It is common for a classical guitar player to feel stumped by sight-reading. Up against a new passage or an unfamiliar piece of music, they ‘freeze’. The connection between the notes on the page and the notes on the fingerboard is suddenly hard to see, difficult to execute. If you’re a beginner and just coming to terms with where the notes are on the fingerboard, you now have to also figure out where the notes are on the music sheet and connect the two!
Even higher level students, who are preparing for their grade exams, for instance, feel the pressure. They are required to play an unseen passage after glancing at it for about a minute or less. Professional guitarists too need strong reading skills to collaborate with ensembles and composers. At every level of playing, sight reading is a skill that is valuable.
And, yes, it is a skill – within the grasp of guitarists at any level. Like playing the guitar itself, it is developed through consistent and careful practice.
Here are six good books (and one good website) that address and develop sight-reading skills for guitarists.
- Sight Reading for the Classical Guitar, by Robert Benedict (2 books)
- Guitar Sight-Reading 1 & 2 by John Kember
- Joining the Dots for Guitar – ABRSM publication (5 books)
- Reading Studies for Guitar: Positions One Through Seven and Multi-Position Studies in All Keys by William Leavitt
- 60 Sight Reading Exercises for Guitar by Dodgson & Quine
- Method book by Julio Sagreras
- thefluentguitarist.com (website)
All such methods seek to build an automatic connection between what’s on the score and your fingers. This cannot be rushed, but it can’t be put off for later too. A systematic 10 minutes per day spent on well-organized sight-reading material can gradually strengthen this weak link in most players.
Sight Reading for the Classical Guitar, Levels I-III, by Robert Benedict
The publisher’s mention says, “This book for the classical guitar has been compiled to improve sight reading, an often neglected aspect of musicianship. With the guitar, musical components (scales, chords, arpeggios, etc.) may often be played in various positions. While this is one of the reasons that the instrument produces such colorful and interesting timbres, it also contributes to the difficulties of sight reading. This book provides an orderly and systematic approach to the study of sight reading, based upon standards for sight reading for the classical guitar found in respected schools around the world.”
First published in the ’80s, this book is a tried-and-trusted classic covering a lot of ground in a systematic way. There is an emphasis on musical interpretation and not just technique with tips on phrasing. Playing one exercise a day for a few minutes can pay off well.
The trick is to read through an exercise or passage without becoming too familiar with it, or worse, memorizing it by repetition. If memorization happens too soon, a student starts to completely ignore the score and play from memory instead, thus defeating the very purpose of learning to read music off the page.
My own take on such focussed technique books is that the process can be pretty boring! You’d do well to keep it to just about 5 minutes or so every day. You will see improvement in a matter of weeks. As noted, don’t memorize or give yourself too much time on any one piece for it to become familiar. Keep it fresh for later readings. Check the price of Sight Reading for the Classical Guitar, Levels I-III at Amazon.
For more advanced students who continue to struggle with sight-reading, there is a higher level to master in Benedict’s second book which too is equally celebrated: Sight Reading for the Classical Guitar, Levels 4 and 5 (Amazon link).
Guitar Sight-Reading 1 by John Kember
This book was first published in 2007 and self-styled as ‘A fresh approach’. It is for self-learners and grade students. It places emphasis on rhythmic patterns through carefully graduated pieces in a range of styles. The book includes teacher/student duets and piano accompaniments.
It has a whole lot of useful exercises to practice sight-reading. The difficulty levels are increased in gradual increments. There are more melodies than just exercises, so the musical experience is kept alive. The exercises are short and progressive to keep the learning path smooth and advancing.
It starts from the very beginning so even beginners to notation can benefit considerably. (This is not always true of sight-reading books. Many of them assume you know the basics of notation already.)
Check the price of Guitar Sight-Reading 1 at Amazon.
For intermediate and advanced students, there is Guitar Sight-Reading 2 edition at Amazon. It covers advanced level material, including 150 carefully-graded pieces in different keys and advanced techniques.
Joining the Dots for Guitar – ABRSM (5 books)
This series of publications are from the respected music school ABRSM, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, UK – a pioneer in music education in over 70 countries. Their publications covering repertoire, scales, exercises, aural tests and sight-reading are prescribed books for use with their own curriculum and hence of a high standard.
Joining the Dots offers guitarists lots of material to help build confidence and skill in sight-reading. The series aims to improve your “sense of fretboard geography” so that you can read new music more quickly and easily.
The five books cover material meant for their own Grades 1 to 5, and include warm-up and technical exercises, simple improvisation exercises, and many short pieces to sight-read. Check the listing of this Series at Amazon.
