How to Sight-Read for Guitar | A Beginner's Guide

why every guitarist should sight read

Sight-reading is the art of playing a piece at first glance. Whether you read tabs, chords, or standard notation, if you’re trying to perform new music without having practiced it, you’re sight-reading.

Most guitarists do little to no sight-reading. I think some players avoid it, but most probably don’t even have it on their radar. Few people in the guitar community prioritize sight-reading, so most teachers don’t advocate it to their students.

Yet, I’m convinced that sight-reading is the single most important type of practice. If you want to keep things simple and do only one kind of practice, let it be sight-reading!

This post should help you get started with sight-reading as well as give you my most helpful advice and insights.

What's So Great about Sight-Reading?

If you embrace sight-reading, a few things will happen.

For one, you’ll cover a ton of musical ground. You’ll be exposed to all sorts of chords, rhythms, and patterns that you never knew about.

Second, you’ll quickly learn every note on the fretboard. Read through enough pieces, and you’ll be as comfortable in the higher positions as you are in the lower ones.

Third, you’ll learn new music much faster than before. Faster than you could have imagined! Once you become a good sight-reader, you’ll be able to play through a lot of new music instantly, giving performances without needing to practice first.

In fact, there are so many reasons to incorporate sight-reading that I can’t hope to list them all here.

Perhaps the best reason of all is that sight-reading is actually really fun; it’s certainly the most fun thing I do on the guitar. Heard a new song recently? Boom! You’re playing it, start to finish, right away.

Can Any Guitarist Sight-Read? Do You Need to Play Classical?

The good news is that you don’t need to be a classical guitarist to sight-read. You don’t even need to read standard notation! I could only read tabs for my first few years of playing, and to this day I sometimes sight-read using tabs.

It all depends on what you want to play. Many fingerstyle arrangements of popular songs can be found online for free, but often only in tabs. On the other hand, classical music overwhelmingly uses standard notation, so it helps to be fluent in both.

If you’re not used to reading tabs (maybe you mostly play chords), it’s never too late to learn! The principle of tabs is simple: each horizontal line represents a string on the guitar, and each number corresponds to a fret.

However, it does take time to read fluently. Don’t be discouraged if tabs are a foreign language to you. The more you read them, the sooner they’ll become second-nature.

If you already read tabs, I highly encourage you to begin learning to read standard notation. I know it may seem like learning how to read all over again, but the truth is, sheet music for guitar is actually easier to read than tabs.

Guitar music tends to include fingerings for both hands, whereas with tabs, you need to work those out on your own. You can find a free method book online here that will get you started reading standard notation.

Ready to get started? Here are 8 tips beginner sight readers! 

1) Collect Lots of Easy Music

The key to starting sight-reading is to find a bunch of very easy music. You can find free tabs online herefree sheet music here, or you can order anthologies of beginner music here. You might even consider going to your local library for a book of guitar music. Make use of all the great resources at your disposal!

Don’t try to read through anything above your level at the beginning, since you’ll probably get discouraged. If you’re just getting started with tabs or standard notation, you should start with simple exercises and songs for beginners.

2) Keep Your Sessions Short

I would limit your sight-reading sessions to ten minutes or less. Ten minutes may seem awfully short, but trust me, every minute will feel like an eternity at first.

You might even start with five minutes. The main thing is to take frequent breaks, always stopping at the first sign of fatigue or frustration.

Don’t expect to be able to play through an entire piece of music in five or even ten minutes. At the beginning, you might only play five notes in five minutes. That’s OK! Remember that your effort will be rewarded big-time once you get used to sight-reading.

3) Look at the Music, Not Your Hands

Right from the get-go, you want to develop your spatial awareness of the fretboard. Good sight-readers almost never look at their hands; they keep their eyes fixed on the music in front of them.

This might seem daunting to you, but like sight-reading as a whole, it will pay off in a major way down the road. Try to play each note or chord without looking at your hands. At the beginning you’ll need to check in with your hands pretty often to keep them on track, but before long, you’ll be able to command them without looking.

You can speed up this process by training your spatial memory of the fretboard outside of sight-reading. Start by fretting a note in first position (index finger on the first fret), then jump to, say, fifth position without looking. Open your eyes and see how you did.

Believe it or not, it’s possible to hit the mark every time with practice, and this will really help your reading.

You’ll need to be patient. At first, you’ll be “missing” more often than you’ll be playing the right notes while sight-reading. Just bear in mind that these are exactly the mistakes you need to make in order to succeed in the end. Try to relax and trust the method.

4) Take It Slow

The name of the game is accuracy, not speed. Even if you’re sight-reading very easy music, don’t expect to play it up to tempo right away. Not only will that be impossible, but it’s hardly even desirable.

