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As a non-professional, intermediate-level guitarist interested in playing jazz, I wonder how important it is for me to be able to sight read music (and I mean standard music notation, not guitar tablature, etc.) in order to "take it to the next level".

While I can certainly think of many situations where reading may be required/helpful (e.g. some gigs, recording sessions, etc.), I also suspect that there are many highly skilled guitarists that do not know how to read.

I assume that it certainly "wouldn't hurt" to have this skill, but I'm not convinced that it's worth the significant investment. My current thinking is that it is more important to spend that time practicing in other ways, e.g. learning many scales, chord voicings, existing songs, working on rhythm, etc. However, I'm worried that I may be making a mistake.

Will not learning to sight read make it significantly more difficult for me to become a competent jazz guitarist in the long run?


Update:

Thanks for all the awesome feedback. I think there are a few take-away points from the answers (please correct me if I didn't interpret them correctly):

  • There's a difference between being able to read in "real time" (e.g. good enough to work from a sheet I'm not familiar with at a gig) and being proficient enough to read in less demanding situations (e.g. I'm learning new songs/melodies on my own time.
  • The amount of skill necessary depends on the type of gigs one wants to play (e.g. required for big band, not necessary for small 3-4-5tets because they work more from improv over the standards.)

I should have been clear that I'm more interested in informally playing in 3-4-5tets, but regardless, all the answers are really helpful. I think that what I'm going to do is try to invest a small amount of time to be able to read well enough to figure out new melodies/songs when I'm on my own, but I probably won't be investing the significant amount of time necessary to read and play unfamiliar music "in real time".

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6 Answers 6

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It really depends. If you want to play in big bands, then yes! Sightreading is a huge deal. If you play in a small group that plays lots of arrangements, then this would be important also.

Personally, I play in 3-4-5tets and we don't really use music, we just call out tunes that everyone knows. I've had the pleasure to play in Paris as well, and there it is the same way; you don't see those guys looking at a paper while they play. In that case, the most important knowledge is knowing your way around chord progressions. While knowing the melody is also important, you don't have to play it note-for-note, rhythm-for-rhythm as it is on the page. That's frowned upon actually... you have to be able to improvise around a melody as well as chords.

So yes, while sight-reading is generally important for some setups, it's definitely far from the most important thing if you're a non-professional just looking to get some small group gigs and sit in places. Hope this helps!

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thanks! I should have been more clear, I meant mostly 3-4-5tests rather than big bands :) So that's comforting! I'd love to be able to hold my own in informal gigs, probably just the standards... Of course, getting familiar with enough of the standards is a large task in itself :) –  Matt Jul 12 '11 at 13:58
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The answer to Your last question would be Yes.

I think You should differentiate sight-reading with so called a-vista reading.

First is ability to translate notes into music on Your instrument, and second is ability to do it on the spot on performance level.

I think when You wrote about pros and cons - You were talking about a-vista. Which is a huge effort needs continous practice to stay in shape but may be crucial at gigs etc.

But on the other hand be able to sight read is much less demanding. And You will have much deeper understanding of music You're playing/hearing. Areas which are much easier with sight reading than with tabs (or putting notation into a software like Guitar Pro) are: rhytmic playing, harmony, fretboard knowledge/phrasing and probably much more.

So if You are serious about it (and it's hard no to be serious with jazz) invest time to teach Yourself sight-reading. The progress will be slow, but it will gradually improve. Be patient and You will see what i'm talking about.

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thanks! I hadn't ever heard the term "a-vista" reading. It seems like a good distinction to make though. It seems perfectly reasonable to assume that I'd be able to read music in "less than real time". Essentially I'm able to do this translation now, but it's so painfully slow that it's not practical. I guess it's worth improving my reading skills a bit, at least to the point where it's not painfully slow :) –  Matt Jul 12 '11 at 14:09
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It all depends on what your goals are.

Do you want to be able to play with other jazz musicians? Especially piano and horn players? They will NEVER have tab for you. NEVER. If you say "hey, do you have tab for that tune" they will either laugh at you or tell you to leave. They have standard notation that you will have to read off if you want to play a tune with them you don't know. If you are expected to play the melody of the tune, you will have to learn how to read, and probably transpose as well.

Do you want to be able to learn from the 400 years of music written down already using notation? Maybe learn some trumpet solos, or study a Coltrane lick or Debussy or Bach? If so, then you should learn to read chord charts at the very least for playing jazz. If you would rather not take advantage of all that learning that has already been saved, organized, and documented for you, then don't bother.

If you want to be able to play with other musicians quickly and efficiently (especially in a jazz situation with horn players and piano players) you have two choices:

  1. Read music, at least basic chord charts
  2. Get scary-good radar ears so you can hear a progression once and play along and/or over it.

