Any non-reading guitarist who has ever been asked to accompany someone via reading their music...or been asked to learn a song from the written notes....or been asked to perform by sight-reading a piece of sheet music...knows the awkwardness that always accompanies the reply...."I can't read"......often followed by "...hum it for me and I'll play it....(or)....can you give it to me on tape?" (I have seen guitarists lose gigs following this scenario.)
As a career jazz educator, I have encountered over and over again the phenomenon of guitar students appearing for their first college lesson, only to discover they cannot read music...or, they read so slowly that they are not functional. Invariably, I will put an easy-to-read-big-note song in front of a new student and ask him or her to play it, in order for me to help gauge where we need to start work in the reading area. The answer is OFTEN something like "I can read...it just takes me awhile". What this really means is that the student can name the notes on the staff...they can maybe locate the notes on the neck of the guitar....they might be able to tap out the rhythms....but they can't put all three of those things together. Guitar students who have come up through the band system playing a horn will often fare better in reading on the guitar (horn players have historically recognized that the music world communicates in NOTES, not in TAB ).
Jokes abound regarding guitarists who can't read: "How do you get a guitar player to quit playing? Put a sheet of music in front of him". The same is not true of trumpet players, sax players, flutists, etc. On our chosen instrument - guitar...but particularly electric guitar - we as a group have been poor readers, opting instead to play by ear. Of late, this is even more true of rock players since many jazz guitarists are now formally educated. (Starting in the late 70's jazz has begun to achieve respectability as an art music, and the genre is now passed on in the halls of academia [via college level jazz programs -- where people READ] more often than in the beer halls of old).
Throughout the history of popular music in the U.S - which began with Minstrel shows in the 1840's - the banjo and guitar have predominantly been in roles where reading music was not so vital as it might have been for the other instruments. Oftentimes the music was passed on and performed in an aural tradition....especially in Dixieland, Blues, Jump Swing, and Rock styles. Thus, the history and system have made us lax, compared to our brass-wind and wood-wind brothers and sisters who consistently read music in marching bands and orchestras.
Still, any guitarist can move to a higher plane of functioning, learning, and participating in the music community if he/she learns to read. Although this can prove to be a Herculean task after going through life without it, it can be done. Here are some suggestions for getting it started....
* Accept that it will take a long time and require a daily commitment in your practice schedule. Keep as your goal the idea that reading will open many doors...... doors which will make you a stronger and more marketable player.
* Use easy reading intro guitar books -
* Practice rhythms separately at first. Clap out the rhythms before trying to play them on the guitar. The hardest thing about reading music for guitarists is reading the rhythms!
* If you practice one hour per day, use 15-20 minutes of that time and work on reading.
* It is a tedious task that can have great results in your playing....accept this challenge.
So.......Can you go back and learn to read? yes. Is it tough? You bet. But here are the benefits of doing it: You become marketable in more performance situations......you are able to study the books/music of others.....you are able to write down your own ideas so others can now read them......you are able to write down (transcribe) what you hear others play....... you acquire the language of the entire music community. And you no longer have to say..."I can't read".