Q: Why would anyone
write a book or make a video called �Guitar playing for People
who Don�t Read Music�??
A: Because there is a common misconception that LEARNING TO PLAY
AN INSTRUMENT DEPENDS ON LEARNING to READ MUSIC !! Many times in
my life, when I�ve asked someone �Do you play an instrument?�,
they respond with �No, I can�t even read music.� They evidently
assume that the two SEPARATE skills are INSEPARABLE.
Think about this : Learning to play an instrument is like
learning a language in many ways. When did you learn to speak?
When did you learn to read? I have never heard of someone
learning to read first and THEN learning to speak. Have you? I
also have never heard of anyone holding up a written word saying
�mama� or �dada� to an infant as they�re trying to learn to
Kids are usually speaking pretty well long before they learn to
read. And if they didn�t start learning to read, would their
skill with the language continue to improve? Of course.
�Written music has only been in existence for ---- years.
Playing musical instruments has been around for -------- years.
How did all those people learn to play?
Let�s say you don�t read music. You�ve always wanted to play an
instrument, but when you took that lesson (or lessons ) as a
kid, you just didn�t seem to �get it�. The teacher may have
begun your instruction with reading whole notes, half notes, and
the lines and spaces on the musical staff. That�s what happened
to me. And I hated it. Both my parents could play instruments.
My Mother played piano in church and sang beautifully.
My Father sang bass (yes, Daddy sang bass) in the choir and
Neither of them read music. They learned to play BY EAR. Isn�t
that how we learn to speak?
But don�t all professional musicians read music? Well, let�s
think about that. Let�s just say that if you don�t read music,
you have something in common with Elvis Presley and B.B.King. So
what? Their music is not that complicated. You want to play
jazz? OK, then you�ve got something in common with Wes
Montgomery, Django Reinhart, Erroll Garner, George Shearing, and
Did you ever think about the fact that Stevie Wonder, Ray
Charles, Jose Feliciano, Ronnie Milsap, Andrea Bocelli, and Doc
Watson don�t read music?
Now, before all the music teachers get too upset, let me say
something very clearly : READING MUSIC IS A GOOD THING. PLAYING
AN INSTRUMENT IS A GOOD THING. PLAYING BY EAR IS A GOOD THING. I
am not advising people NOT to learn to read music ! What I AM
saying is this : FOR MANY, (if not MOST ) people, learning to
read music should not be an ESSENTIAL step in the INITIAL
learning process. In fact, (as you can see from the list of
great musicians who don�t read music) it is not an ESSENTIAL
part at all.
As we�ve learned in the last few decades, ALL PEOPLE DO NOT
LEARN THE SAME WAY. People can be aural, visual, tactile,
left-brain dominant, right-brain dominant, etc. Knowing this, it
makes very little sense to INSIST that EVERYONE learn to READ
music at the very BEGINNING stages of learning to PLAY an
instrument. In my opinion, that�s making someone learn TWO
THINGS at once, which, for most people, just makes it HARDER !
I�ve been playing music professionally for 35 years. I�ve been
fortunate to have played with many superstars in the pop, rock,
country, folk, blues, funk, r&b genres of music. I did most of
this BEFORE learning to read music. On a couple of occasions, I
was embarrassed by my lack of reading. I lost one job because of
it, and didn�t try out for a couple of others that I knew were
�heavy� sight-reading gigs.
I wish I�d learned to read before I did. I�m still not a good
sight-reader. Do I want to improve? Sure. Is it essential? No.
Am I losing any work because of it? No. Would I get called to
play on a film scoring session or a pit orchestra gig on
Broadway? No. Would Eric Clapton get called for those gigs? No.
Does he care? No.
But we�re talking about YOU. What do YOU want to do with music?
Do you want to sit on the porch playing and singing without a
piece of sheet music in sight? Do you want to write music for
films? Do you want to write songs? Play in church? Play jazz
gigs sight-reading from the �REALBOOK�? Play and sing for your
kids, spouse and friends?
Play at nursing homes and hospices? Be a rock star? Play in a
Everybody doesn�t want to be a professional musician. Insisting
that somebody learn to read music when they just want to write
songs and play on the porch is �. (dare I say it? ) �.. WRONG.
There, I said it. And I mean it. I�m not saying a particular
person is stupid, you understand. I said "That INSISTING or
ASSUMING that learning to READ music is essential to PLAYING
music is just SILLY. All it does is make the learning process
MORE DIFFICULT for most people."
Let me tell you an interesting story:
In the very late 1960�s, I was a member of a Grammy-nominated
group, The Box Tops. We had hit records and all that. I was only
a tot. We were on the road in the Northeast somewhere. At the
hotel, I met a young lady and we struck up a conversation. The
conversation drifted to music, and she told me she played
classical piano. I got my guitar and we found an empty ballroom
with an upright piano. I
started playing my guitar and invited her to play along. She
said she didn�t know how to do that. Then I said �o.k. you play
something and I�ll play along with you.� Then she said �I can�t
do that either�. Hmmmmm�. now I�m getting suspicious. I must
have looked completely dumbfounded. She laughed. I must have
really looked funny. She said �I don�t have any music.� Now, I�m
completely disoriented, dizzy and short of breath. My grip on
reality loosened, then let go. WHAT??? This cannot be !
She said � If we can find some sheet music, I know I can play
that, because I read music really well.� I was perplexed. I said
�You mean you just can�t play a song of any kind without the
sheet music?� She answered, her lower lip quivering, "No, I
never learned to do that.� I was not aware that this was
possible ! The world turned upside down. The heavens erupted in
a paroxysm of cataclysmic apocalypse and stuff.
Her playing the piano evidently was a stimulus-response
behavior, like typing, I surmised. Without the visual stimulus
of the dots on the paper, she could not respond. To her, the
music WAS the marks on the paper. To me, music was a language I
had learned to speak and understand, mostly by LISTENING. We
were coming from two totally different places.
This scenario has repeated itself over and over (with
progressively older and less attractive women) It finally became
apparent to me that MANY people had the same experience with
learning music. They could READ, but they could not PLAY !! This
did and does amaze me.
As you may have guessed, I am expecting a lot of flak from the
music academia. That�s why I am stressing this difference in
MUSIC IS A CREATIVE RIGHT-BRAINED ACTIVITY. FOR YEARS, TEACHERS
HAVE INSISTED ON FORCING IT INTO A LEFT-BRAINED PROCESS. READING
MUSIC AND PLAYING MUSIC ARE JUST AS DIFFERENT AS TYPING AND
WRITING A NOVEL. Can everyone who has learned to type create
characters and a plot?
Is typing a useful skill? Yes. Does it save a lot of time? Yes.
Would I like to type better? Definitely. Same with reading
But I�d rather UNDERSTAND and SPEAK the language. Can you
imagine trying to communicate with a person who could only speak
when he had printed words to read? The musical equivalent is
called being �chained to the page�. Many many musicians who are
great readers are also great players, creators, and
communicators. They don�t DEPEND on written music. That is a
worthy goal. I�m just trying to show that READING and PLAYING
are ENTIRELY DIFFERENT PROCESSES.