While it may seem necessary to know how to read music, the reality is that you can learn how to play guitar without ever having to read a single music sheet.
In this article, we will dive into the old age question if you need to read music in order to learn guitar.
Do you need to read music to learn guitar?
No, reading music is not a requirement for learning how to play guitar. In fact, several famous guitar players do not know how to read music.
Does that know that they do not know music? No!
Musicians might be extremely knowledgeable about music but may not know exactly how to read it. Just like a famous painter may have not studied art, but knows how to paint.
Music ability is not determined by knowing how to read music, and although it is an important part of music theory is not a prerequisite.
How do famous guitarists play without reading music?
Over the years, and before there was any internet and Youtube, pretty much every guitarist would learn how to play guitar by ear. There were limited guitar tabs available, and if you wanted to learn a song you had to do it by ear.
How exactly did they do it? Listening to records, that’s right.
For most of the 20th century, most musicians and guitarists included learned how to master their instruments through trial and error. Listening to songs, and trying to pick them up by ear. This ultimately forced them to develop one of the most important skills any musician can have – their ear.
This allows them to know exactly in which key they are in and forced them to develop their hearing.
How can I learn to play guitar without reading music?
You can learn how to play guitar even without knowing how to read music, and there are several ways to do it, but first let’s start with the basics.
Before even jumping into learning, you need to know your basics. This means knowing a few of the major and minor chord shapes, as well as knowing how to do power chords. Once you have mastered this, you can easily start to play some songs.
In order to develop from the basics, you can choose different pathways:
- Reading music (Classical/Jazz)
- Learning by ear
- Learning from videos
- Learning from a teacher
If you decide to learn classical guitar or study jazz guitar it is usually mandatory to know how to read music. It is not required to know how to read music to play these styles, but it is common for students to study music theory and learn how to read music to perform classical, and jazz guitar pieces.
One of the best advantages of learning classical and jazz guitar is that you develop a strong foundational knowledge of reading music and music theory.
Even if later on in your career as a guitar player you want to pivot into other music styles, it will be a great contribution to know how to read music.
Learn by ear
Learning how to play the guitar by ear was for many years one of the most common ways to master the instrument. About 30 years ago, the access to study materials including guitar books for beginners, and courses were limited.
Therefore, if you really wanted to learn how to play the guitar you had to listen to records and try to pick up what you heard. One of the great advantages of learning guitar by ear is that you develop your ability to hear, and know what key you are in, and what is really happening.
Today it is still possible to learn guitar by ear, although there are better ways of doing it. Combining it with courses and even private classes seems to make more sense. Picking songs by hearing them is still one of the best exercises you can do as a musician.
You should also expect to be able to do it, even if you decide to go with another learning approach.
Learning from videos
Over the years this has become one of the most common ways of learning guitar alone. Today there are thousands if not millions of videos explaining in detail how to play a specific song, or a scale, or a chord. You don’t even need to buy expensive courses when all of the information you want is available on the internet for free.
Youtube has one of the best selections of movies on how to learn guitar. You can easily find several guitar players teaching you how to approach the instrument, and giving you solid advice that will help you play your first notes and chords.
Even for an intermediary or advanced players, Youtube is still an impressive tool. If you combine it with learning by ear, you can learn thousands of songs, and it does not cost a penny. You also do not need to know how to read music to learn from videos.
In fact, there are also several videos where you can easily start learning how to read music, while you learn how to play the guitar.
Learning from a teacher
Private classes with a guitar teacher are also another way to master the instrument. Private guitar lessons are something every beginner guitar player should prioritize. This is because it is very difficult to get started completely alone, although it is possible.
Having a teacher help you out, in the beginning, can make a huge difference. Since it can help you avoid the most common mistakes, and instill in you the right posture, and hand movement.
Even if later on you decide to learn completely by yourself, you should really consider having private classes in the beginning because it will allow you to improve much faster.
Although you can choose one of these different approaches and stick to it, the best is to combine them. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages, but combined you get the best of both worlds.
Choose them depending on your goals, and how much time you have available.
Guitar players who do not know how to read music
You would be impressed with the number of talented and famous musicians who actually do not even know or knew how to read music. This has not stopped them from attaining global fame and composing some of the most iconic pieces of music ever written. Here are some of the most remarkable guitar players and musicians that did not know how to read music:
- Jimi Hendrix
- Eric Clapton
- Stevie Wonder
- Hans Zimmer
- Noel Gallagher
- Eric Clapton
- John Lennon
- Elvis Presley
- James Hetfield
- Eddie Van Halen
- Paul McCartney
- Dave Brubeck
- Lionel Richie
- Stevie Ray Vaughan
- Bob Dylan
- B. B. King
- Tommy Emmanuel
Can you learn music theory without reading music?
Yes, you can learn music theory without knowing how to read music. However, knowing how to read music can be a tremendous advantage, but it all depends on exactly what you want to do.
Understanding music theory will allow you to read more than just notes on a music sheet. It is also an essential component of composing music, and unless you are able to read music and have a strong music theory foundation it will be very difficult to be a great composer.
Do most guitar players read music?
No, most guitar players in pop and rock bands do not know how to read music. That does not mean that they do not know music theory or do not understand the complex music concepts. The reality is that most of the work they do, it does not require them to know how to read music.
Reading music is oftentimes essential for classical or jazz players playing in an orchestra. It is also common for composers or even extremely devoted musicians that take their craft to the highest level possible.
However, most guitar players do not need to know how to read music, as long as they master their own instrument. Simply by hearing they will know what notes and chords they can play, and in what key the song is in.
Can you learn guitar with no musical talent?
It depends. Let’s put it this way, music is a combination of these three things:
In order to be a musician or even play around with some songs, you need to have some musical talent. That does not mean that you cannot learn guitar if you have no musical talent. What will happen is that as you learn to master the instrument, your musical talent will also develop.
Playing guitar is a mechanical skill that can be developed over time, and the same thing is true for musical talent. If you really put effort into it and decide to dedicate a few hours every day, you will eventually become good at it.
Can you learn guitar by ear?
Yes, learning the guitar by ear was one of the most common ways of learning how to play. For years musicians did not have the access to videos, and courses that we have today. Their only solution was to listen to songs and try to pick up the chords, melody, and even the rhythm.
Learning guitar by ear may take more time in the beginning because you are not sure if you are even hitting the right notes. Over time you start to be more comfortable at picking up songs, chords, and melodies.
It becomes extremely easy and fast to pick any new song, in just a matter of minutes.
Even if you decide to learn how to play with a private class or through videos you should not disregard learning by ear. It is a quintessential part of learning guitar and an exercise every aspiring guitarist should do.
Although it is important to know how to read music, it is not a mandatory requirement to learn how to play the guitar. We have seen that there are plenty of very successful and legendary guitar players that were not able to read a single note on a music sheet.
That did not stop them from creating their own music, and tones, and from inspiring millions of fans across the globe.
I have been playing guitar for the past 15 years, and my knowledge and passion for guitars prompted me to start Guitaresque to share my knowledge, tips, and tricks with other guitar players. The sole purpose of this website is to help and inspire guitar players worldwide, to improve their playing and their love for guitars.