your website (" Since I learned how to read from method books (mostly Mel Bay's Modern Guitar Method), I find it redundant to try and re-explain what's already been explained at such a high level. Plus teaching how to read doesn't translate well in video form, at least not yet. I believe I have a lot to offer in terms of general guitar teaching but when it comes to actual music reading, I must defer to those who have developed their methods for decades. So go to them for reading, and come to me for everything else. ;) -Mike G

Things Top Professional Musicians Rarely Do

Jack Black

Jack Black

I've noticed a few things in my years as a working musician. One is the difference between the busiest working musicians in town verses the musicians that perhaps don't get as many gigs as they would want. I'll just cut right to the list but keep in mind I'm not trying to bash anyone, just letting you know what I've come to realize as a list of things the best working musicians never seem to do. 

1. Show Up Late -There may be an unwritten rule that the better you are at your instrument the more leeway you get in terms of slacking off. If someone shows up ten minutes late but nails all the parts, it's easy for the band leader to cut them slack. However, when I think of the best players I've ever worked with, they seem to be great players AND show up on time. Yes as musicians we tend to put punctuality further down the list than most, but when it comes to being a pro, being on time is a constant. 

2. Show Up Unprepared -You'll almost never see a pro musician have the "deer in the headlights" look during rehearsal. Especially these days when pretty much everyone is accessible through text and email. A pro will usually show up with a majority of the music in their heads and if not they'll have a few charts or notes to help out. Sure you'll always have those "jobbers" who can seem to just figure out songs on the fly, but that's extremely rare and not always ideal. For example, I was in a cover band and we had a bass player show up not having rehearsed even one of the songs. Even though he got through it pretty well, our singer was a bit peeved that most of the bass lines were just improvised and the actual parts were neglected. He never got a call back. As my friend Mark Mallman says, "Rehearsal is where you play the songs that you should have already 'practiced' at home." 

3. Noodle While On Stage -One thing that screams, "I'm an amateur!!!," is the act of noodling while on stage. While the rest of the band is discussing the song arrangement, you'll see that one player with their volume all the way up practicing their parts or worse, just making noise. Don't do this, it gives the rest of the band the impression that you're scatterbrained, unprepared, stuck in your own head, and maybe even kind of a dick. ;) If you're trying out for a band, this is a sure killer of chances. 

4. Blame Others For Their Mistakes -You'll never hear a pro musician say, "Oh I would have nailed that solo but the bass player messed me up with that spinning rock kick!" Nope, a pro will take it on the chin and use the experience as a chance to learn. Yes there will be times when you study your ass off, learn your parts note-for-note, play it perfect, but someone else in the band messes up. Unless you're the leader of the group you should just carry on. Hopefully the leader knows where the problem lies, it's not your place to call anyone out. 

5. Overstep Their Role -I am so guilty of this. Because I teach music for a living I used to always make suggestions to the band about how we could improve the songs; I couldn't get out of "teacher mode." Over the years I've learned to keep my damn pie hole shut and recognize who is making the calls. Try to find out who the leader of the band is and respect their wishes, and if they're totally democratic about decisions, hold your tongue unless you feel you really have a valid suggestion. You'd be surprised how many people, myself included, want to make suggestions just to feel like they're contributing something. Though they may be well-intentioned suggestions, you don't always have to have a say. You wouldn't believe the enormous weight that lifted off my shoulders the day I gave up trying to make all the calls. 

6. Have Gear Issues -Okay, I'm writing this just weeks after I forgot my guitar strap at the rehearsal space and had to borrow one at a show. That being said, a pro musician will rarely have gear snafu's at gigs. They know what to bring and are usually prepared for many potentially ugly situations. A bass player friend of mine actually brings his "emergency suitcase" to every show. In it, he has everything he, or sometimes his band mates, could need in case of a problem. I think he has strings, fuses, batteries, straps!, picks, and probably even a Rambo knife in that thing. Try and imagine all the things that could go wrong and prepare for them. A show can come to a screeching halt at the death of a single tube or a bad wire. 

7. Overplay -Yet another issue I, and many guitarists, struggle with. Deep down we all want to play well and make our group better with our contribution. This can lead to overplaying. Yes the human ego can cause this, and often does, because it feels it has something to prove at all times. Overplaying or playing too loud can be a real pain for your band mates, and often the sound tech. I remember hearing a cover band play a slow-tempo classic rock song and when the solo section hit, the guitar player neglected the melodic solo (that's actually in the song) and started rippin' sweep arpeggios at full volume. Journey's Lights never sounded so painfully aggressive. Try and be aware of your musical role within the song. Listen beyond your part and hear the band as a whole. Ask yourself, "If I were mixing this song in a studio, would I want my guitar to be this loud?" I think my sound tech would say I'm getting better at this...I don't know though, I usually can't hear him when I'm playing. ;) hehe

