Why it’s harder for guitarists to sight-read

Sight-reading, déchiffrage (French), or prima vista (Italian) is the ability to read and simultaneously play/sing the music notation. This practice is more common for classical musicians. Just like any other skill, one needs the practice to improve this skill gradually (Click Here to learn how to improve your sight-reading).

However, pianists, flutists, vocalists, and many other instrumentalists may seem to have faster progress in this skill, compared to guitarists.

Why? Are guitarists neglecting this skill?

Polyphonic instruments such as piano and guitar can play a lot more than one note at a time. However, monophonic instruments such as Flute can play a single line melodies.

Example from Flute repertoire

The less the lines, the easier to sight-read. Therefore technical matters aside, it is easier to sight-read flute music for instance. Other instruments like violin are very limited in terms of playing more than 1 line at a time, compared to piano or guitar.

Then why sometimes pianists may even seem way more competent at sight-reading? They are playing so many lines, right?

Between the piano and guitar, there is a big difference. Let’s take E (mi) as an example note. On the piano, there is only one clavier that produces this E at this register. On the other, this E at this register can be played at 5 different strings – at remotely different places on the fretboard.

Same note (E / mi), on different parts of the fretboard. (Photo credit: GSI)
The only clavier, that produces the E.

A guitarist needs to choose where to play that E, based on the other notes. So when a guitarist is dealing with 6 lines, he has to consider different fingerings to make it possible to play the other 5 notes. In other words, a guitarist has to take a lot of factors into account when sight-reading.

But a pianist doesn’t have any other option but that one clavier that produces that E. Therefore, a pianist can decide faster and has less trouble sight-reading.

Over time, guitarists can find ways to do the whole process faster. Of course, the right way of practicing sight-reading can help you get there faster.


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