If you’re a composer or arranger that plays any instrument other than guitar, this is for you.  Creating sheet music for a guitar player is simple, but like any other instrument, the guitar has strengths, weaknesses, and limits as to what is physically possible to play. Understanding these things will make you a favorite composer of guitarists for generations to come. No exaggeration–my mouth waters when I see certain arranger credits because I know my part is going to be well written and fun to play, while a few other names prompt me to just turn off my amp.

Before you can start, you need a good guitarist that reads music. [Insert guitarist joke here.] I will stick to the basics, but advanced guitarists, depending on the size of their hands, can push the limits of these chord voicings to great effect. You also need to understand basic music theory because I’ll be talking a lot about intervals, inversions, and chord tones. Once you start writing your music, it helps to have some good music notation software so the final results are easy to read. I use Sibelius, but I used to be a Finale guy.  Either will do the trick.

Throughout this discussion I will use relative terms to describe similar but different concepts:

  • ‘Low’ and ‘high’ relate to pitch–this should be self explanatory.
  • ‘Bottom’ and ‘top’ relate to strings–bottom = lower pitched, top = higher pitched.
  • ‘Up’ and ‘down’ refer to left hand position on the neck–the further ‘up’ the neck you move, the higher the pitch on each string. The terminology here suggests vertical movement, but physically, the hand is moving horizontally. Simply picture where the pitches go on the staff… up and down.

When I list pitches, I’ll start with the lowest pitch on the bottom-most string and work my way to the highest pitch on the top string. I also put an asterisk (*) next to terms that are defined in greater detail at the end of the article.

This article deals mostly with chord voicings because guitarists have fewer limitations with single note lines, as long as they stay within the range of the instrument.  Towards the end we’ll discuss notating nuances like bends, slides, hammer-on and pull-off slurs, muted strings, effects, and other manipulated sounds.

Basics.

Guitar is notated in the treble clef.

A standard guitar has six strings tuned in 4ths, with the exception of a major 3rd between the second and third highest strings. The pitches are, from low/bottom to high/top: E, A, D, G, B, E.

This next part might sound obvious, but it’s very important to understand.  Guitarists use four (4) fingers to change these pitches. Some of us might use our thumb to reach over the top of the neck and grab a bass note, but in general, we’ve got four fingers to work with.  Similar to a piano player pressing two adjacent keys with one finger, a guitarist can press two or more strings down with one finger.  This is called barring*.  On a piano, the technique produces an interval of a major or minor 2nd. On the guitar, it produces an interval of a 4th or major 3rd, equivalent to the tuning of the open strings.

For example, take a look at the diagram notating the open strings’ pitches.  If I barred the highest three strings, G, B, and E, I would essentially have a first inversion minor triad that can be moved up and down the neck with parallel intervals.  This knowledge will help you notate specific chord voicings for your guitarist.

Range.

The guitar sounds an octave lower than written.  If you want your guitarist to play middle C, you must write it on the C in the staff.

Again, take a look at the pitches for open strings.  Those all sound an octave lower than if you played it on a piano.

We know that E is the lowest pitch available based on that chart.  The highest pitch available on most electric guitars is D four octaves higher.  But compose in that range at your own peril, because playing that far up the neck chokes off much of the tone and sustain, and is more difficult.  Therefore a safe range is the G below that.

Notice that even though guitar is written in treble clef, it’s range actually covers the entire bass clef.

If you want your guitarist to spend a lot of time in the higher range, write the part an octave lower and mark the section with 8va so he or she knows to play it an octave higher. Music is simply easier to read and write when you avoid passages with a lot of ledger lines.

Standard Chord Voicings.

Generally, when you want your guitarist to play chords, writing chord symbols above a staff with generic slash marks for each beat will do the trick. If you want a particular rhythm, create rhythmic slashes.  If you want a particular note in the top of the voicing, simply notate it with the chord symbols directly above, like a lead sheet.

