Sight Reading on the Classical Guitar – Part 2

Sight Reading on the Classical Guitar

by Simon Powis

Part 2

Why does the problem exist?

Difficulties of the instrument

“To be objective about it, I would say the guitar is more difficult than other instruments because there are more alternatives. So I think one has to face that, it’s not an excuse, it’s a fact. With piano, of course, there is only one place that each note can be played. … I think, on the guitar, first of all, even for individual notes you’ve got alternatives on different strings and you compound that by a factor of two to three to four, any time you’ve got to combine that with other notes. If you have a B and an E on open strings, how many different ways could you play those notes together? … It is more difficult than other instruments, but unfortunately it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, it is even more reason to do more of it!” – John Williams[1]

The guitar makes chordal and polyphonic demands comparable to the piano, albeit on a smaller scale. Unlike the piano, however, it does not have a linear arrangement of pitches and there are often multiple places on the fingerboard to play one pitch.  The ability to play one pitch in multiple places makes the process of sight reading on the guitar difficult.  This difficulty provides a convenient excuse for most guitarists not to develop their reading abilities and it has developed into a commonly accepted yet completely unfounded notion that sight reading on guitar is virtually impossible to execute on a comparable level to other instruments.  This ignorance holds back guitarists from an essential skill that can greatly enhance many aspects of their musicianship and is attainable, to a considerable extent, by all.

Lack of involvement with other musicians

The combination of a limited chamber repertoire, an isolationist attitude among guitarists and a poor level of musicianship all point toward the fact that guitarists are rarely forced to sight read in group situations and therefore never develop their skills in the area.  The overwhelming majority of guitarists learn solo repertoire, and only solo repertoire, which encourages the practice of music memorization and therefore reduces the amount of experience reading printed music. An upgrading of the standing of guitarists in the musical community requires a greater expectation of a guitar student to learn repertoire with more efficiency and speed.  Sight-reading abilities enhance many learning processes in music and will promote the continued improvement of classical guitarists’ abilities and the reputation of the instrument itself.

Over-fingering of the repertoire

Both John Williams and Jerry Willard expressed frustration at the amount of over-fingering that occurs in the majority of classical guitar music. Williams is adamant that the over-fingering of scores has led to the poor sight-reading ability of most guitarists.

“The problem with sight reading is we keep on having editions for guitar with too much fingering and if you are seriously studying in college with an idea to becoming professional you have got to get used to reading the music without the fingering. I have been on about guitar fingerings as long as I can remember, about thirty or forty years. Every now and then people say ‘you don’t put enough fingerings in your music’ and I am sorry but it’s already too much, it’s a compromise. … It’s ridiculous and it’s only because we have the framework of everything we do on the so-called ‘classical guitar’ from the nineteenth century. People forget that all those early editions of Sor and Giuliani and Beethoven editions for piano, they were published for amateurs, which is great, the more the better of course, but when we are talking about professional students, at colleges, they have got to learn how to do the business properly”. [2]

Similarly, Willard believes that most guitarists will follow the fingerings in guitar music rather than reading the actual notes.

“You have to get through a sea of fingerings to get through to the notes in guitar music and people will tend to read the fingerings over the notes. They will see a ‘4’ and try to do that fingering rather than just seeing the note and putting it in the most comfortable spot.”

Starting age

Many classical guitarists will have played guitar in a different style before becoming dedicated to the classical style.  Guitar, being one of the most popular instruments in the world, has a kaleidoscope of styles of which very few use standard notation. Because of the lack of standard notation, many skills, such as improvisation and playing by ear, can be highly developed. An interesting parallel that occurs with other instrumentalists is found in Suzuki Method students. With little or no use of notated music, many Suzuki students find difficulty in reading music without having experienced the process in early stages of development. Eventually, these young musicians have to learn to read in order to partake in orchestral and chamber music, which undoubtedly acts as a strong impetus to develop the skill. This integral education that is provided by communal music making is, to a large extent, unavailable to guitarists; they are unable to participate and learn in these settings partly because of the repertoire and partly because the guitarists have not obtained the reading skills to partake.  By the time a guitarist is admitted to a tertiary institution, she/he has not benefited from these important learning experiences and therefore enters with a range of underdeveloped skills.


Poor education is both a cause and a result of the sight reading deficiency in guitar pedagogy. The low expectations of current method books and conservatory courses perpetuates the poor abilities of guitarists to sight-read.  As a result of this education there are few teachers who possess sufficient sight-reading skills to teach others how to read.  This dangerous self-perpetuating circularity has been allowed to exist in universities for far too long and a substantial method and curricular reform is overdue to be incorporated into the conservatory training of a guitarist.  Partly to blame for this gaping oversight in guitar education is the lessened expectation from other musicians i.e. because there are lower expectations from guitarists and other musicians alike, in terms of musicianship, there has been no apparent need to address the blatant reading issue that is particular to guitarists.

[1] Taken from a phone interview with John Williams, January 29, 2010

[2] Williams interview, Jan 29,2010

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1 Response

  1. April 6, 2011

    […] READ SIMON’S ARTICLE via Sight Reading on the Classical Guitar – Part 2 — Classical Guitar Review. […]

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