I am a beginning guitar player, and I struggle to play sheet music.

If I remember the piece I want to play by heart, it goes pretty fine. However, when I look at the sheet (if I forget a few notes, or if I am learning a new piece), it takes me a very long time to convert the notes I see to strings and frets that I need to play.

I feel that this difficulty really slows me down, eating a great fraction of my playing time (~1 hour per day). Which techniques can I use to make this quicker? Can I use some specialized routine/tool or just wait until it comes naturally?

(example of what i am playing)

  • Honestly, this is something that will come in time with practice. I wouldn't stress about it. Commented Jan 9, 2013 at 21:28

3 Answers 3


Know your major scales! They contextualize the notes, making each note much easier to find. The examples you provided, for instance, are both in the key of C, so if you know how to play a C Major scale, you can see that most of the notes fit within that scale. So you can find certain anchor notes within the scale and figure out the rest from there. Often, you don't end up having to find each note on its own, but instead you find them as parts of scale fragments.

In other words: In study Number 1, you're in C Major and you don't get to an accidental until the last note of measure 7. So start by finding the first note, which is a C---that's your anchor (I might also choose the G above C as another anchor). From there, you see that you go down one note in the scale and then a third. Repeat. Measure 3 is a scale fragment---start on the anchor C and simply go up the scale for three notes, and then go up a third to the anchor G. From there, walk down the scale, etc. etc. Notice that you don't actually have to know where the B, D, E, or F are on their own, you just have to know how to play a C Major scale; that's the whole point. When you get to an accidental, you play the note from the scale but adjusted up or down based on whether its sharp or flat---in this case, its especially easy because it's the note right below the anchor G.

This approach to reading works in any key, and musical notation really encourages it: once you know the key of the piece, every note that doesn't have an accidental is within the scale, and the accidentals are like red flags saying "Heads-up! This note is outside the scale!" The point is, if you know your major scales really well (which you should be working on every day anyway), you can take advantage of that knowledge to offload the mental processing of trying to figure out where each individual note is. Instead, you see how the notes fit together, and the piece becomes both easier to play and also makes more musical sense.

  • 1
    Yes to all of this - but also know your minor scales, and use those if the pieces is in a minor key.
    – slim
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 14:14
  • 2
    @slim Absolutely. In particular, know your harmonic and melodic minor scales, as they differ from the notes in the major scale. Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 14:29

Try to keep the staff positions of the open strings in your mind as a reference. Other notes will then be so many fingers up from the nearest lower open string. Eventually your eye will recognize the interval (F♯ is two steps up from D, and the nearest finger will simply reach for it.


I had the same problem and I got better by practicing offline.

What I used to do is to play a random chord or a short 5 beat-piece with varying tempo and then I wrote them down. The more you do it the more you know what it's gonna look like before you put it on the paper and in turn when you are reading the sheet you know where they might come from. So the number of peculiar positions you have to decode goes down through time.

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