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 https://sightreadingfactory.com/ , 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: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1245721/