Tips For Successful Sight Reading on Guitar
August 25, 2019

Written by Doug Perkins

I’m in a few jazz guitar groups on social media, and the subject of sight reading comes up a lot, with people requesting advice on how to develop it. Here’s some stuff I said in a group recently that might be of value to people on this subject:

In my experience I would say that my reading has gotten to a high 8 on a 1-10 basis lately, and it’s been due to a lot of different things, with “baptism of fire” on live gigs probably being the most valuable. I have been thrown in the deep end in a local big band that plays some of the most challenging charts I’ve every heard or seen, with time signature and key changes regularly happendngand a lot of modern charts from Pat Metheny, etc. The guitar parts are as is often the case, largely just copies of the piano part, which can include a lot of bass clef doubling of the bass player sometimes, and of course lots of chord stacks. But lots of times the guitar part is unique and many times playing the melody, especially in the Metheny charts. I’ve also done a lot of musicals and also some local shows with a friend’s Zappa-esque band out of LA called “Orchestra Surreal”, that had a lot of classical pieces “mashed up” into famous rock tunes – again, a ton of time signature changes and written lines with the rest of the contemporary rock orchestra, as well as wailing fusion-y soloing.

One of the ways that I work myself out for this stuff is using a site called Sightreading Factory, it’s a monthly subscription but well worth it for anyone wanting to really work on their reading hard:  You can select levels of difficulty, time & key signatures and a lot more, and I use if for both treble and bass clef. They have a free seminar on line on August 28, 2019 on how to get the most of it, and I’m signed up for that.

But the way I teach reading to my college prep students is pretty much exactly the way I’ve learned it myself: to me the three really important areas are 1) finding the most playable (and best sounding) place (places) to play the passage on the neck, 2) instant identification of rhythms, and 3) identifying chord stacks, and quickly throwing out unplayable notes.

I really recommend working on reading rhythms without any pitches of chord symbols to get yourself to the point that you recognize and can hear in your head any written rhythm. This might sound huge but really, everything comes down to groups of either twos or threes, so it’s not so bad. 

I recommend using something like Louis Bellson’s “Modern Reading Text in 4/4 For All Instruments” and “Odd Time Reading for All Instruments” for doing this. You don’t even need to use a guitar for this, just vocally say the rhythms calling the notes by their number in the measure or an and, e, or ah for notes not on downbeats – for more on this, go to:

You can also use a conductor’s pattern with your arm to keep you in the right place in the measure and figure out weird rhythms, for more on that go here:

As far as learning the neck and all the possible places to play every note, well, that’s the real issue for sight reading on the guitar, isn’t it? The E note on the top space on the treble clef staff can be played on at least 5 places on most electric guitars, and if you bend, also way up on the 6th string as well. Then when you get into the possible finger combinations as well, that’s a lot of computing decisions in your brain to make in a microsecond before you have to play it. So how do you get good at that? Basically, you do a lot of reading in certain “positions” on the guitar so that you get good at recognizing the “easy” place to play something where it lays naturally on the instrument. 

The first thing you are looking for is the range of what you have to play – it doesn’t matter how easy it is to play if you can’t get to the notes that you need to play. Position on the guitar is usually defined by the fret location of the 1st finger, and here’s the normal progression of how I bring people along in learning to read in the various positions on the guitar: Obviously, you begin in the open position where any note that can be played as an open string will be played like that. The whole thing at this point is to eliminate any choices on where anything is played. Then, you go to 2nd position, then 5th, then 7th. After that, it’s not too hard to fill in the 9th position area, and then of course things start over at the 12th fret. 

Also, the position you play in is very determined by the key of the moment you’re reading in, so all of the above positions should be adjusted dup or down a fret for where that scale fingering lays naturally. Speaking of scale fingerings, it’s also really important to be able to change positions quickly when the music requires it, and one really good way to get good at that (which will help your improvisation a lot ohs well) it to practice connecting your scale positions going up and down the neck with sliding fingers into the next fingering pattern. In general, I teach people to use the weight of your hand and gravity to your advantage: slide up the neck mostly with the 3rd or 4th fingers, and down the next with the 1st or 2nd.

So how that applies to reading is that I advise people to find easy and natural ways to play whatever you are being asked to play. That pretty much will lead you to learning the neck completely, because things that are unplayable in one position will be easy in another. 

Case in point, watch Metheny play the 16th note groove on YouTube on “The Wind Up”. There’s no way I could do it with the root on the third string and the 6th and 5th on the 4th, but move it to putting both the root and the 6th on the 3rd string cutting out a pick stroke with a pull off, and then I could do it. Check out what I am talking about here:

In terms of learning to read chord stacks, the most important thing to do is to learn to read them from the top note down. The highest note is generally heard as a melody, and so if you only have the top two or three notes and are playing them in the correct rhythms, what you are playing will at least be heard as correct by the audience, and maybe even by the producer etc of a musical or recording session, since as I said before so many “guitar parts” are just the piano parts photocopied. You might even in these cases look at the piano parts as just a reference of what that instrument is doing, showing you possibilities of what you could play that would be different and compliment their part. 

Regarding chord stacks that look “unplayable on the guitar due to second intervals etc., check to see if ant of those notes are open strings and see if you can re-finger the chord with one or two open strings. Many times very normal guitar chords will just look very intimidating on paper, so learn to not be afraid to explore, many times you will learn very cool new voicings.

The late great jazz guitarist / studio musician Howard Roberts said one of the most important things I’ve ever heard on reading when he said that the most important things was to “get the music off the page and onto the guitar as fast as possible “. That might seem overly simplistic, but to me it’s come to mean to identify what the composer/arranger intended and then to put it on the guitar in a way that you as an experienced guitarist would naturally conceive it in improvisation. Because really, nothing that’s ridiculously hard to do actually sounds good, because people like to hear confident time etc. I tell students that I’ve never seen anyone play anything hard on the guitar- I just see them do things that are easy really, really well. 

One other thing that many guitar players forget: the guitar is actually a “transposing instrument”, and actually “sounds” an octave lower than what is written. One of the most important skills a guitarist can develop it to be able to play a part up an octave from where (to us) it is written.

So basically, if you aways look for a better way, and that will lead you where you want to go. You can always improve on this, so if you do just a few sessions a week you should see results, and of course you will much more with additional hours. Sight reading still remains a very “bankable skill” for musicians, even if the huge double scale film session of Hollywood’s heyday are mostly a thing of the past. If I were to guess, this ability accounts for up to 1/3 of my annual income, so I really encourage guitarists to develop this disappearing but still in demand skill set.

Doug Perkins

August 23, 2019

3 responses to “Tips For Successful Sight Reading on Guitar”

  1. John says:

    Want to join jazz guitar group

    • Douglas Scott says:

      I’ve been playing guitar for 50+ years, Rock when I was a teenager then in a band, Leviathan, for 5 years playing Chicago, BS&T and Lighthouse catalogues of music in my twenties and now Classical and Bluegrass Flatpicking to the present but I want to play solo Jazz guitar! I’m overwhelmed by the amount of books and online programs available and need recommendations! I want to teach myself as I can read music, any suggestions?

      • Doug Perkins says:

        Hi Douglas,

        Well, we have some great stuff here but it’s certainly not beginning material. I have a lot of solo guitar material already written that is more for starting out, and if you wanted a free Zoom 30 minute lesson to see if I would be a fit for you, you can send me an email to to set it up. I charge $60 and hour and I would say to do this that half hour lessons aren’t really going to get you where you want to go as quickly as you would want. We would also be learning harmony thoroughly along the way because that is what solo playing is built on – Doug Perkins

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