Sight Reading: Why and how much you need to work
June 9, 2014

Written by Doug Perkins

I recently have had a lot of people ask me about sight reading music, and it seemed to be a good topic for me to write a blog for JGS on – especially since I have been spending some time cleaning up my own reading recently as well. While I am known to be more towards the top end of guitar readers in LA, I have been mostly working on sharpening up my rhythmic reading to get it a bit faster, especially in meters outside of 4/4. What I do really well in reading is probably what most guitar players have the most trouble with – where to put the notes on the guitar so that they are the most comfortable to play – meaning, where you would have improvised them if that’s how you came to play them. This probably comes at least in part from all the transcribing that I do at JGS 😉

I got to talking about reading recently to my old MI days guitar student Bart Samolis, who switched to bass after graduation and is now among the top Los Angeles studio players, regularly working on shows like MadMen and The Simpsons on both electric and upright bass. He also composes for film & TV also playing guitar & keyboards on those projects, as well being in a very cool band with his jazz harpist wife Lori Andrews – so he’s actually a very good person to comment on the type of reading that a modern guitarist needs – and doesn’t need – so I got him to OK me sharing some of his thoughts on the subject of modern real world sight reading with the people at JGS. Bart started with saying that while of course a guitarist has to be able to read rhythms well and know where the notes are on the instrument, most of the types of parts that a guy like Tommy Tedesco used to present in his sight reading column in Guitar Player magazine rarely happen any more.

“People just aren’t writing those kinds of parts anymore that used to give us all concern. We strove to rise to that occasion and the occasion has gone away.”   “I have so many thoughts for guitar players in general about the whole process, though…if I may. I play MOSTLY with George Doering…consummate pro…always happy, never complains, never talks about himself or how much he nailed a piece of music, just plays great, knows his gear (how to get various FX and timings from a delay for example, various distortions within seconds, and different tones.  (Guitarist) Grant Geissman is also fantastic (I do MadMen with him sometimes). (Guitarist) Tim May is someone I see on The Simpsons when I sub. Easy parts usually.”

Bart continued on with some of the things that are NOT on the paper in front of a player, but huge issues that are really important and the difference between working all of the time and not for people trying to build their careers. “My observations…from playing with ‘unknown’ players…Usually, time is an issue.  When reading, guitar players tend to be waaaay on top of the time.  Instead of looking at a line or rhythm and understanding what it is musically, they tend to want SOOO much to read it perfectly, that they miss what the composer intended.  Or if they’re doubling a line with strings, they’re so far ahead of the click (it’s a different thing to hear what you’re doubling and play in THAT time zone 🙂  Playing behind a click with strings is an essential skill. Not always required, but when the moment arises, a lot of players aren’t comfortable in that zone.”

I (Doug) very much remember as a young guitar player in LA the first time that I had to play with an orchestra and double (play in unison with) strings or flutes – it was like someone pulling on the time like a rubber band and really took me a while to learn how to pull what I was playing that far back of the beat. So the moral of all of this is that even if the notes are right, it’s all got to FEEL really good, with great tone, or it’s not worth much. Bart lays it all out here:   “Also, when a lot of younger players read, their tone goes out the window…suddenly they can’t ‘hear’. They either dig in too hard, or don’t put a nice vibrato where appropriate, or just use the wrong sound.  Nice dynamics and blend and tone seem to disappear.  I wish they could remember that the composer, producer, audience doesn’t care one iota that they’re reading music…it has to sound natural and beautiful.”   “Carl Verheyen is a master of finding GREAT parts that sound like he’s been playing them for years.  I remember many years ago on a session with him…the composer said, ‘Hey Carl…let’s try something different.’  Carl had a totally different part ready to go at a moment’s notice and it was perfect.  In time.  In a pocket.  Interesting part.  Then the composer said, ‘Let’s try something else…’  Carl nailed yet another approach without ANY hesitation.  I was definitely impressed.  A lot of young guys don’t have the resources to offer 3, 4, or 5 options (played perfectly) right off the bat.  I see this kind of thing happen more than not.  Seems like this separates the men from the boys more than reading a rhythm perfectly. The guys that nail it are the ones that can see what the composer INTENDED and then play MUSIC from that.” “So…all that to say…from my limited perspective… It’s not about the reading when it comes to rhythm section players at all.  It’s about all the other cool things that rhythm players can do that composers can’t hear on their own, or conceive of when they’re writing.  And composers do tend to hire rhythm section players to experiment to find cool new things…not to read parts perfectly.”