Those are the only two ways that you will be presented with new music in a live playing situation by proficient jazz musicians. No one is going to say "Hold on audience, while we teach this song to the guitar player". They are going to give you a chart, or just start playing and expect that you know the tune or can jump in and get it. This included auditions.

So if you want to play with proficient jazz musicians, yes, you need to learn how to at least read lead sheets and be able to comp and solo over the changes on the page when you see them.

Look, its not that hard. Think about it, every eighth grader in every pep band in every jr. high in the US can do it. Are they all musical geniuses? Hardly.

You can do it, it is not like learning Sanskrit or something.

The trick is doing it. Every day. Look at some printed music. It is a water-wears-down-the-stone thing, you can only get six months good at reading music by reading music everyday for six months. You will get better at it the more you do it. Just get a fake book, crack it open and have at it. It will be slow and frustrating at first, but it will get better. The more you do it the faster it will improve. There is no trick or secret, just gotta do it.

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Great answer. The only thing that bothers me is that you characterise playing by ear as "scary good" and sight reading as something anyone can do. I can do the former and not the latter, simply because that's what I happened to practice. Both are achievable to mortals. –  slim Jan 3 '12 at 17:51
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Well...today,a jazz musician should have a solid basis in theory; chords, their construction, inversions, extensions... Scales and modes, the circle of fifths.. How jazz is structured and all that.

However, "sight reading", the ability to "play from the sheet", likely not so much. Jazz is greatly about improvisation, after all, and lots of groups work primarily from charts or "lead sheets".

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Lead sheets contain a melody line written in the treble clef, so sight reading is still important. –  Rein Henrichs Jul 11 '11 at 17:41
    
Thanks @M. Werner, my focus so far has been about internalizing the theory. I happen to be a math guy, so I eat up the theory when it's presented to me, but it's hard to get the theory to become natural when I'm playing. It feels like a huge jump and I haven't made it quite yet :) I think I'm confused about your second statement though. –  Matt Jul 12 '11 at 14:05
    
@ReinHenrichs depends. If you're playing standards, and you can play by ear, you don't need a lead sheet. Everyone knows the tune to Somewhere Over The Rainbow. –  slim Jan 3 '12 at 17:53
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Lead sheets are the de facto standard resource for learning jazz songs. They have chords notated but the melodies are written in treble clef. The ability to sight read a single melody line is useful to the extent that you will be learning jazz songs from lead sheets. If you would like to be able to learn new songs on the spot, your sight reading will have to be good enough to allow it.

There are other situations where sight reading might come up, such as reading a big band chart, but it seems unlikely that these would be very common occurrences for you.

That said, it's really not that hard to learn, and will open up other doors in your musical career as well.

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I think that's a good point about reading as a means to learn new songs. As a non-professional, I probably won't really need to learn new melodies on the spot, but I'd hope to be able to follow most chord progressions if someone threw a fake book at me... –  Matt Jul 12 '11 at 14:02
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I'm a horn player (sax) that stumbled on this page by accident and I find that this issue even exist to be amusing. From a horn players perspective, the one thing that ticks me off about guitar players is they refuse to read. I'm not talking about chord charts or tab but standard musical notation. I have a jazz band that will set up between 3 to 15 musicians depending on what the gig calls for. We work from a "book" of loose leaf sheet music that has over 600 tunes and any one of them can be called on the gig. I expect the guitar player to see the music and play it note for note. If there is a melody line, the guitar player will need to play it not just strum chords.

I cant begin to count the number of guitar players that have asked me to see the music before the gig so they can "practice", or they want to know what keys we do the songs in. I inform them they get the music at the gig or rehearsal and if they want to take the music home to practice I appologize and say no. (I've lost to much music over the years to risk this anylonger). There are only about 3 guitar players in my area I honestly trust and I know can do the job, even though they may not be the best "soloist" but they are the most consistent and can play the charts.

So is reading important? In my opinion it's beyond important. As far as I'm concerned if you can’t read then thats the same as saying, "I can’t play" and I really don't care how much noise you can make with that thing from that point forward.

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But this goes both ways, and comes back to the question -- what sort of groups does the OP want to play with. I could reverse your angle and say "When a horn player joins my reggae band, I expect to be able to tell them what key we're in, play a tune on my guitar, and for them to play it back to me". –  slim Jan 3 '12 at 17:59
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... and of course, it also comes down to the manifold different definitions of jazz. You want your guitarist to sight read note-for-note at a gig. Another jazzer might claim, if I ain't improvising, it ain't jazz. –  slim Jan 3 '12 at 18:00
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