The Perplexity of Guitar Notation

Posted on Posted in Guitar

Many non-guitarists become mystified at some of the ways to notate music for the guitar. Admittedly, I’m baffled at some of the material I’ve come across in writing, mostly because I’ve never formally studied guitar in the sense of reading in some of these ways. Contrarily, my system to approaching reading involved playing in large and small jazz ensembles and pit orchestras. There, I read off manuscript paper meant for pianists and horn players. I often dealt with translating dense pianistic chords and angular melodies back to the guitar; lines and riffs that come more naturally to non-guitarists.

Until recently, my situations didn’t require me to look much at the current system of guitar notation. With teaching privately in New York City, reading this current system comes with the territory. Moreover, friends and acquaintances have asked, “Nick, why is guitar notation so different? How can I effectively learn how to read music on the guitar?”

Guitar notation isn’t different from standard musical notation. We read in the treble clef. We can play phrases staccato or legato. We can even use vibrato, pedal points and the like. What mystifies non-guitarists is how we notate articulations and guitar techniques. Here, we have non-guitarists spending more time figuring out guitar notation than actually learning or writing for the guitar. This should be the other way around. Instead of non-guitarists trying to unscramble notation, guitar players should find better ways to relate notation as a whole to other instrumentalists and composers. Therefore, guitarists should write as lucidly as possible.

Guitarists need to understand that while some ways of notating may hold good intentions, in essence it actually makes reading unnecessarily difficult. Ex.1 shows an excerpt marked for use with a capo:


Capo Ex 1


The sounding chord and key, for that matter, is C minor. However, the staff represents the key of E minor. The capo is placed on the 8th fret, however the tablature doesn’t reflect open position. Also, for those who have perfect or relative pitch, this system adds confusion. Since when does Emin7 sound the same as Cmin7? Now, some may say, “Nick, the writing at the bottom specifically explains that the capoed fret (8th) is essentially open position on the guitar. It’s as if the rest of the fretboard is cut off and the neck begins at the 8th fret.” I understand how to play and read this excerpt. I also appreciate the explanation, however there is a better way to write these two bars. 

Though tablature it has pedagogical purposes, ultimately we shouldn’t use it for notation in scores. Nevertheless, typesetters and transcribers could still make the numbers correspond to the frets, as well as write the range with the corresponding sounding range, as Ex. 2 illustrates:

Ex. 2:

Capo Ex 2

Or better yet, Ex. 3:

Capo Ex 3 No Tab

I could write a book on more effective ways to write for guitar. The battle seems two-fold. On the one hand, universities and other music schools seem to treat guitarists as outcasts. On the other, not every guitarist has had formal training; therefore some have relied on this niche specific system of notation. Maybe it would be more unified if grade schools would implement more ensembles driven towards guitar music. After all, the guitar is becoming quite the popular instrument for kids to study. Moreover, I’m convinced that if more guitarists had access to the same outlets in high school and so forth as I did, we would have a much more homogenized system of notation that would make sense.

About Nick Grinlinton

Nick Grinlinton has written 113 entries on this blog.

Nick Grinlinton is a guitarist, composer and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a two-time ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award finalist and has composed and played music for Jerry Seinfeld's web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee". A speedy runner, Nick currently focuses on racing distances from the mile all the way to the marathon. As he continues to train daily, he is currently examining what effect music has towards running. To learn more and to contact Nick, visit his website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *