The Most Common Problem I Encounter

Guitar Tutor

The Most Common Problem I Encounter as a Guitar Tutor

Many students I see throughout the week as a travelling guitar tutor are very adept players. They can play complicated pieces, read tab with comfort and ease and know all their chords and scales. Sometimes however they feel like they are lacking in some mysterious aspect of guit-artistry and this is preventing them from sounding like their idols. Almost like there is an invisible brick wall between the notes on the page and what they’re hearing when they play. Sound familiar? Well don’t fret…

Could this hang-up be the elusive ‘natural ability’ or ‘musical flair’ that no amount of practise and hard work will overcome? If so I suppose we should all just give up.

Before you do, I’m going to explain the biggest problem I see in my job as a guitar tutor, the problem that is holding the best of us back and I shall also offer some advice on overcoming it.

In my opinion the problem is sight-reading. Now, before you let out an audible yawn and click off to YouTube, give me a chance to explain…

Picture the scene; you’re looking at a piece of music on your stand as you start your practise session. Your tutor talked you through it yesterday during your lesson and now the house is empty and you’re raring to go. You look at the first passage and it seems easy enough. You look at your hands and get them into position. You look back at the music. You look back at your hands and attempt to play it. Now here lies the problem. You’re attempting to remember long patterns of numbers and hold them in your head. Note hopping as I call it. Music is so much more than just numbers on a page. The page is necessary to convey the idea but how it’s played is down to you. Does a note need vibrato? Which notes are emphasised, and are the fingers I use the correct ones to make it flow? You simply can’t pay any attention to the details of how it should be played whilst you’re concentrating on the order of numbers.

Ok, so why not just memorise it? Well that road leads to the same place. The CPU in your brain is being used to recall information and not control the expression of a piece. It’s hard to see at first because technically as long as we are playing the right notes it will sound fine but the danger is that there is no potential to improve when we’re aiming for just ‘fine’.

 It’s All In The Fingers, Or Is It?

I’ve often wondered why we can sometimes tell who the guitarist is in a track when we’ve never heard the song before. Take Mark Knopfler for example. There must be something about his playing that makes him stand out above the rest and whilst I know I can ‘technically’ play Sultans of Swing…it doesn’t sound like him! Perhaps it’s the fact that he plays with his fingers, or the mix of blues and country techniques. More likely both but the mix of stylistic and technical factors cannot always be conveyed in TAB yet, is essential to consider when playing a Dire Straits song.

It’s a similar reason as to why classical music lovers buy different recordings of the same symphony played by different orchestras The notes in the score would have been exactly the same so why spend the money? Well I guess the beauty is in the detail. In how the conductor interprets the passages of music, a subtle pause for dramatic effect or a beautiful acoustic in the room it was recorded in. The details are limitless yet the notes on the page are the same.

We need to be free to give every note care and attention whilst playing and that is why we need to hone our sight-reading skills over time. Only when we can play without looking at our hands, without thinking about where our fingers are and holding large streams of notes and numbers in our heads can we really achieve a truly musical result.

 Don’t Fret, We Can Help

Your tutor will be able to help you in lessons but below are some tips to get you started. Bare in mind it takes years to become a good sight-reader so practise little and often to avoid brain burnout.


  1. Don’t look at your hands whilst reading

 I cannot stress this enough! When sight-reading try to keep your eye on the page. Over time you will develop a sixth sense of where your hands are just as a person who looses their sight improves their other senses to compensate. Resist the urge to look when you hear a mistake and try to correct it by ear. Your listening skills will also improve and your practise time becomes much more efficient as there’s much less starting and stopping.

  1. Don’t move your hand unless you absolutely have to.

 In your mind’s eye you’ll build up a picture of where your hand is. You can move to the next note in the passage by visualising where you are and the most sensible route to the next one. Over time this process becomes instantaneous and your fluidity improves greatly. With my 1stfinger on the first fret, my second can cover all the 2’s in the tab, my third can cover the 3’s and my pinkie can take care of the 4’s. By keeping my hand as stationary as possible I can use my mind’s eye to cover a large part of the fretboard. The problems occur when my hand moves. If it moves when it doesn’t need to then I’ll end up getting into knots and everything sounds impeded so stick to the aforementioned rule. Often though we have no choice to move our hand like if a 5 comes up in the tab or worse! The trick here is to release the pressure and slide the hand up whilst holding the hand in the same position before resuming playing.

Have you noticed how the best guitarists seem to be doing less? The truth is they are.

A good rough rule of thumb is to put your 1stfinger on the lowest fretted note in the passage and line the rest up covering the ascending frets.

For example, If a passage has 2’s 4’s 5’s and no 1’s you should get your first finger to cover the 2’s (the lowest fretted note) and your 3rdthe 3’s etc…

If a note is followed by a note on the same fret of a different string then it is ok to borrow another finger or use a barre but you should revert back to the normal line up as soon as it’s practical.

  1. Practise sight reading regularly

As with any skill, we have to do it regularly for it to become easy. Most tutors I know recommend 5 minutes of your normal practice routine to start off with and you’ll see a difference in no time. You can do this a number of ways. Buying some TAB books or using websites like Songsterr or Ultimate Guitar to try and play something new every day really helps and is fun too. Also the Trinity Rock and Pop syllabus include sight-reading as part of their exams and have some great books to help. They start easy and progress harder through the grades and I’d recommend them to anyone even if you were not taking the exams. They come with a CD, which is really useful as you can play along in the moment.

What We Recommend 

Check out Trinity Rock and Pop Guitar Session Skills Initial-Grade 2 to start with.

It will take time but it will not only improve your playing but also make it more enjoyable. Be prepared for it to hurt your head in the early days but persevere and after six months you’ll really feel like a guitarist. You’ll be able to listen and play without thinking and without stress. Your notes will sound alive and your technique will sound refined too.

Talk to your tutor to get started,

Thanks For Reading,


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