Focus more on your quality of sound. If you can learn to play slowly and accurately, I promise that speed will come. The good news? You can make excellent music while playing at a snail’s pace.

Slow reading will also allow you to play through pieces well above your current level. For any piece remotely within your technical capabilities, you should be able to find a tempo (think super slow motion) at which you can play it pretty well.

You’ll be getting something out of the session even if you sight-read in a tempo-free way, where you simply play each note in sequence.

If you want to learn more about slow playing check out this post, as well as this post.

5) Don't Be Afraid

Sight-reading makes amateurs of us all. Like anything challenging, it acts as a kind of equalizer.

The sooner you take the plunge and make the mistakes you have to make, the sooner you’ll be a proficient reader. I guarantee that the first few sessions are the worst of it. Once you get into the habit of reading, your fear will melt away. It might just become the most enjoyable part of your practice routine!

I personally used to dread sight-reading practice. Yet I forced myself to do it on a daily basis for months until, as if by magic, it became my favorite type of practice. Now, I like nothing more than to read through new pieces as a way to wind down after a long day.

6) Study Theory on the Side

Nothing makes sight-reading easier than having a deep knowledge of music theory.

When I used to read through tabs, I rarely recognized the chords I was playing. They were strings of numbers: 222, 321, 221, etc. Now, not only do I recognize these patterns as chord shapes I know, but I have a sense of what might come next, given the patterns I know from studying theory.

Many guitarists avoid theory, and for all kinds of reasons. Mainly, theory seems hard, like learning a new language.

It may help you to think of learning theory as further developing a language you already know! After all, you’ve probably heard of a C chord, a D chord, and a G chord, and you’ve probably heard of keys and scales, even if you can’t define them. You might be surprised at how many pieces to the puzzle you already have. In fact, finally putting these pieces together could be extremely satisfying for you.

I’m not asking you to read a graduate-level musicology textbook. Rather, you should seek to master the fundamentals.

The music we listen to may seem incredibly diverse: blues, jazz, pop, country, classical, folk, metal, etc. Yet all of it follows the same basic rules and common practices. If you learn theory, you’ll understand each of these genres on a deeper level.

7) Listen to Yourself

More than “getting through” a new piece of music, or playing a sequence of notes correctly, sight-reading is about making beautiful music. Try to make every sound as clean and pure as possible. Remember that successful sight-reading is indistinguishable from a successful performance, at least so far as the listener is concerned.

You might go so far as to pretend that you’re playing for an audience. This will nudge you in the direction of quality playing, rather than going through the motions.

And if you do have an audience (as in, anyone within earshot), you should try to play well for their sake. It’s one thing to make yourself suffer through poor music-making, but would you really impose it on your partner, friend, roommate, or family member? Heck, most of us wouldn’t wish bad music on a total stranger.

8) Have Faith in the Method

Given that sight-reading is difficult at first, you’re going to need to trust that it’s well worth your effort.

I’m not going to lie to you and say that this kind of practice is easy—but is anything worth doing ever easy? The value of sight-reading is that, in my opinion, it’s the fastest way to radically improve your playing.

I use the word “radically” for a reason. Most of us have an idea that progress on guitar is necessarily linear, meaning we get better in proportion to how much we practice.

For the sake of this point, let’s imagine we can quantify guitar mastery in levels from 0 to 100. Level 0 is a complete beginner, while level 100 is, well, you name it: Hendrix, Segovia, BB King, whoever you like.

Linear progress in this case might mean that for every 10 hours of practice, you ascend 1 level of mastery. Nonlinear progress, however, might have you shoot up 5+ levels in 10 hours of practice. I’m convinced from my own experience that sight-reading can facilitate such nonlinear “leaps” in your guitar capabilities.

All of this is to say, your efforts at sight-reading will be handsomely rewarded! I hope you can take a leap of faith and begin the awesome journey that is consistent sight-reading.


No matter what your level at the moment, it’s the perfect time for you to start sight-reading. I’ve outlined a number of tips on how you might get started, but don’t be afraid to trust your own instincts.

For instance, you might really enjoy using a metronome to sight-read. This method will develop your sense of musical time better than any other. If you don’t have a metronome, you can find my favorite one right here.

You might also prefer to read through new chord progressions during your sessions, rather than standard notation or tabs. The main thing is to challenge yourself to play through new music as often as possible.

I’ll leave you with my favorite video on sight-reading. This comes from Dr. John Mortensen from Cedarville University. He’s a pianist addressing students of his, but his wisdom applies equally to guitar. If you like him, be sure to check out his other videos. 

Best of luck with your reading!

Are you looking to upgrade your gear or browse some awesome guitar learning materials? Check out my recommendations page to see all my favorite stuff. 

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