However, sometimes you’ll want specific voicings.  It helps to understand the intervals found in several very basic chord voicings frequently used by guitarists.  These voicings can all be played as bar chords* and moved up and down the neck, maintaining the same intervals between each chord tone. In other words, if I play a C major bar chord and move it up a whole step (or two frets, in guitar lingo), we get a D major. Move it up another whole step and it’s E major.  Unlike moving triads up and down the white keys of a piano, the chords do not transpose diatonically on a guitar. That would require a different voicing.

Here are four triad bar chord voicings I play regularly, with a fifth option used occassionally.

Let’s take a look at a few things:

  • 1-4 have six notes, one for each string. 5a and 5b use 5 strings because the fingering gets tricky with all 6 strings as you move up the neck. Of course, you will probably use 3 or 4 note voicings most of the time.  Just because a pianist has 10 fingers doesn’t mean every chord has 10 notes!
  • Comparing any of these to the open string chart, each note is no more than a minor 3rd from the open string.  This is to avoid large stretches.
  • The chords are made up of 3rds and 4ths, with no more than one 5th or 6th. That’s due to the standard tuning of the guitar.
  • You never find more than two adjacent 3rds.

Transposing these chords coupled with changing notes by 1/2 or whole steps will give you the garden variety of major, minor, and 7th chords, along with your basic suspensions.  These would all sound very idiomatic on the guitar, or dare I say guitaristic.

Drop 2 Voicings.

Perhaps you need to be very specific and write your own voicings.  A simple way to ensure every voicing you write is playable on the guitar is to use drop 2 voicings*. Here’s an example of a Cmaj7 chord in all four inversions–block chord first and then the drop 2.

I have yet to find a block chord that cannot be converted to a nice guitar voicing using the drop 2 method.  It is a fail-safe way to make your guitarist happy.

Fourth-y Voicings.

Because of the way the strings are tuned, chord voicings built on 4ths are very guitar friendly.  It’s common to add a major 3rd at the top as well.  These sorts of chords are very common in jazz when you want an “open” sound.  The chords Bill Evans plays on Miles Davis’ “So What” and Herbie Hancock’s opening piano part to “Maiden Voyage” both use these sorts of voicings.  These are an excellent option for the guitar.

Things to Avoid When Writing Chords.

Cluster chords and voicings with more than two major or minor 2nds are difficult if not impossible to play.  The only exception is when open strings are utilized, but this is a tricky technique to use without some experience playing the guitar yourself.

You should also avoid writing passages with many different chords changing rapidly.  The only exception is if the chords use the same or very similar voicings, moving parallel up or down the neck.  Generally speaking, this is a tricky thing to execute, and will require some shedding by your guitarist.  Use your descretion.

Avoid dropping large chord voicings into single note lines.  Again, even if you follow all the rules and make guitar-friendly voicings, you could be sentencing your guitarist to hours in the practice room.

Chord Arpeggios

Guitarists often play arpeggios one of two ways, either as a melodic single note line or as a broken chord with sustaining notes. Composers often want the latter, but are not sure how to properly notate ringing arpeggios for guitar.

The easiest way to indicate that you’d like an arpeggiated chord to be sustained is to notate it like the example below.

Keep in mind that your chord voicings must follow the ruled mentioned above. If two notes have to be played on the same string, only the latter will be sustained.

You may also notate the rhythm while leaving the exact voicing up the the guitarist. Simply leave the note heads blank and write the rhythm. Do not use slash notation, because that would indicate strumming. Notice in this example I’ve also given some shape to the arpeggio, which could act as a guide for the guitarist to play ascending or descending patterns.

Slurs and Articulation.

You can notate slurs the same way you would on any other instrument, by tying a connecting notes with an arch.  Remember, notes on the guitar are plucked, so there will be a certain amound of decay on notes further away from the initial attack.

If you want to use notate specific types of slurs, see the figure below.

