Guitar Sight Reading

Guitar Sight-Reading…

to read and play music, instantly at first sight, is an impressive skill but also one of the most challenging tasks for musicians, particularly with guitarists.   Possibly because:

  • we spend more time on solo rather than ensemble repetoire.
  • we focus more on the physicality of playing and less on developing musicianship.
  • we come to guitar study late in life with limited reading experience.

Whatever the reason, we can all probably agree, sight-reading is an area that needs improvement.

on your mark…get set...sight-read!

What’s involved

To begin, sight-reading is actually similar to the process of pre-reading, outlined in The Shearer Method Books I & II.

  • Step 1) Scan the Music.  Look for challenges, such as unfamiliar musical patterns of notes, rhythms, markings, etc.   Then, working one phrase-segment or line at a time:
  • Step 2) Clarify Rhythm. Count aloud and clap, or tap the rhythms.
  • Step 3) Clarify Pitches.  Vocalize note names in rhythm and, if possible, air guitar and/or visulaize them on the guitar.

The difference is that when sight-reading, pre-reading steps 2 & 3 happen instantaneously.  Both rhtyhm and pitch are immediately clarified (recognized) as familiar patternsSo being able to sight-read well, starts with having pre-reading skills, as well as:

  • Pattern recognition—keys, scales, chords, intervals, structural form, all rhythmic groupings and common rhythmic subdivisions, etc.
  • Fingerboard knowledge—positions, position connections, and note duplications throughout the neck.
  • Looking ahead when reading—as you play one measure, you’re looking at the next measure(s) visualizing the unfolding music and its fingering requirements.
  • Staying on the beat (use a metronome, if necessary)—choosing a manageable tempo that allows you to play accurately and steady.
Comparing pre-reading with sight-reading
Step 1
Step 2
Step 3
Scan Music
Clarify Rhythm
Clarify Pitch
Sight Reading
Scan Music
Pattern Recognition and play
Pattern Recognition and play

For more on Pre-Reading, see the Mindful Learning Video Series.

Pattern Recognition—Rhythm

Of all the sight-reading skills, pattern-recognition is perhaps the most important.  We begin by breaking that down into two primary elements—rhythm and pitch.  For most musicians, ryhthm patterns are more difficult to learn.  Pre-reading step 2 addresses this, but it’s always helpful to supplement with exercises.

Rhythm Matrix No. 2

rhythm matrix

(available as a .pdf download at the end of the article)

Enter the rhythm matrix…

This a great tool for both sharpening pattern recognition and developing the “look ahead” skill.

Before actually using the matrix, each measure must be securely learned, counting rhythms aloud and clapping (as in Pre-reading Step 2).

Notice its 6- x 6-measure grid with easier rhythms in the first half, and harder rhythms in the second half.

The Rhythm Matrix allows reading in a multitude of ways.  You can practice one measure at a time to learn its specific 4-beat pattern, or read any order of measure segments, from left to right, right to left, top to bottom, diagonally, etc.  Rhythms should be first counted and clapped, and then played on the guitar—perhaps as a scale, with each note assigned to one measure.

The goal is to create a changing order of rhythmic figures to keep it dynamic, not static.  In addition, reading unusual measure orders (right to left, diagonal, zig zag, etc) develops the look-ahead skill.

Rhythm Matrix makes a great Classroom activity!

Sight-Reading Rhythm Study No. 1

It’s important to choose level-appropriate music to suppot a positive experience.  Single-line music, such as that in The Shearer Method Books Learning the Fingerboard III and V and in much guitar ensemble repertoire (without chords and multiple voices) is suitable for beginners, since it offers minimal technical distraction.

Sight-Reading Rhythm Study No. 1 is part of a collection of developing etudes (available soon at the ASF Bookstore) that features eighth notes and occasional eighth rests, with no ties or syncoation.  This study is written with minimal L.-H. pitch challenge, to give more attention to rhythm.  