So let me (Doug) try to put all of that into a summarized version of what I think Bart is saying that a working guitar player needs to be able to do to do the studio work of today: A basic level of note and rhythm reading are a given and essential, which is to say that tablature, while being OK as a teaching and learning tool, is NOT enough. The one major case for guitarists being able to read regular notation is hands down the most important one: no one but another guitarist can write tablature for you. But, the most important things after that is just to make the music that you are given to play sound great, and be the kind of person that other people want to work with personality-wise. The same skills that you need to do pop record work in terms of creating parts are mandatory in television and movie work as well, and maybe even more important to have beyond that basic reading ability.

OK, so what IS that “basic reading ability” and how do you GET it? I would say that a guitarist should be able to read up to the G on the 15th fret 1st string, and be able to be pretty fluent on being able to sight read single notes in the open, 5th and 7th positions. Rhythmically, be able to play 8th and 16th note combinations, in both duple and triplet meters. HOW you do this is to narrow down what you are reading so there aren’t so many options. Start with reading in the open position (open and first 4 frets) where there’s only one place to play each note. The singular reason that most guitar players can’t read is because of how many places there are to play the same note on the guitar. Don’t try to put rhythms with it at first, just drill yourself on the note locations. Get a drum reading book and just read rhythms using one note or chord. Then move to the second position (frets 2-5) and add some simple rhythms, and start to move up the neck. When you do get transcriptions that come with regular notation and tablature like we have here at JGS, don’t go immediately to the tab, but just use it to help when you get stuck.

A really great place where you can do all of this online is a great new site called , where for $30 a year you can get the site to generate for you reading studies at any difficulty level you want, at any tempo you want, so you can hear what it is supposed to sound like as you go.   It’s not easy to learn to read but the rewards – both music and financial – are very great for those that stick to it. My old student and friend Bart Samolis is living proof, here is his IMDB credit page:

8 responses to “Sight Reading: Why and how much you need to work”

  1. John Lyon says:

    Thanks for this advice. What is the web site where you can get sight reading studies – final paragraph?

  2. Ric Molina says:

    Hi Doug,

    This is a great article about sight reading and I want to thank you and Bart for sharing your experiences out there on the west coast.

    It seems that for the most part the kind of reading we do here in NYC is interpretive as well, when it comes to recording sessions. I recently did the guitar tracks for the song “Let it Go” from the Disney movie Frozen and the composer just sent me the Logic session and a pdf of the piano part. I had to develop acoustic and electric parts from there with basic direction from the music supervisor. These cues were things like where to put power chords and where to follow and play counterpoint to the piano part.
    These tracks can be heard in their original state on the karaoke version from the deluxe version of the CD along with drums and bass that were cut in home studios here. The final recording was recorded in LA with an orchestra.

    My day job is playing guitar 1 in the pit at the Gershwin theater for the musical called WICKED. This is a 24 piece orchestra and I play electric, acoustic, mandolin, banjo and classical guitars.

    When we began in 2003 I had three days to look at the entire score, two days of rehearsals with the orchestra and a week of tech rehearsals where we played a cue then sat around for an hour while they worked on staging.

    The thing most people don’t know is that for three weeks we had about half the score in hand while the creative team wrote and rewrote the music. Every night, in front of live preview audiences I would find a new chart on my stand at the half hour call.

    Some of this music is very difficult to sight read and even the more groove oriented music is written in full voicings with riffs and all kinds of lines that are to be played with the other soloists in the orchestra. The WICKED book has had a reputation for being thorny because there are a lot of instrument changes and effect changes along with a couple of quirky lines for mandolin and classical.

    Now, ten years later I see most of the new shows that aren’t “jukebox musicals” have original music written for the guitar that is as challenging if not moreso than the WICKED book. There is a new generation of orchestrators here who can play the guitar and who have a strong knowledge of what is possible on the axe. The scores that I am seeing are all over the place, doubling any other instrument in the ensemble with a mixture of chords and lines. These books are very tightly written and it has been my experience that the orchestrators hear it all and they expect to hear you play it as they wrote it.