Each of these assumes the high G is sounding on beat three and is being approached with a different slur.  The grace note tells the guitarist where to start.

  • A slide simply means sliding one finger up or down the string to the target pitch. Notice the line between the grace note and target pitch.
  • A bend is executed by pulling the string until the target target pitch is heard.  You’ll notice the “W.B.” above the curved line.  That stands for Whole-step Bend. You can also have 1/2 step bends, notated as “1/2 B.” You can start on a bent string and release it to the target pitch.  It’s noted in the opposite direction as the example above.
  • Hammer-on’s and pull-off’s differ from a slide in that two fingers are used, one for each note.  These are useful in fast scale-like passages where you don’t want 1/2 step pitches to sound.  It’s best to not write these kinds of slurs for intervals beyond a major 3rd.

A common articulation technique used by guitarists is called palm muting*.  If you have a long passage of notes that you want played staccato, you can ask for the passage to be palm muted.  Here’s an example of a funk guitar line that uses palm muting.

You’ll also notice the ‘x’ note heads.  This is notating a muted, percussive attack of no particular pitch. It’s easiest for the guitarist to read if you write the ‘x’ on the same note as the previous pitch.

General Tips and Advice.

  • Listen to your favorite guitarists.  Better yet, transcribe what they’re playing.  Most of what Pat Metheny plays is very idiomatic for the guitar (though the rest is incredibly difficult to execute).  If somebody recorded it, then you’ll know it’s at least possible depending on the skill of the guitarist.
  • Study classical guitar sheet music.  This is the place to see examples of excellent guitar notation, down to what position a passage is played.  Of course, most music does not have to be this detailed, but it’s a great reference.
  • Ask a guitarist!  Leave a comment below, or better yet, talk to the guitarist that will play your music.
  • Trial and error.  This is how I learned how to write for brass, woodwinds, and drums.  I also got pretty good at dodging airborn pencils in the process.  Just be open to changing your parts.

*Definitions of Common Guitar Terms.

Bar (or barre) – The technique of pushing down several strings with one finger.

Bar chord – Chord voicings that do not use open strings.  These can move up and down the neck in parallel intervals.

Drop 2 voicing – Voicings where the second highest note of a block chord is dropped an octave.

Palm muting – The technique of slightly muting the strings with the palm of the picking hand.  Creates a staccato effect.

49 Responses to Music Notation for Guitar

  1. Erika Lloyd says:

    SO HELPFUL! Thanks Cam. You could publish a book on everything one needs to know about playing guitar and being a DIY musician. This is just such a well written tutorial.

  2. Bradford Swanson says:

    thanks for this! awesome tips

  3. Anna LeGrand says:

    What type of notation software do you use?

  4. @Anna – I use Sibelius and Finale.

  5. I can see this is a very comprenensive and well written piece. However, it was a little above my head.
    Until I get a chance to study this piece more thoroughly, there is only question I have and it regards an article at a another site (that had no place for questions.) Why is it that although i and m are used for index and middle finger, respecitvely, r, p and t are NOT used for ring finger, pinky, and thumb, respectively? I notice that in your article you use the the numbers 1-5 for finger indicators but you are using it above a fret diagram where there is no chance that finger numbers could be consfused with fret numbers. I have my own notation and use color for finger indication (black for thumb, blue for index, green for middle, red-orange for ring and pinkish-red for pinky) but I supplement with the the letters t, i, m, r, and p. How standardized are the finger indicators — are they non standard so that a key should accompany any set of notations?

  6. @Richard – The p, i, m, a designations are for the right hand (or plucking hand) only. Those letters are used in standard classical guitar notation, where the pinky is never used. The letters are based on Spanish words for the individual fingers.

    I don’t have any fret diagrams in this article, so I’m not sure what you’re referring to. However, I use numbers 1-4 to describe the fingers on the left hand (or fretting hand) when I do write out fret diagrams. The thumb is excluded because it’s not standard practice to use it to hold down strings, though it’s not uncommon for players to do that if their hand allows.

