How do you get a rock guitarist to stop playing?
Put the music in front of him ...
That's an old guitar joke but it was just to get your attention. The real question of this thread is: "Why do so many guitar players refuse to learn to read music?" I'm talking about simple stuff here folks, not the orchestral score to the Nutcracker Suite. Even really basic chord charts and lead sheets scare the bejesus out of some guitarists.
I contend that most guitarists know a lot more than they pretend to know anyway. I taught myself to read music a long time ago. Was it hard? Yes. Was it difficult? Yes. Did I struggle? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes!
I'm also a big believer in the idea that if "I" can do something, then anyone can. I'm certainly no rocket scientist (although my day job IS at NASA). When I talk to other guitarists one-on-one I usually find that many have experience playing in some capacity in church.
Church music. Now there's an interesting concept for you. However, if you have ever played in church you know that there is usually some kind of sheet music available for you if you want it. That said, you have at least seen music written on paper. It should not be that foriegn of a concept. When the melody notes climb up the stave, the notes get higher. When they climb down the stave, they get lower. It's a simple concpet really.
Unless you're the kind of person who learms everything by memory from a CD, then you really have no need of knowing how to read music. The older I got though the more I realized I just couldn't keep everything organized in my head. After you learn your first 1000 songs by memory they begin to merge together inside your brain.
Let's dispell some common myths.
#1 - If you learn to read music you will lose your soul to the devil. FALSE
#2 - If you learn to read music you will lose your musical "FEELING". FALSE
#3 - If you learn to read music you will be preoccuppied and it will hurt your playing. FALSE
It reminds me of how some really backwards and superstitious natives freak out if you take their photograph. They think their soul will somehow be captured in the photo and they will then walk the earth a zombie. Now I do know some zombies (there are many at NASA). But it is not because they are educated.
These people had social and character flaws before they ever got their educations and Ph. D.'s. The real bonus to learning to read music for a guitar player is that it will vastly expand the circle of other musicians who you can share musical ideas and play gigs with.
It will also increase and correct your musical vocabulary, a real help in discussing musical ideas and concepts with other musicians. It's a real help when trying to explain what a diminished chord is or a minor 7 flat 5 chord. Another side benefit of learning to read music is that you will automatically learn some theory along the way. It is inescapable.
I am in total favor of all musicians learning as much as they can about music, and that includes reading music itself. For guitarists, the real thing you need to know how to do is to read chord symbols and play a lot of simple 2/5 turnarounds, not complicated melody lines. That can come later if you need to play the melodies to songs.
There are many professional guitar gigs that want the guitar player as the CHORD player, not the melody player. I know that if you're in a rock band that is NOT the case. In rock bands the proverbial "LEAD" guitar player is king, God, the absolute ruler of everything that happens in the band musically. But there are many other types of music gigs where the guitar player is just another sideman. Why close yourself off from applying for those gigs because you refuse to learn to read music?
When putting together my groups I first always ask my sideman prospects two questions: #1 - Can you read? #2 - Do you own a black tux? Realize that the answer to each question is either a yes or a no and not an invitation for debate. If they answer both questions yes then the conversation continues.
LEARN TO READ MUSIC. Schroeder (the piano player) in the comic strip Peanuts says: "Security is having the music in front of you." If you already know the song you're playing then the sheet music just becomes a reference point of commonality with what everyone else is playing. Hence the origin of the saying: "Everyone was not playing off the same sheet of music."
People hate change. Learning is painful and difficult and time consuming. It requires admitting that you don't know everything. But all things that are worthwhile are usually difficult and require some investment of your time and energy. Guitarists will invest huge amounts of time in getting their gear right and their technique and their tone (and their hair and their clothes) but when it comes to actually learning the language of their craft they shy away. It doesn't make sense.
I learned to read music and I am still the same clever, fun-to-be-with person I always was. I initially learned music by ear from old 45 rpm records of the Beach Boys and Beatles and played that way for 20 years before I took the next step. Boy did I waste a lot of time. If you're younger than me right now (I'm 56) then learn to read music! You won't regret it and it will enhance your musical life in many untold ways we can't cover here for lack of time and space.
You can learn easier than you think too. Ask someone at church for help. Ask a friend who already knows how to read. Ask your guitar teacher to teach you some theory and how to read a basic lead sheet. It ain't rocket science. I live in an area where there are many military musicians and most groups I play in are with sidemen who are musical instructors by day. What a great opportunity to pick their brains. (Some are better teachers and share info better than others).
You can also safely assume in any given situation that all horn players and most keyboard players already know how to read music. You will be able to communicate with them much better if you can too. I do not however recommend that, as a guitarist, you learn to read music from a keyboard player. Keyboard chord voicings are vastly different from guitar chord voicings. It takes a truly enlightened keyboard player to teach a guitar player how to read music and voice chords without incorrectly biasing you from a keyboard perspective.
Most guitar chord voicings span at least two octaves while most keyboard voiced chords played by the right hand span less than one. The keyboard players' left hand plays the bass notes while the right hand adds the upper tensions and flavors. Us guitar players have to use guitar friendly chord voicings that capture the same essence of the same chord. The two don't often mix well.
When you hear a guitarist and a keyboard player who sound good together, learn to appreciate the subtle fact that they are intentionally staying out of each others way musically.
And above all, as musicians, remember to always listen to each other. Music is way more about listening than it is playing.
How many guitar players does it take to change a light bulb?
Four - One to change the bulb and three more to tell him how much better they could have done it.
I'll leave you with that last joke, but it does point to the fact that most guitar players have inflated egos. Learning to read music usually gives a guitar player a much needed helping of humility. That's why putting the music in front of a rock guitar player is one of the best ways to get him to stop playing. He's suddenly confronted with what to him looks like a brick wall with some foriegn language scribbled on it.
Here's a clue - It's not a brick wall. It's the instructions.