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Question for John Knowles on Sight Reading

PostPosted: Sun Jan 19, 2014 3:33 pm
by stevek
One of my goals this year is to improve my sight-reading. My question is:

Is it okay or when is it okay to look at the fret-board when sight reading. I have heard two opinions:

1. It is never okay to look at the fret board.
2. It is okay to look at the fret board only when progressing to a higher position and then only for a quick moment.

What is the generally accepted convention?

Re: Question for John Knowles on Sight Reading

PostPosted: Tue Jan 21, 2014 11:37 pm
by John Knowles

I tend not to look when I play because I grew up listening to recordings. I should add that it has been a long time since I have relied on reading music to know what to play. I have invested much more effort in going the other way… writing down what I hear.

Having said that, if I were working on improving my sight reading, I would avoid looking at my hands. Reading music requires concentration which is broken by looking away from the page. I would adjust my practice tempo to be able to read and play accurately while looking at the page. If this is difficult, I would spend some time playing with my eyes closed to develop a sense of where things are on the fingerboard.

I hope someone who is a good sight reader will jump in here and share his or her experiences.


Re: Question for John Knowles on Sight Reading

PostPosted: Wed Jan 22, 2014 12:26 am
by stevek

Thank you so much for you reply and for your suggestions, I appreciate it and will put them to use.

Best Regards,


Re: Question for John Knowles on Sight Reading

PostPosted: Wed Jan 22, 2014 9:20 am
by Norm
One of the guys who taught me to teach guitar told me to have my students (and by inference, me) play the exercise of the day backwards.

This accomplishes two things. First, it forces you to actually read the notes as opposed to relying on memorization or 'by ear' playing. Then, assuming you're advancing your reading in logical levels, it has you using the notes you should already have under control which affirms your eye-note-execution sequence.

Start simple. Start slow.

Re: Question for John Knowles on Sight Reading

PostPosted: Wed Jan 22, 2014 3:36 pm
by Randy Finney
If you really want to get into sightreading music, put your guitar away and learn to sighthear the music.

To really sightread successfully, the music needs to come off the page, through your eyes, into your ears, and then onto your instrument. In other words, you should know what the music is going to sound like from just looking at it, and not have to first hear it on the guitar.

I bet John's investment of writing down what he hears has actually advanced his ability to also hear what is already written down. I bet if I wrote something down that was stylistically similar to the types of things John has been writing down for years, I could give it to him and he would be able hear it just by looking at it.

Which brings up another point to remember - sightreading is fairly stylistically specific, i.e. just because someone can sightread Classical Guitar pieces, for example, doesn't mean they will be able to sightread Big Band Charts, etc.


Re: Question for John Knowles on Sight Reading

PostPosted: Fri Jan 24, 2014 7:29 pm
by John Knowles
Thanks, Norm and Randy. I'll follow up on Randy's comment about hearing what you see on paper. I have worked to develop that skill and I use it when proofreading music I have written down. I have also worked to make the music I write down look like it sounds… so a player reading it will have a head start.

I have always challenged myself to stretch the boundaries of my skills. For example, choose a recording you are familiar with and get a copy of the music. Without listening to the recording, look at the music. Can you hear it in your head as you follow along? Or listen to the recording and follow the music with your finger. Then stop the recording and play the music to see if your finger kept up with the recording. Make a game of it.


Re: Question for John Knowles on Sight Reading

PostPosted: Sat Jan 25, 2014 9:32 am
by Norm
I had another look at the original question.

"Is it okay or when is it okay to look at the fret-board"

I think what happens is that the more you practice the less you need to look at your hands.
Classical guitarists don't even have position markers on their fingerboards.

I remember in high school chorus the pianist that played our accompaniment. She was a student like us but she'd plop that music on the holder and off she'd go. We asked her about it once and she said she was generally reading a measure or two ahead of where she was playing. That really stuck with me.

And if you think about it, it is just like reading prose aloud. Some of us are better readers than others and it usually has to do with understanding and practicing the basics until they are second nature. Eventually you get so you can read aloud and make what you're reading interesting to the listener. But it takes practice.