  7. Jessy D'Mellp says:

    Hi Cam,

    Thanks for clearing up a couple of questions I had by writing this piece. I have an 11 piece band and it’s all about making the charts readable in the amount of time that we have to rehearse, which isn’t much being on a cruise ship with limited space.

    Do you have any advice for indicating Wah pedals?

    • I’ve never seen a standard notation for wah, but I’ll occasionally run across something like “w/ Wah-Wah” or “Rhythmic Wah-Wah” written above the section that requires the effect, which leaves the exact pattern up to the guitarist’s discretion.

      If you want a specific open/closed pattern, I suggest:

      + = open (high sweep)
      o = closed (low sweep)

      Hairpins are used for long sweeps or slow changes to the effect, for example:

      o < +

      With the hairpin stretching across however many beats necessary.

      • Ben says:

        Thanks for the good, clear article :) Is there a particular reason you recommend o=closed and +=open for wah? I’m just wondering because some other instruments that have similar effects (e.g. brass, percussion) are usually notated the opposite way.

        • I’ve seen it this way before, but that doesn’t make it standard. In fact, your reasoning makes more sense. Either way, if you need it to be that specific it’s best to write a key for the symbols.

          I’m playing a show now that requires wah and it just says “with Wah Wah” above the staff. That avoids confusion and gets the job done.

  8. Nathaneal Cannon says:

    Hey Cameron, great article! I have a question about the playing range of the guitar: Why does Wikipedia list the range for the guitar differently than you do?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guitar

    - Nathaneal Cannon

    • I notated the range exactly as it would be written for guitar. Remember, those pitches actually sound an octave lower than written.

      Wikipedia notates the actual pitches, as if you were playing it on the piano. They also notate that high D I mention in the paragraph, but I stopped at the G below that to show the “safe” range for most guitarists.

  9. mark schneider says:

    What is the meaning of the following notation seen above standard music notation:

    BI 2———1

    numbers are in subscript position.

    • Hard to say when it’s out of context like that, but it could be a fingering. Bar the 1st fret, then something with your middle and pointer fingers. I’d have to see what’s happening on the staff to know for sure.

  10. Michael Lee says:

    Very helpful, thank you. Above, you say: “If you want a particular note in the top of the voicing, simply notate it with the chord symbols directly above, like a lead sheet.”

    Can that be made more explicit by flipping the stem up and then extending the stem length down below the notehead? I occasionally see that in pop keyboard notation when a particular voice-leading or melodic top line is desired, but indicating that full voicing should be placed beneath it.

  11. Andrew Fryer says:

    I’ve got some Satie sheet music for guitar, and it has the Roman numerals above it CIV and CII. What do they mean?

    Also, I thought I saw some music which was notated “pimac”. Is ‘c’ not the little finger? What might it indicate in Spanish? (meñique is the little finger, but ‘m’ is already used for the middle finger.)

    Thanks.
    Andrew

  12. Eric says:

    Hey Cameron,

    Thanks for the article. I came across it while scoring a film and wanted to find out what I could get away with for lots of close voicings with 2nds. This was exactly the information I was hoping to find! Also, I never knew that drop-2 voicings were guaranteed guitar-compatible. That’s a neat trick!

    Cheers,
    Eric

  13. Craig says:

    I was wondering if anyone could tell me how to notate a string/strings being “stopped” with the players fingertips. It’s the slight sound you hear in jazz playing when the player uses his fingertips to “stop” the strings creating a muted percussive tap from the strings lightly touching the fret board.

    • Do you mean a backbeat “slap” like John Mayer might do? I’d recommend using X noteheads or slash notation on the beat you want the hit.

      As far as I know, there’s no official notation for that technique. It might be a good idea to write “percussive slap” and “sim.” wherever it first appears on the chart because in some styles of music it could mean strumming muted chords (funk, flamenco, rock, etc).

