Reading guitar music 1

Warning: You must have read the articles “Reading music” 1-3 before you read this page. The topics discussed in this article are closely related to those found in the “Reading music” articles, and an understanding of the information in those articles is crucial to the success you will have with “Reading guitar music.” You can find all “Reading music” articles on the “Theory” section of the site.

So, you finally have all the basic music concepts needed to read music under your hand. But, how does it all apply to the guitar? This article is especially dedicated to easing the transition from one to the other.

String names

The first bits of information needed to begin are the note names of each of the guitar strings. These names represent the notes of each string being played “open”, or without pressing any frets on that string. From the thinnest string to the thickest string, or from the 1st string to the 6th, the names of the strings are:

1st: E 2nd: B 3rd: G
4th: D 5th: A 6th: E

When you open a new pack of strings, each string usually has a plastic tab with the note name of that string. However, these note names apply only if you tune to “standard tuning”, which is the normal “default” tuning of the guitar. If the strings are not tuned properly to these notes, then you will obviously get different notes when you pluck them instead of the ones that they should be. Make sure to tune correctly.

Strings on the staff

Now that you know the names of the strings, you need to know how they look like on the staff. There is a Tab version below as well. Here are all six strings, starting from the 1st string to the 6th:

strings on staff

You will notice that there are two “E” notes on the guitar. The 1st string and the 6th are both “E” notes. The 1st string E is usually refered to as “high E” and the 6th string E as “low E”; which takes us to our next observation. The higher pitched the string is, the higher it appears on the staff, and vice-versa. Let’s compare the two E notes on the guitar to illustrate this point. The 1st string E is obviously a higher pitch than the 6th string E, and thus the high E appears on the top space of the staff while the low E, being the lowest pitched string on the guitar, is three ledger lines below the staff.

Remembering their positions

To help in remembering the string’s positions on the staff, I find it helpful to split them into two groups: the 4 strings on the staff and the 2 strings on ledger lines below the staff.

first 4 strings

Here we have the first 4 strings of the guitar that are on the staff. The 1st string E and 4th string D are easy to remember because they appear on the edges of the staff. The 1st string E is at the top space of the staff, while the 4th string D is below the staff entirely. The 2nd B and 3rd G strings tend to be mistaken with each other very easily in the beginning. The best thing to remember to distinguish between the two is that the 2nd B string is exactly in the middle of the staff, on the middle (3rd) line of the staff, while the 3rd G string is on the line below it (2nd). So if you see a note on the middle (3rd) line, you know that it is the B string (2nd string open). If you see a note on the string below the middle line, you know thats the G string (3rd string open).

last 2 strings

Here we have the remaining two strings, the 5th string A and 6th string E, or “low E”. We seperate these two strings from the other four because they are the only two that require ledger lines. The 5th string A, since it isn’t as low as the 6th string E, will have fewer ledger lines and appear closer to the staff when compared to the low E string. Thus, the 5th string A is written with two ledger lines, and the 6th string low E with three ledger lines. The 5th string A is “on” the 2nd ledger line, while the 6th string low E is below the 3rd ledger line.

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