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How to Read Guitar Music for Beginners (Part 2)

Updated on September 16, 2012

Note Duration

The longest single note is called a whole note (Fig. 1). Its duration is for four beats and is counted: 1, 2, 3, 4. When using a 4/4 time signature one whole note satisfies the total bars duration. Next is the half note and its value is two beats. Simple arithmetic shows two half notes are equal to one whole note so two half notes are needed for the same bars duration. Likewise, quarter notes each get one beat and eighth notes each equal a half a beat.

How many sixteenth notes are needed for one bar in 4/4 time and one bar of 3/4 time?

Fig. 1


For each sounded note duration there is an equal non-sounding symbol of the same duration. These symbols represent a period of quiet. They are equal in value to their note counterparts and are called Rests (Fig. 2.) When you come across such a symbol reading music you stop playing for the amount of time the rest represents and then continue.

You may have noticed the quarter note rest symbol (1 beat) at the end of the four bars in Fig. 5 of part 1. What that is telling you is that after the 3rd beat of the last bar there should be a 1 beat duration of silence. Remembering that each bar must be equal in length to its time signature, in this case 4/4 time, the last bar has only 3 beats. Since we still need one more beat to satisfy the time signature but no sound we use a rest and all is right with the world.

Fig. 2

The Chromatic Scale

There are 12 tones in the Chromatic scale. In western music the Chromatic scale is the fundamental scale from which all other scales are formed. The Chromatic scale’s 12 tones are the only tones used in western music.

The Chromatic scale is spoken of as increasing and decreasing in half steps. If you remember the musical alphabet starting with the letter A we increased or stepped up to B, C, D, E, F, and G, until we reached A again. The Chromatic scale adds notes between certain tones of the musical alphabet.

Musical Alphabet: A B C D EF G A

Ascending Tones: A# C# D# F# G#

Descending Tones: Bb Db Eb Gb Ab

This sign # is pronounced: Sharp. The first ascending tone above is read as A-sharp.

This sign b is pronounced: Flat. The first descending toneabove is read as B-flat.

Although the sharp notes and the flat notes below have different names they sound exactly the same. A# and Bb are the same sounding tone as is C# and Db etc.

Fig. 3

Exercise: Try writing down the names of the notes in Fig. 3

The Guitar Fingerboard

The guitar fingerboard follows the same pattern as the chromatic scale. Fig. 4 shows a section of the fingerboard. Beginning with the open strings the notes increase by half steps. Likewise in the opposite direction they decrease by half steps

Fig. 4

Let’s look at the 3rd string of the guitar the G string. Ascending in half steps from its open position we get:

G G# A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G.

We have increased by half steps but did you notice that between B and C and E and F there is no sharp sign. That’s because B to C is a half step and likewise E to F. They are natural half steps. Sometimes you will see the note C referred to as B# and the note B referred to as Cb.

Definition: A Whole Step: If you play an F note on the 1st string 1st fret and then play a G note on the 1st string 3rd fret you will have skipped a fret in between (F#). The distance from F to G is said to be one Whole Step.

Looking at the distance between F and F# we see that it is half the distance between F and G. Therefore, the distance between F and F# is said to be a Half Step.

Exercise: Play each open string going up and then down 1 fret at a time (1 half step) naming the tones as you go.

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