8. Overindulge In Booze or Drugs -This can vary quite a bit, since some people can handle (and sometimes play better on) various amounts of mind-altering substances. I'm just talking about when it begins to diminish the player's ability to perform. I'll never forget a metal show we played when we were teenagers. The headlining band had a little too much time to kill before the show, and their lead guitarist had a bit too much of the "good medicine." Forget about playing his usual intricate solos, the guy couldn't even stand up. He had to actually lean against the back wall to keep from toppling over. His band mates weren't too impressed either and I heard he got a severe tongue-lashing after they left the stage; and now that I think of it, I think they may have broken up after that incident. Pro players know their limits and usually stay within them. If not, it's probably because they're playing some small bar in the middle of Wisconsin, and got a hotel there for the night. ;)

9. Bring Negative Vibes to the Group -Once again, if you're a complete badass at your instrument you can get away with being a little "edgy," but it seems like the best of the best aren't like this. In fact, they all seem to be on this "Cloud 9" state of mind. Seems to be some sort of enlightened musician vibe that I'm constantly trying to figure out. Most of the musicians that do bring the "dark energy" to bands end up band-less fairly quickly, unless that musician is the leader of their own band. You can spot the dark energy folk immediately by their words. They'll be the ones bad-mouthing other musicians, former (and current) band members, and are always bitching about something out of your control. So lighten up, try to bring some light to the band, and maybe someday you'll achieve that Cloud 9 mind. If you do, let me know how you did it. :)

10. Double-Book Themselves -And again I have to rip myself for being a hypocrite. In my defense, I haven't double-booked myself in a while now ever since I figured out Google Calendar. A pro will always have their calendar on hand, especially in this digital world, and know exactly when they're available. I can't think of a time when one of the elite players in town ever called and said, "Oh shit guys, I just realized I already have a gig tonight, sorry but you're on your own!" If they did double-book, they let you know far in advance and/or find you a replacement player. So keep track of your dates and make sure you're always looking a week ahead to avoid any upcoming scheduling catastrophes. 

I'm sure there are many more things pro musicians rarely do, but I'm tired and have to practice so, until next time. -Mike G

The 4 Stages of Guitar Center Playing

Is this you?

Is this you?

by Mike Geronsin of (

In my experience, there are 4 stages that we all go through during our guitar journeys that can easily be measured by our Guitar Center etiquette. 

Stage 1: You suck. You're so new that you're afraid to even turn up the amp in fear that the other guys will laugh at your wimpy skills. So you have the salesman grab a guitar off the wall, plug it in, and dial up the amp for you. Usually you'll marvel at how awesome the salesman is at playing Metallica riffs. They hand you the guitar but you just kinda look at it and play with the knobs. You decide to buy it because it "looks cool and Synyster Gates plays one just like it."

Stage 2: You still suck but you think you don't. You've learned three riffs off Youtube and are ready to show the world. So you grab a guitar off the wall, plug it in, and suddenly a heart-stopping squeal shoots from the Line 6 amp disturbing the customers and enraging the employees. Oh well, how were you to know the master knob was turned to 11? You struggle through Smoke On The Water, Enter Sandman, and Seven Nation Army, the whole time being slightly out of tune, out of time, and way too loud. The salesperson comes over, turns the amp down to 2, and gives you a half-crazy smile as they ask if you need any help. Your friends think you're pretty cool though because you made loud noises happen in public. You put the guitar down and go bang on the drums for no reason for the next hour. 

Stage 3: You're decent and want to "wow" the onlookers. You've graduated from the first two stages and have actually made some headway. Congratulations, most never make it out of those murky waters. You're good but probably haven't played many (if any) actual gigs. You grab a decent guitar (probably one that's not shaped like a death weapon with a lightning bolt paint job) and start playing some pretty sweet licks at a "way more than audible" volume. You wait for your first admirers to wander over and you bask in knowing that they're probably salivating at your tasty licks. They'll ask, "How long you been playin'?," to which you respond (while still shredding) with, "Ah, just a few years." By now there's a small crowd watching as you complete your Paul Gilbert legato exercises and shut the amp down. These mere mortals only deserve so much awesome for one night. You put down the $2000 guitar and walk away with your head held high, maybe purchasing a pack of strings on your way out. By the way, the employees still hate you.  

Stage 4: You've made it! You've not only gotten great as a player but now you have years of live experience plus some studio gigs in your pocket. You're only at the store to buy a bag of picks but you notice a rare-looking Gibson on the used wall. You bring it to the back room and plug it in only turning it up enough to hear the tone of the instrument. You don't care if anyone notices you and you actually hope the salesperson leaves you alone. Someone eventually walks in so you unplug and leave so you don't disrupt their guitar buying experience. You realize you've come a long way, from being a newbie who was afraid to be heard, to a professional who didn't care if people heard you or not. (