Rhythm Prep #1

Learn the rhythm of mm. 1-4 by counting aloud and clapping or tapping.

Rhythm Prep #2

Next, transfer to the guitar, playing all notes with p.  Count aloud and play:

Rhythm Prep #3

Next, play with alternation of p and fingers.  This physically helps to feel the rhythm throughout the right hand.

Rhythm Prep #4

Arpeggiate the rhythm.  Though the excerpt is written as a single line, stems down indicate to play with p, and stems up to play with fingers.

Rhythm Prep #5

Finally, play the first line, R. H. only—i.e., realize the notes as the open strings they belong to. Notice the string crossing in the 3rd measure.

Before playing Sight-Reading Rhythm No. 1, work through the all Rhythm Prep’s to clarify rhythm in the first four measures.

The same process can be applied to subsequent lines.

Rhythm Sight Reading

(available as a .pdf download at the end of the article )

  • Observe the 4/4 time signature and the 1♯ key signature of  G major.
  • Observe the overall register and determine fingerboard position(s).
  • Recognize any arpeggiated harmonies and visualize their shapes on the fingerboard.
  • Notice it’s written as single-line music;  p plays all stems down, and fingers play stems up.
  • Your goal is to play accurately and steadily, so choose a slow tempo that supports little or no hesitation.

Pattern Recognition—Pitch

Pitch Matrix No. 1

rhythm matrix
The pitch matrix…

is the same as the Rhythm Matrix, just applied to pitch.

The 6- x 6-measure grid in G major (pandiatonic ) includes common melodic patterns which are rhythmically limited to quarter and half notes.

Given its rythmic ease, Pitch Matrix No. 1 allows maximum attention to pitch patterns.  Right-hand fingerings are not included, since they’re affeced by context.

Before using, it’s recommended to scan/visualize the melodic fragment in each measure.

Notice the range, from highest to lowest note, is limited to 10 notes only on strings ④ to ① in the open position.

Finally, notice the melodic motions are both conjunct (stepwise) and disjunct (skips, outlining chords).

There are a multitude of measure pathways to practice, just as with the Rhythm Matrix.   Here are a few ideas:

Sight-Reading Pitch Studies

Practice with the Pitch Matrix  should prepare you for the following studies, which are from the upcoming Sight-Reading Collection.  Since the goal here is on pitch, all rhythm challenges are minimized.  The first is completely non-rhythmic with all natural notes in open position. The second is an interval study, mostly with eight notes and occasional pauses on quarter and half notes.

Study No. 1
Rhythm Sight Reading


  • Notice there is no key or time signature.
  • Interpret rhythm freely, but with steadiness.  Think of each line with its end femata as a phrase and pause.
  • Notice the single-line writing;  p plays all stems down, and fingers play stems up.
  • Play with as much legato and sustain as possible.  Slurs are optional.
  • Choose a slow tempo for the sake of pitch accuracy.

Pattern Recognition—Intervals

Rather than processing one note at a time in isolation, reading is more meaningful when you recognize note patterns.  The smallest of patterns is called an interval.   Intervals are named by a number representing the total pitches it includes.  For example the pattern C-G is 5 notes, called a 5th:

Knowing intervals also means associating them with fingerboard patterns which aids visualization.  There are many different types of intervals, all of them transposable up the fingerboard.  For a complete study of intervals, as well as other pitch patterns (scales and chords), see Guitar Harmony.

Study No. 3

This piece uses many of the 5ths available in open position.  As before, all stems down indicate p; stems up may be played with either i or m.  

  • Before sight-reading, clarify pitch and/or play R.H. alone (to clarify string crossings), one segment or phrase at a time.
  • At mm. 11-26,  a variety of intervals are created from a repeated top note (called a pedal) and changing the bass.
  • Notice a brief shift to Position II at mm. 19 & 27, and alternate fingerings at m. 28.  Clarify those sections before playing.

Shearer Method Books II, III, and V provide an excellent resource for sight-reading with 100’s of rhythmically graded studies with single-line melodies.

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