  14. Glen says:

    though I have played guitar for almost fifty years I only started learning to read/score music recently. I am struck by how every musician has his own techniques for scoring. Surprisingly anything in the universe can be described clearly and definitively with math using the relatively few symbols in the language of math and any mathematician anywhere in the world will understand it. Although music is math there is no definitive system capable of describing music in all its presentations. I remember reading once how Twyla Tharp ran into the same problem trying to create a written language for dance.

  15. Susan Mcgee says:

    Thank yor for this article. Would you please help me with the following regarding registers. If, for example the G symbol is notated so that you recognize it as a G on 6th string, 3rd fret, written again as a different symbol so that you play it strings 5, 4, and open 3rd string as G and again as a different symbol for strings 1 and 2 (and different again for strings 1 and 2 once past the 12 fret, have I interpreted the registers correctly, and secondly, your statement that the guitar sounds lower then the octave written makes sense but I do not understand it totally. I can see a connection with the registers but I am not getting it. I ask this because I study both classical and electric. I am currently studying Sor’s study no. 10, opus 6 which is 90 percent writen as octaves so am having abit of trouble in recognizing what proper registered note to play. I hope I have made myself understood, thanks for your time. Susan Mcgee, Calgary, Alberta.

    • Hi Susan, when you say 6th string, do you mean the E string with the highest pitch? Most people refer to that as the 1st string, and for your example of playing the same pitch across various strings, that makes the most sense to me. Assuming that’s what you meant, there are two ways this is notated in classical guitar notation:

      1) A number with a circle around it indicates the string: 1 = high E, 2 = B, 3 = G, etc. If the number is above a note, it means play that note on that string.

      2) A Roman numeral, usually with a bracket extending over a passage, indicates position. For example, VII means seventh position, and if I had to play a G in that position, it’d be on the 2nd string.

      In Sor’s Opus 6, No. 10, the first note is a middle C, played on the 5th string, 3rd fret. If you set the music in front of a pianist, the notes they would play would sound an octave higher. In other words, they would have to play the piece an octave lower than it’s written in order to be in the same register as the guitar.

  16. Susan Mcgee says:

    Again, thank you for your time. I now understand your statment about the music being played an octave lower. My version of study 10 Opus 6 is edited by Brian Jeffrey, a Tecla 101 book. So no Roman numerals to assist with position. What prompted you to use the C on string 5 and not on string 6, fret 8 (Low E), that is my dilemma. Thank you, Susan Mcgee.

    • Well, you don’t. The beauty of the guitar is that you can play the same passage on different strings and get slightly different sounds and phrasings. It’s also the most difficult thing about the instrument, because you’re faced with more choices.

      When it comes to classical music, I tend to default by playing in first position and using open strings whenever possible.

    • Brian Hanson says:

      So, I’m a classically trained guitarist. Unless someone has notated fingering and positions , it’s up to the player to make those decisions. In fact you could ignore a particular fingering if you so choose. I would choose to play the bulk of this etude in 1st or open position, which would mean the C on the 5th string as Cameron said. In measure 5 you have an arpeggiated C major chord, with a low G, best to play that all in 1st/open position using open strings. In the next measure you choose to play the C octave in string 1 and 3 or on string 1 and 4. In playing this etude you’ve probably discovered the two most basic ways of playing octaves are across three strings with 1 and 4 on the left hand, or across four strings with 3 and 1 on the left hand (basic open C shape). Thanks Cameron, I found this page because I need to help an arranger with some guitar notation.

  17. Susan Mcgee says:

    Thanks for educating me, I appreciate that. Susan Mcgee.

  18. raaz says:

    yes it is a veryhelpful note…thank you …but i m a basic guitar learner so if you get me a simple notation its helpful to me thanx…cameron

  19. Neil Stewart says:

    Thanks. An extremely useful article for me at this point in time. I’m just starting to use noteflight to write up my own solo jazz compositions using standards.