For instance, the Grade 1 book has four pages each on the five keys of grade one: C major/A minor (all natural), G major/E minor (F is sharp), and F major (B is flat).
You start off with four scale exercises. If you have a teacher, you have an exercise where you can echo your teacher’s playing. And then there are the tunes to play. Doing a key a day and cycling through the book every seven days or so is a good idea.
Seven days is a lot of time to forget a piece so that when you are back to it, you’d have forgotten it and remain fresh. There are also duets and trios included.
Reading Studies for Guitar by William Leavitt
This is a full collection of studies for beginners covering positions 1 through 7 in all keys while introducing scales, arpeggios, chords, and a variety of rhythms and time signatures. It is for the acoustic guitar in general (not classical specifically) from an author quite noted for his guitar method publications.
Check the price of Reading Studies for Guitar: Positions One Through Seven and Multi-Position Studies in All Keys at Amazon.
The book not only improves your ability to read but also builds fingerboard knowledge. Some sight-reading experience beforehand will help. Upper position reading (which many students postpone indefinitely!) is taught in a systematic manner. It should bring your skills to the next level if you work your way patiently through the method.
60 Sight Reading Exercises for Guitar by Dodgson & Quine
This is a graded publication that appears to be out of print now, but is well worth a google search. It is written by two of the finest co-creators and educators in the classical guitar field. They are known for their many pedagogical student pieces that have featured on board exam repertoire as well as various contributions on guitar technique.
I have a copy of this (Ricordi publication) and it was at one time used as part of ABRSM exam requirements. It was a quick and brief attempt to help students gain fluency and confidence in reading, whether taking examinations or not. As with books of this kind, fingering was purposely omitted and you were advised to refrain from writing in the fingering.
Barely 16 pages long with sixty short pieces packed in, it advised the student to aim for rhythmic continuity without hesitation or repetition of notes. I couldn’t find it for sale in any of the usual online retailers but found it here and there in some ‘share’ websites for download. Please make sure you get a legit copy.
Guitar Lessons Books 1-3 by Julio S Sagreras
This is not a site-reading book specifically, unlike the others we saw earlier. This is a famous complete classical guitar method book. Many such books – Carcassi’s method comes to mind instantly – are very useful for our limited purpose of developing sight-reading skills.
In fact, some of the pieces by popular composers from the classical period – 18th and 19th centuries – are also good sight-reading material. Just choose a handful of these etudes or pieces that are simpler to play than your current repertoire and use them for sight-reading practice.
Sagreras’ delightful method has quite a lot of simple pieces that are also musically engaging. That’s my main reason for recommending this as a real option. Check the price of Guitar Lessons Books 1-3 by Sagreras at Amazon.
You don’t even have to work with this as your main method book and spend a lot of time. Just break open a page with some pieces that appear less difficult than your current level and use them to sight-read and play.
Play a piece no more than couple of times a day. If you can play something at the first reading, move on to the next. Add some Sagreras pieces to you repertoire gradually, which are quite lovely to play in any case. And stick to your original method or the guidance of your tutor for continuing your mainstream guitar studies.
The Fluent Guitarist website
It’s always great to see the internet throw up a happy surprise or two. For me, finding thefluentguitarist.com by chance is a fine example of that. It is a site devoted to folks trying to sight-read and has a comprehensive set of exercises that you can download or play off the screen.
You can start by subscribing to the Sight Reading Exercise of the Day (free). It’s a nice idea to get something new and fresh every day to play because that’s the whole point of learning to sight-read, isn’t it? The exercises are also graded in terms of difficulty: from the easy first position based ones in the first level to extensive shifts in the fourth level.
The site has a good set of instructions on how to use the material there. It basically sets you up to play fresh music without preparing. Scan first for the key and time signature, gauge the tempo, note position changes and similar details in under a minute and – get going.
The sub-title of the site says ‘Site reading exercises for the modern guitarist’. And that says it all. It is a great resource, well put together.
Like with anything worthwhile, the only way to get better at sight-reading is to practice it constantly. Any unfamiliar piece will be good sight-reading practice. It helps if you already have a good sense of rhythm and timing and also have a working knowledge of the fretboard. Invest in a good sheet music stand – see my article Best Music Stands for Classical Guitarists for suggestions.
From there on, any of the above resources has the potential to take you to the next level. For those interested, I have a fuller discussion of Sagreras’ method book (as well as 5 other method books) in my article 6 Great Methods for Classical Guitar. Do check it out if you need guidance in your overall guitar journey. If you need help and direction with scale practice, read my 6 Great Scale Books for Classical Guitar for some good options.
If you are curious about higher-level guitar instruction, read my article on Full Review of Major Board Exams for Classical Guitar.