If you are new to playing the guitar, you might be a bit nervous about having to learn theory in order to read music.
Studying notes, finger placement and sheet music may seem intimidating. On the other hand, it is possible to learn to play without technical or formal training.
Some people find it easier to ‘play by ear’, especially guitar notes. This involves hearing a melody and then playing it back or improvising it. Is it essential, however, to learn music theory in order to play an instrument?
Can you learn guitar without reading music? Yes, you can play the guitar without being able to read music. As a beginner, if you can match up the sounds you hear with the notes they represent, then you can indeed teach yourself to play without studying music theory. The style of genre you wish to play will directly influence this. Classical and jazz will require reading sheet music whereas pop and rock leave more room for interpretation and improvisation.
When you have the desire to learn how to play the guitar, I know from experience, you just want to pick up the instrument and make music! Unfortunately, it is not always that easy.
Some people will have a knack for ‘playing by ear’ whereas others will not. In this article, we will explore the idea of playing the guitar without reading music in more detail.
So, if you are ready to learn more, then please read onward…
Guitarists Who Can’t Read Music
There are some famous guitarists who, it is believed, did not read sheet music. How could that be possible?
Famous musicians, who can’t read music?
Yes, apparently artists such as (but not limited to) Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, members of The Beatles and Elvis Presley (to name a few) could not read music but rather learned to play songs ‘by ear’.
For me, it is hard to believe that rock and roll icons such as Hendrix and Clapton couldn’t read music.
They apparently could either teach themselves how to replicate the sounds they heard or were able to memorize their fingerings for the songs they played SOURCE.
Do Most Guitarists Read Music?
The answer to this question really depends upon what type of music the guitarist is playing. Rock, pop and blues guitarists will know a bit about chords and tablature.
They will learn how to play songs using their ears while understanding the basics of music theory.
If a guitarist is playing classical or jazz songs, reading music and playing each note correctly is necessary. Understanding music theory is a must for these musicians as classical and jazz songs require a high level of precision.
Why Don’t Guitarists Read Music?
Most guitarists don’t necessarily need to read sheet music unless they are playing something like classical or jazz.
If this is the case, they will need to be able to read the sheet music as they must play in tandem with the other musicians in the band or orchestra.
In general, however, if a guitarist can identify chord cues on the lead sheets, they can play that way. The main reason why many guitarists don’t read music is that the notation system on sheet music is often created for the piano and doesn’t necessarily lend itself to guitar chords.
If you have any experience playing the guitar, you’ll quickly realize that it is almost entirely made up of patterns. Having an understanding of basic chords and scales will allow you to play virtually any song out there.
Once you know the basics, it’s all a matter of being able to recognize the patterns and apply those fundamentals to whatever song you’re trying to learn. No reading necessary.
Some guitarists argue that reading music limits their creativity because it forces them to “play by the book.” Famous guitarists, such as Jimi Hendrix, play the guitar completely based on feel.
If you’re just playing what’s on the page, then your music can sound generic and predictable. On the other hand, if you’re not sticking to the script, then you’re more likely to experiment and try new riffs.
Sometimes, the best sounding songs are unconventional and not by the book. Just because something isn’t “technically correct” doesn’t make it incorrect. The thing with music is that there are no rules!
Is Learning to Read Music Hard? [Is it worth it]
With everything I have mentioned so far, you would most likely think that reading music must be hard and that is why some guitarists chose not to learn how.
Surprisingly, however, learning notes and music theory is not really that difficult at all! It is more complex than hard and you do not need to understand ‘everything’ in order to begin.
Once you learn the notes and how to combine them into chords, you will be well on your way to playing the guitar! It takes time to perfect, just like learning anything else. But, once you learn the notes and basic music theory, it is so easy.
Is it worth learning to read music? I would say that depends upon what style of music you want to play. If you have any intention of playing jazz or classical music then yes, it is worth it.
Not only worth it but necessary, to have any level of success with these two music genres. Other types of music such as rock, pop, country, and metal are easier to play ‘by ear’.
Should You Learn to Read Music?
I can think of at least five reasons why you should learn to read music, although is am sure that there are more:
- You will learn how to play the guitar quicker, plain and simple. Once you can read music then it’s just a matter of learning finger placement on the fretboard to bring the written notes/chords to life.
- You will be more immersed in the music and your experience will evolve at a higher pace. When you understand the theory, strumming patterns, timing and more, everything just comes together beautifully!
- You can teach others how to play the guitar. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you knew how to read music so you could explain it to someone else and they could learn to play as well? Yes, of course, it would be easier!
- You can collaborate with other musicians. Learning how to read music is essential for communicating your ideas with other musicians. After all, if you’re just playing based on “feel,” how in the world are you supposed to convey that to the rest of your band?
