How to Learn to Sight Read Fast and Easy

How to Learn to Sight Read Fast and Easy

A lot of guitar players do not read the score. While it is not necessary for the majority of guitar playing. The ability to read score is useful if you want to be a “working” musician. Either in theatre orchestras, performing in jazz bands, ensembles. Where you are playing with other musicians on other instruments. 

Score notation is a musical language in itself. The ability to read the music off the page and translate it into your playing is like reading a book. It takes practice. No one is born an amazing sight-reader. 

This article focus is on score notation sight reading, but many of the principles are applied to tab reading as well. This article is for improving your sight reading music where you do not know what it sounds like. 

You can look at sight reading in three separate departments. 

  • How to Prepare
  • Practising Sight Reading
  • How to Stay One Step Ahead

How to Prepare

A lot of people dive straight into the sight reading without having a good foundation to go with. If you are a complete beginner guitar player, then it might suit you to dive into the deep end. On the other hand, if you have been playing for a little while. A little bit of preparation to make your sight-reading a lot easier. 

Learn your theory

Being confident with your key signatures. You want to know what flats and sharps are on a sheet of music without checking the key signature throughout.  

You also want to know your notes well on the guitar. Then you spend less time thinking, where is that note on the guitar… Which A should I play? 

You want to know your scales, up and down and sideways to help you use less brain power to think… Is there a flat on this note? And where is it on the scale? There is a lot of patterns in music with arpeggios and scales. Knowing your scales and arpeggios on the guitar will help you build a good foundation

Play without looking at your fingers

Get good at playing without looking at your fingers so that your eyeballs can stay on the page of the score. Don’t feel like you have to know the whole fretboard without looking to start sight reading. Start with a small area of the fretboard only if you are first starting and then slowly expand the area. Train on your right hand separately to get used to picking the right strings without looking. 

Know your triads, fifths, octaves

Having confidence of where the common intervals are in relation to your fingers. And also recognising what they look like on score. When you see them, you can quickly identify them, and play them on the guitar. 

Know how chords form

sight reading on guitar.png

Depending on the score music, lots of chords are written in different inversions. Know how these chord shapes are placed on the guitar respective of the root note. And recognising how different inversion of chords look on paper will help you spot them. So you aren’t pausing before playing a chord. 

Overall, you want to make sure your ability to find the notes from the page to the guitar is quicker than your ability to read the notes on the page. Otherwise, your practice is on finding the notes on the guitar more than the actual sight reading. Which is also important, but you can work on that skill separately from sight reading. 

Practising Sight Reading 

Consistent Practise 

Like learning to read, doing a little every day will be more helpful. If you want to see good progress, 15-20 minutes a day will be recommended on top of your guitar practise. This is for sight reading only. The great thing is that you can do a certain amount of sight reading practice away from the guitar. Even on the train or commuting. 

When Practising, make sure you focus 

When you are sight reading, it takes a certain amount of brainpower. Try to do it when you aren’t tired and can concentrate. Also when you approach it, do it with optimism. Know that each day, you are getting a little bit better. Do not expect miracles overnight. 

Get a good book for practising 

There are lots of good guitar scorebooks out there that you can use to practise sight reading. Make sure you get one that is appropriate for your skill level and doesn’t get you discouraged. And also increases in skill slowly, so that you can practise multiple pieces at a similar level. 

Keep Timing 

The biggest priority when it comes to sight reading is focusing on timing. You want to keep the rhythm going. Even if you get the note wrong. 

There are two parts to keeping timing. You need to count and not slow down or speed up. You also need to be confident with the rhythm symbols, so you aren’t panicking over what each of them means. 

Write out rhythmic patterns on your own and practise clapping while tapping your foot for main beats of the song. There aren’t that many different variations and see you will get used to how each note pairs up with each bar. 

Don’t stop when you get to a mistake. This is very important. Keep playing whatever you do. The most important thing is that you keep time. A wrong note is less disastrous than losing count. 

Use a metronone 

metronome for sight reading guitar

Using a metronome can help you keep count and make sure you don’t slow down. And allow you to focus on the rhythm of the piece.  Use the metronome about 50% of the time to help you get more consistent with timing. 

Counting out loud 

When you aren’t using a metronome, count out loud. Counting each beat, and perhaps even 1/8 or 1/16, depending on the piece to help you keep time. 

counting out loud guitar sight reading

Reading ahead and in groups 

As you practise, always read a few notes ahead. As much as you can.  

Read the notation in groups. This might be easy if it’s a run of notes following a pattern. Such a small scale run or variations on a scale. Spotting these ahead of time gives you more time to find where to play them. 

Learn to spot patterns

When you practise, try to spot patterns. There are often repetition in a piece where elements will repeat, whether it’s in the same pitch. Or somewhere else. Recognising bigger chucks and seeing how they repeat to save your brain space. 

Say out loud what the score says

When you read a note, you need to identify that note as quickly as possible. So you do need to know what notes is where. Practise this by saying out loud of each note is, following your finger moving along. I recommend saying the notes instead of writing down because writing takes longer. And you want to be able to reuse that score paper again. Keep your finger moving, so you aren’t taking too long to read the notations. 

Try to recognise intervals between notes to read up your reading. 

Push for Speed

When you are practising, try to use a variety of speed to train your brain. You want to make sure you do push yourself and increase your brain speed. Like speed reading. Don’t worry about making mistakes when you are practising this way. Swap between pushing to read faster and reading slowly. 

Reading slow

Balance out pushing to read quickly by also practise doing sight reading slowly. Thinking about playing each note perfect. Incorporating phrasing elements.

Singing the score

sight reading on guitar how.png

If possible, practise singing the score. The more you do this, the faster you will be able to hear the music in your head. As you train on your ear training, in combination with your sight reading will make your playing a lot smoother and fluent. 

Practise reading bass clef music 

Lots of guitarists will only focus on the treble clef. But the more music you see, you will realise that you may have to play the bass line which is can be written in bass clef. Which is really confusing if you don’t practise reading it separately. 

bass clef sight reading guitar.png


Make sure when you practise sight reading that you are only playing each piece max two times. You don’t want to use memory to play any of it. Otherwise, you aren’t training your sight reading. 

To increase your exposure to score music to help. Try to get all your guitar music in score. And when you are writing out any song ideas, or transcribing. Do it all in score instead to get more familiar with the notations.  

How to Stay One Step Ahead 

There are some tips and tricks you can use to make sure you stay one step ahead to improve your sight reading in the short term. 

Checking through a piece before you start 

It’s always a good idea to have a quick look at the piece rather than diving straight in. It will give you an idea of the optimal timing you want to play the piece and take note of anything else. 

To play it perfectly, make sure you set the pace of the piece to the most difficult passage. 

And spot any extra notations in the music. Such as any repeating parts, D.C. Make sure you understand anything else that may be attached the notes. Such as arpeggiated chord or fermata. 

Check to see if there are any change in time signature in the piece. Any triplets that may pop in as well. Any increase or decrease in speed in the piece. 

When you see any rests, it can be useful to subvocalize the rests, and hum the pauses in place of playing the guitar. So, you don’t loose the rhythm. 

And, again. As mentioned above. Do not stop. Just keep going. This is really good practice for when you play with other people, that you keep going even if you miss a note. Play it wrong. Anything at all. Keeping in time is the most important thing. 

Final note, is to keep practising. Do it consistently. The more you do it, the easier it will be. Being able to sight read score is definitely not that common amongst guitarists. Even amongst musicians, they can be scared of sight reading. It take time and consistent training. 

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