How To Play Great Fingerpicking Guitar--Even If You're All Thumbs!

Chapter 2


Any trouble with tablature in other chapters? Go To Chapter 3

Many of you may already read a little music from those years your parents made you study the piano or clarinet (seemed like a good idea to them!). Yet, you may actually have been too young to realize that regular practicing was actually interesting. You may have doubts that it's as impressive as, say, more public displays of virtuosity such as pumping iron, etc. I mean, are Clint Eastwood or Madonna seen in public practicing the clarinet?

Guitarists have found that using standard musical notation can be awkward, due to the guitar's idiosyncrasies. Music notation doesn't easily indicate where a note should be played on an instrument when there are several possibilities for the same note. This is certainly true for the guitar neck!

The chapter on tablature will help those of you who don't read music. But for those of you who already "sort of" know how to read music, why not use it. Except that learning tablature too will help you with the specific examples I use to break down each piece, and the guitaristic techniques covered in the chapters.

So can you get twice as confused by using both systems?

There's only one good way to find out!

Let's start with standard music notation first:



Notes are only chosen from our alphabet's A through G.

But we may need to put sharps (#) or flats (b) in front of these seven letters (giving us A#, C#, Db, F#, etc.).

In addition, we may give five certain notes two different names: A#=Bb, C#=Db, D#=Eb, F#=Gb, and G#=Ab. These notes have the same sound, but different name.

Also, there usually are no sharps or flats between B and C, or E and F.

We end up with twelve of these notes:

A  A#(or Bb)  B    C    C#(Db)  D   D#(Eb)   E    F    F# (Gb)    G      G#(Ab) 
  then A again
These make up what we call an OCTAVE of distance.

Travel the octave, and you get back to the same letter note as you started--but it'll be higher (or lower) in sound. Think of a perfectly spiral staircase where every 12 stairs takes you completely around in a circle. A note's octave would be 12 stairs away, but directly above or below it.

Each guitar string can be visualized as one of these flattened-out "chromatic staircases of notes." On the guitar's fattest string (the 6th string), these are the notes that make up the distance from the open, low E, and its higher Octave on the 12th fret:

 NOTE: E       F     F#   G    G#  A    A#  B   C   C#   D    D#   E
 FRET: Open    1st   2nd  3rd  4th 5th  6th 7th 8th 9th 10th  11  12
By the way, these "#" and "b" signs are called Accidentals.

Notes are considered "natural" (not sharp or flat) unless there's a "#" or "b" in front of it.

KEYS: Most music is grouped in keys, indicated by a "key signature" at the start of the piece. The key signature defines which notes (if any) are sharp or flat in this music.

A key is a grouping of notes. This grouping should make sense to your ear when you hear the music. The key "letter" is also the letter of the most important chord in that key. For example, the key of E--a good guitar key for blues--uses the E chord a lot!

TIME: Notes are grouped into units of time called MEASURES. A measure is a fixed length. We count along with our playing according to where we are inside a measure. Once a note is sharped or flatted in a measure, it stays that way until the measure's end. The start and end of measures are indicated by vertical lines:


If a note was sharped or flatted in a mesure, it returns to normal-- what the key signature defines--when the next measure, or "bar" starts.

Unlike you poor readers, who may be thinking of going to another type of bar by now.
Don't blame me if you're getting confused, I didn't invent this stuff.

Most of the pieces in this book are in 4/4 time. Each measure of 4/4 time has four beats. this means you count "One, Two, Three, Four" while you're in each measure before going to the next one.

Occasionally, we'll play a piece in 6/8 time--six beats per measure (This means you'd count "One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six" and then go onto the next measure).

The length of note in a 4/4 measure that has one beat is called a Quarter Note.

Faster (shorter) notes in these pieces are often Eighth Notes. An Eighth Note is half the amount of time as a quarter note. TWO eighth notes go by in the same space of time as one quarter note. You could say that two eighth notes equal a quarter note.

For slower notes, a Half Note lumbers along twice as slowly as a quarter note. Thus TWO quarter notes (or four eighth notes) sound in the same amount of time as ONE half note.

We'll see some Sixteenth Notes in this book. They're twice as fast as eighth notes. In the same space of time you'd play ONE eighth note, you would play TWO sixteenth notes:

Two sixteenths equal an eighth note in time. You'll notice this when playing a quick little "hammer-on" or "pull- off" note.

Now, where are all these notes going to fit?


Even though I love to read music, I must admit that traditional music notation foolishly crams the whole range of the guitar, more than three octaves, onto one "staff."

A single slate of five lines. Five teeny weeny lines. Think of it. Fifty million eyeglasses in the U.S. used by nearsighted people, and we're supposed to read this.

Hmmm. Still with me? Let's look at a guitar ("treble") staff, and the notes on the LINES:

Each letter is what you'd play if a note was written on one of these lines. Thus, if there was a note on the top line, you'd play the F note that it represents. What's this? Well:

F (top line)     =  F, first string,  First fret
D (second line)  =  D, second string, Third fret
B (third line)   =  B, second string, Open
G (fourth line)  =  G, third string,  Open
E (bottom line)  =  E, fourth string, Second fret
There are also notes in the SPACES between these staff lines. They're IN BETWEEN the five I just listed. Here they are:

See the problem?
Only NINE pitches (notes) lie on or between these five lines. Since a note you'll play could easily be higher or lower than these, this basic staff has to use "add-ons."

To fit all the notes the guitar can play, music for guitar relies heavily on lots of LEDGER lines. These are imaginary extensions of the staff, using even littler line bits above or below a note. These itty bitty "ledger lines" fix the location of the many notes that are too high or too low to fit on the single staff used for guitar music.

It's as if a gigantic, multi-lined imaginary "monster staff" was really super- imposed over the visible (but tiny) treble staff.

Many of the notes you'll play will be notated by a number of Ledger Lines above or below the staff. The note can also be On, Above, or Below the Ledger Lines. For example, here are two notes either too high or low to fit on the basic staff:

1) The A note [guitar 1st string (the skinny one) on the fifth fret]


2) The G note [guitar 6th string (the fattest one) on the third fret]

  1. If you counted up from the top staff line (F note--see previous page) to the next space (on the "imaginary" staff) you'd be on the space that represents G. The first ledger LINE above that G space represents A (see the "A," dissected by that tiny line, above).

  2. The low G note is marked on the SPACE below the two ledger lines below the bottom (E) line of the staff. Counting downwards from this line (E), we'd count: space/line/space/line/space, or:
    d, c, b, a, and finally G.

On the staff, it looks like this:

---------------------------E----------(bottom line of staff)
 SPACE HERE                D 
ledger line      ---------C------
  SPACE HERE               B 
ledger line      ---------A------

Whew! Even if you knew some of this before, you may be confused.

Try reading simple tunes first; then music will start to make sense.
If not, you're not dumb-- just confused by a system more suited to keyboard or reed than a multi- stringed instrument.

This chapter © 2014 by Andrew D. Polon. All rights reserved.

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