    The same is true for the jazz groups here in the city. More and more groups at Smalls and the 55 Bar are showcasing odd time signatures and through-composed music that is very challenging to read and play and to improvise over.

    In today’s musical environment there are Julliard graduates who are playing at the Blue Note with DJ’s and ripping over changes or playing Indian music with jazz instruments. The level of musicianship and the bar for guitarists in particular is quite high compared to those cues we used to read through in Guitar Player Magazine. One thing is for certain, there’s no shortcut to mastery and to work steadily in this quickly evolving scene you will do well to have your bases covered. With club work dwindling and sessions becoming scarce most professional guitarists go to the established venues of Broadway.

    In that world reading well is a given.

    Doug, I really enjoy the interviews you have published here and I thank you again for sharing those valuable insights. I look forward to the next one!

    Yours Truly,

    Ric Molina

    • Doug Perkins says:

      Hi Ric,

      As I said in my FB message to you yesterday, I completely agree with what you are saying here, my real point in my blog on sight reading was to encourage people that don’t read that much that a moderate amount of reading ability will get them through a lot of the work that happens these days.

      But on the other hand, yes, a pit band is one of the hardest reading gigs there is and I know from first hand experience that it can be pretty rough, and if anything HARDER these days because composers and orchestrators can write for the guitar better with things that are really playable even if hard. I’d like to actually move this to it’s own separate blog and not just a reply if that’s OK with you, if so, send me a link to your site etc where people can see who you are and what you do.

      BTW, when I was talking about the stuff that Tommy Tedesco used to have in Guitar Player magazine, I realize that what I was really thinking of was what he used to bring into the students at Musician’s Institute to read, the stuff that made the magazine was way easier than that. Bart and I basically used to prep our selves with what you might have to read to audition for the old Zappa band, and that’s what he was comparing things to when he was referencing what he has to read in his every day work.


  3. Hi guys,
    An interesting article on reading. Having played in a number of shows including WICKED I agree with Ric. There are very few chord symbols and almost no improvisation or changing of parts required. It is a case of ‘read or die’! By contrast, I am currently doing Jesus Christ Superstar. The MD needs us to read our parts of course, but most of the time he is asking me for suggestions on how we can change the guitar parts to make it more effective and ‘modern’. I prefer this to reading exact parts but it requires a lot of experience and knowledge to generate something that he likes instantly. As a guitar teacher, I stress the importance of reading, (despite the battle with TAB availability and it being the ‘easy option’). I just see the difficulties students have in not knowing the spoken or written language of music when they are dealing with ‘legit’ musicians or a part of music making within a big band or orchestra setting. Even basic reading in 1st position seems to be hard work for most people unless they are willing to put in the time.
    Anyway, this rant by me has not solved anything but just agreeing with you both and adding my experiences to those already expounded here. Thanks for the blog Doug!

    Andrew Hobler

    • Doug Perkins says:

      I’m very happy to have guys like Ric and yourself weighing on in this “weighty” subject. What you say on Jesus Christ Superstar makes total sense, because that was written in the days when composers pretty much had NO CLUE how to write for guitar. I have seen what Mike Miller has to read with The Grandmothers (Zappa alumni band) and it’s what you expect to be hard, but he has lots of time to work on getting the good fingerings, etc. To me, reading on the guitar is at least 75% seeing the fingering / positions etc to make it as easy as possible to play and as close to how you would have improvised what was written as possible – since as Bart said, it shouldn’t sound like you are reading the part, it should sound relaxed and natural. It makes me feel good about JGS that guys like you are aware of what we are doing here, it’s our goal to provide material for people that no one else provides anything for – the “definitely over 13 / graduated from the magazines and maybe a music school” player.

  4. Not because you know how toread notes or tabs you will have any trouble reading and playing the piece your working. You still need to research more about notesand symbols on every music piece you play.

    • Doug Perkins says:

      Thanks, but I’m not sure what you’re saying here, and I’m pretty sure that the problem is a bad translation to English – see if someone can help you with the translation and repost if you can.

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