Consider that there is a band consisting of a lead guitarist and a bass guitarist and they want to play a sheet music. Who plays which part in these situations:

1-The sheet music has only a treble clef and a bass clef

Does the lead guitarist ONLY play the treble clef and bass guitarist ONLY the bass clef?

2-The sheet music has a treble and chord symbols above the treble clef

Does the lead guitarist play the notes and bass guitarist play the chords?

3-The sheet music has TWO treble clefs AND chord symbols above them?

Now who plays what? I actually saw this kind of sheet music for one of linkin park's songs. As they have two guitarists, how do they play two clefs AND chords?


2 Answers 2


I'm afraid I have to take slight issue with @Bradd's otherwise solid answer. Actually, it's not a direct disagreement but a clarification: Professional guitar players usually can read sheet music, and most can also interpret sheet music by extrapolating parts of it as you describe. In a context of a pit orchestra (as in a musical show), studio recordings, or other professional entertainment settings, guitar players are expected to do just this. The lack of reading skills among guitar players is more a product of the lack of availability of good music for them to read despite it being one of the most popular instruments. In addition, tab is easier to write and edit so it is much more prevalent.The caveat being that most tabs available on the Internet are written by amateurs and are incomplete and full of mistakes.

It's important to clarify that there is a difference between sheet music, tablature, lead sheets, and arrangements.

Arrangement means the total musical content for the song, for all musical players. Technically this could even mean every single note of every single part hand-written on a page somewhere, though this is rare except in classical music. Even in contemporary styles where the arranger takes much control (jazz, television scores, etc), the player is usually expected to infer some stuff based on the arrangement. For instance, the drummer's part may have one-measure of drum pattern written out, and then the drummer is expected to play something like that. He is even probably expected to play special fills at certain points in the music according to his or her own judgment.

Tablature is a means of writing specific instructions for what frets to play on the bass or guitar. However, it is sorely lacking in some ways, especially in the notation of rhythm. Some tablature includes rhythm. Finding tablature also means that the person providing the music understands how the guitar works and can notate it in tablature, which means if guitar players can't read sheet music, they can't participate as actively with players of other instruments who can.

Sheet music is what I think you are referring to. It is any music notation usually with a 5-line staff, at least one treble clef staff having the melody, and any other numbers of lines/clefs for other instruments. Nowadays, chords are often included above the music for everyone's reference.

Lead sheet is a condensed sheet music that doesn't have as much information. Usually it shows the chord form, any lyrics, and the basic melody.

I'll try to answer your questions about how to create an "on-the-spot" arrangement from sheet music or lead sheet:

The sheet music has only a treble clef and a bass clef The guitarist would play the treble clef and the bassist would play the bass clef, though each would probably improvise a little bit.

The sheet music has a treble and chord symbols above the treble clef: Guitarist 1 would play the notes, bass would play a bass line of his own devising following the chords. A second guitarist or a pianist would play the chords. Other instruments not featured could also "comp" on the chords. For instance, a violin player might play partial chords.

The sheet music has TWO treble clefs AND chord symbols above them: Depends. If the guitarist can play two treble clefs at once, that might work. Most likely you need one instrumentalist for each treble clef, as well as someone to play the chords, someone to play a bass line from the chords, and percussion. That's what bands are for!

Playing full arrangements of tunes with just a guitar and bass can be a little bit of a challenge, and it might take some time to find tunes that are suitable for this situation.

  • 3
    Oh I definitely agree that many guitarists can read sheet music. It just sounds like the OP’s sheet music is not arranged for guitar, nor for multiple instruments. It sounds like the kind of sheet music you find in cheap songbook collections of popular music, which is usually a poor transcription arranged for piano. (+1) Jul 28, 2014 at 9:03
  • I think we're on the same page for sure! I just wanted to take up arms and fight for guitar players learning to read sheet music. :)
    – Grey
    Jul 28, 2014 at 9:08
  • I updated my answer to clarify what I originally meant: Guitarists do read sheet music, they just don't read multiple guitar parts from a single staff. I don't think anybody does that. Anyway, wanted to give you a heads-up because the caveat at the start of your (excellent) answer might no longer apply. Jul 29, 2014 at 2:47

Guitarists do not generally play from sheet music in that way, with multiple musicians reading different notes from the same staff – in fact, I'm not aware of any instrumentalists who do that. Separate instruments normally have separate sheet music. It sounds like you have some sheet music from a songbook, with a grand staff arrangement for piano instead of the original instrumentation. That is quite common and not very useful if you’re looking to play the music as originally performed.

Guitarists more often work from chord charts or lead sheets (from which they improvise), or from tablature which shows exactly how to play each part on each instrument. While many guitarists do read sheet music, the kind you find in songbooks often requires significant reinterpretation or rearrangement to play it well on a guitar.

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