- It empowers your imagination. Think of it like adding new tools to your belt. If you have the ability to read and interpret music from other musicians, it gives you a better understanding of music in general. This can help spark new ideas which you can then apply to your own music creation.
How to Play Guitar Without Reading Music (4 Simple Ways)
Learn Essential Scales and Chords
If you want to learn how to play guitar, you’re going to have to learn the basics. There’s no way around it.
You’ll need to learn all of your basic chord shapes and scales. Start with your main open chords and major scale. Then, you can learn the different positions on the fretboard.
Once you get a general feel of where all the notes are located on the fretboard relative to each other, you’ll be able to recognize patterns. The more chords and scales you learn, the more tools you’ll be equipped with.
When you’re having a practice session, try to learn a new chord or scale. Also, practice switching between different chords naturally.
From there, you’ll just need to practice putting it all together to play songs. You’d be surprised how many thousands of songs you can play on the guitar that are comprised of only basic chord progressions.
The best part is that you don’t need to read a single note to learn chords and scales. You can simply go online and look at fingering charts or videos that teach them.
Then when you want to learn a song, you can usually just look up the chord progressions for it on Google.
If you like the idea of being able to read music, but find the standard notation of sheet music confusing, then you’re in luck!
Guitar tablature, or tabs, is a type of music notation that replaces the standard notes with numbers and lines that correspond to the strings and frets on your guitar.
Tab sheet music displays the six strings on your guitar in ascending order.
So far so good, right?
The numbers displayed on the strings of the sheet music are indicating what fret you should hold when playing that string.
As you can see, reading guitar tabs (bottom image) is a lot more intuitive than reading standard notation (top), which makes it a great option for beginners.
Guitar tabs are widely available on the internet. You can pretty much find guitar tabs for any song that you would ever want to learn. My favorite website for guitar tabs is Songsterr.
While guitar tabs do have their limitations, such as not displaying the time signature, it’s still a very convenient way to learn your favorite songs without actually having to read music.
Think of it as a shortcut to reading music.
Online Guitar Lessons
Another great option for those who want to learn guitar without reading music is through online guitar lessons.
Nowadays, there are plenty of online guitar lesson services, such as Guitar Tricks, that make learning guitar easier and more convenient than ever.
With online guitar lesson services, you’ll typically pay a monthly subscription for access to a full library of video lessons taught by professional instructors.
The video lessons will walk you through all of the basic and advanced concepts of playing guitar. The good thing about video lessons is that you’ll be able to see exactly how they are fretting the notes and picking the strings.
They’ll also verbally walk you through every note that you need to play, telling you exactly which fret and on which string you need to play.
In addition, there are usually visible guitar tabs on-screen to help you follow along.
Most online guitar lesson companies understand that people who enroll in these courses instead of traditional lessons just want to learn in the quickest and most convenient way possible.
Therefore, most of these online guitar services do not prioritize teaching music theory or reading notes at all.
Learning Guitar by Ear
Believe it or not, learning guitar by ear is one of the most reliable ways to learn guitar without reading music.
Learning guitar by ear is more of an advanced skill that requires ear training, fundamentals, and understanding of the fretboard.
While it takes a lot of practice developing this skill, once you’re proficient at it, playing guitar by ear is one of the quickest ways to learn new songs.
It requires you to be able to recognize the patterns, chord progressions, and scales of a song simply by listening to it.
If you can hear and comprehend exactly how a song is being played, you’ll be able to repeat it without having to see the notes written down.
If you want to practice playing by ear, then you’ll need to have a very solid understanding of the fretboard and where all the notes are located relative to each other.
This way, you can find a starting point with your ear, and intuitively figure out the rest of the notes based on their relative positioning.
A pro tip for learning a song by ear is to slow the song down by finding it on YouTube, or downloading an mp3 of the song and loading it into audio software, such as Audacity.
Learning the guitar without reading music is definitely possible. Some very famous and successful pop and rock stars have had long, successful careers without knowing how to read music.
When researching this article, I discovered that both Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix didn’t know how to read music and that blew my mind! Thinking back to some of their songs over the years, I am amazed at how well they could play without reading sheet music at all!
In conclusion, it is indeed possible to play music ‘by ear’, without studying music theory. It really is a unique talent to be able to do this. It requires the senses of sight, sound, and touch being ‘in tune’ with each other and the ability to memorize chords and finger placement for different songs.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about expressing yourself through music. If you aren’t interested in reading music, that’s completely fine! Don’t let that stop you from playing the guitar and having fun.
Now, pick up that guitar and start practicing. Who knows, you just may be the next Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix! Good luck in your future musical endeavors!