There ain't no shortcuts. You get out of it what you put into it.

Re: Question for John Knowles on Sight Reading

PostPosted: Sun Jan 26, 2014 12:01 pm
by Pickin Palmer
I love the concept that Randy and John brought forth - “hear what you read.” However, I sometimes can't hear what I just heard. ---- I long ago gave up the idea I was a real musician – or, could “train” myself into being one – and, as such thought that I had overcome feeling incompetent in the presence of greatness. You know, kinda like getting caught in the middle of a “jam” out in Western Kentucky with the likes of Eddie Pennington, Paul Moseley, John Knowles, and the late Paul Yandell. Like George Gobel's comment on Johnny Carson sitting on the couch with Dean Martin and Bob Hope, “Did you ever feel like the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” LOL

Well, I at least could “imagine” what it must be like for my head and fingers to be able to understand music that well. But, it was this “hear what you read” concept that caught me totally unaware, one time, that anybody could have that amazing ability:

I was a tenor in our church choir several years ago (no, really - actually the lay chair of the choir) and I was rather impressed with the ability of our lady director to be able to get us old slugs to sing at the level we did. She was, also, the choral department head at The Ohio State University and had four of her grad students as “shills” in each section to help us sound better. It was towards the end of the year and she handed out a stack of music we were going to be performing the next few months. As an idiot who can't shut off “wonder how that werks?” - I had to ask out loud, right in front of everybody, “Hey, Coach (I wasn't a real singer, either – just there to play basketball, actually), where do you get all this new music?”

I could tell she was glad I asked the question and proceeded to tell the choir that she went to a convention every year where directors from all over the world come to select new music. I should have stopped there, but the little dummy inside hadn't run into a stone wall, yet, as he inquired, “Sooo, do they have little rooms all over the place with pianos or keyboards in them so you can hear what they sound like?”

Immediately the Coach and her four section leaders started twisting their heads in the negative – before I ended my question, actually. I saw this immediate response from them and that's when it hit me like a tornado, and I started screaming at the top of my lungs (imagine that), “YOU CAN HEAR THE MUSIC AS YOU READ IT?????”

Oh, yea – big time feeling of incompetency. I love my tee shirt that says, “Without music – the world would Bb.” Unfortunately, I had to add a line under that, “Musically Incompetent!”

But, I do love “sittin' in my basement tryin' to pick like Chet.”

Re: Question for John Knowles on Sight Reading

PostPosted: Sun Jan 26, 2014 7:26 pm
by DagerRande
Palmer, I can see you writing a column for some periodical, if you don't already! That was very creative and articulate. Thanks!

Re: Question for John Knowles on Sight Reading

PostPosted: Sun Jan 26, 2014 11:03 pm
by bill_h
John Knowles wrote:
I hope someone who is a good sight reader will jump in here and share his or her experiences.


That leaves me out but I'm gonna throw my two cents worth in anyway :lol: :lol:

I worked really hard on my reading for a few years back in the 90's and one fundamental mistake I made is that I "subdivided." In other words if I couldn't read my way through something at a quarter note + 40 ( or whatever the lowest setting on my metronome was ) I would play even slower by letting the 8th note get the beat. In other words I woud play at an 8th note = 40. This subdividing will work OK if you're just dealing with 8th notes or 16th notes but it won't work if you try to read something with 8th notes and triplets in the same piece. You just can't subdivide 2's and 3's or 3's and 4's at the same time. ( I hope this makes sense in print. It's really a simple concept but is easier demonstarted than explained in text.)

I've heard that Tommy Tedesco used to read music backwards before his phone started ringing for studio work in order to sharpen his reading skills. I don't see that it hurt anything since he went on to become arguably the most recorded guitarist in history. If he's not the most recoreded I bet he recorded more "sight read" guitar music than anyone else.

I believe everyone who contributed to this thread made some keen observations. Good luck Steve and hope some of this helps. I doubt that you'll ever regret having worked on your reading skills. Even though I shot myself in the foot to some extent by subdividing I still think it was time well spent.