Just how important is it for a guitarist or bassist to be able to read standard music notation? Well, I suppose that, realistically, the answer to that question lies in what you're planning on doing during the course of your musical career.
Certain styles of music demand the ability to read in order to learn and evolve. It's extremely hard to imagine, for instance, a classical or jazz musician with little or no sight-reading skill. On the other hand, if your stylistic inclination goes no further than simple folk, country, or rock 'n roll, a case questioning the necessity of reading music can probably be made. After all, there are some types of music that are simply not associated with this ability. But there are many other factors to consider.
First of all, music is an ever-evolving art form, and you can never really be sure exactly what direction you might end up heading in. So even if you consider your music to be less sophisticated at the present time, you may wish to "keep all bases covered" by at least acquiring some fundamental reading skill. When students ask me point blank, "Do I really have to read?" I usually reply, "Do you have a terminal illness?" You see, to me music is a lifelong pursuit. Therefore, I don't want to leave any stones unturned. I want to be as armed and dangerous as I possibly can. That means having a good ear, adequate intellect, solid technique, and decent reading ability.
Secondly, we need to address the idea of "why" it might be important to read music. So many guitarists that I meet tell me "Well, if I'm not going to do studio work, than what's the point?" Unfortunately, these musicians are laboring under a ridiculous myth that all it takes to do studio work is a little sight-reading ability. This couldn't be further than the truth. Most successful guitarists making a living doing studio work were hired for their ability as "players," not as readers. Many of them were actually poor readers at first, and had to work very hard to catch up with the other musicians. So your decision to read or not should have little or nothing to do with the notion of any future studio work.
Think about reading music the way you think about reading the English language. Could you imagine going through life without being able to read a book? How about a magazine? Or a newspaper? Well, musically speaking, this is precisely how illiterate you are if you have to depend on your other skills alone to get by. What about tablature, you ask? Isn't that enough? No.
Consider this. For centuries music has been written and performed in countless styles, though we all possess the same twelve tones to work with. One of the huge elements that makes each style unique is rhythm and phrasing, something that tablature, though valuable in its own way, simply doesn't address. A "real" musician needs to be able to comprehend "time." Many guitarists, sad to say, don't have a clue.
Convinced yet? So now what? How does someone go about acquiring a skill that's been essentially dormant or non-existent for perhaps years? Simple.
Read and write just a little bit each day. It's really that easy. And, whatever you do, don't read or write anything that you don't plan on using. I mean, after all, you have to make this skill something meaningful and motivating. Believe me. You won't regret it!
"Coach's Corner" is an ongoing addition to Vision Music. The purpose of these brief articles is to share philosophy, offer practical insights, and to enhance your musical studies.
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