    It would be great to have some standard Jazz chords notated in music at various barres. Currently, I’m writing the chords by ear / theory and copying the writen music into the tab. Eventually the tab will be unnecessary for me, but it helps now.

    Thanks again.

  20. WOW. Thorough and well-written, very useful stuff. Thank you for taking the time to Do It Right.

  21. greg says:

    in Guy Van Duesers arrangement of “Stars and Stripes forever he has CIV —— above the standard notation staff what does this mean? the things vary like CVII CIV CVII etc.

  22. Jim McLean says:

    Brilliant site and sooooo helpful. However, I have a problem which I am not sure is covered…or else I haven’t understood everything.

    I wish to notate a simple guitar finger picking rhythm part…chords are Em and D. 4/4 time. four plucks per bar. Thumb hits the bass string E, followed by three quarter notes played by the other fingers. Then, Bar 2, we pick the D chord…thumb hits the D string and the other three quarter notes are played by the fingers.

    How do I notate that I want the thumb hit – the bass E and Bass D note to last the duration of the whole bar. And if I only wanted the thumb hit to last precisely a quarter note (i.e. not last) how do I notate that?

    Is this what you call an arpeggiated chord? What symbol would you use for the bass notes to last the duration of the bar whilst still playing the other quarter notes?

    Thank you.
    Jim

  23. Tom Shepherd says:

    Hey Cameron,
    I was reading over your piece about notation from guitar and I am currently writing out band parts for “I’m Outta Love” by Anastasia.
    The begining when the band kicks in there is a guitar playing funk octaves comping…I was wondering what the best way to notate this would be. I am using Sibelius 6.
    Many Thanks
    Tom Shepherd

    • If you wrote out the chords in slash notation with the note “Comp w/ funk octaves” I think most competent guitarists would play the right sort of thing. If you want him to play exactly what’s on the record, then you could always transcribe it and write it out.

  24. Chris says:

    Ok, this is fantastic, and the most beautiful website in my life right now. Comments have great suggestions too. My question is in regards to the capo. I have a classical (Baroque, to be specific) piece I am about to embark on, but the piece is easier to play when capo’d on the second fret. As a creative decision, I’m going to write it in the key of E, as standard, and if someone wants to capo it, they can, I may not even mention it. But for future reference, if the piece is written with the capo in mind, should the notes reflect that? Should the notes be D, E, F for the lowest notes instead of E, F, G? Or should I write E, F, G with the suggestion: “Capo on 2nd Fret”?

    • I prefer to see everything written in concert pitch. In other words, if the capo is on second fret and you want me to play the E shaped chord, I’d want to see it written as F#.

      For less knowledgable guitarists, the capo is used to change keys while using the same chord shapes they already know. That’s why we so often see something written out, for example, in the key of G with a capo on the third fret, but in reality it’s in the concert key of Bb.

      The problem with this is that if you bring a bass player or keyboardist into the mix, you have to talk to them in terms of concert keys. Might as well think of the guitar in terms of the actual notes on the fretboard and not have to trick your brain into thinking a Bb is a G just because you have a capo somewhere on the neck.

      So to answer your question, I recommend you put the capo on the second fret, but write it out and think about it as the concert pitches.

      • Chris says:

        Wonderful, thank you so much. It will remain in the key of E then because that’s where it’s supposed to be. There are a couple stretch chords I struggle with. When I recorded it, I tuned the entire guitar to D, then capo’d on the 2nd fret so it was still in E, but much easier for my hands to play.

        I will have a second question now, posted below.

  25. Chris says:

    How would one go about notating two B notes (the same pitch as the open B string; the second note is played on the G string, fourth fret)? In my notation, I will simply write the B note repeatedly, and I figure the guitarist will assume it’s easier to play a pattern that allows for two strings to be plucked faster, producing the same note (and that pattern moves up and down the fretboard anyway). But what about when it comes time to playing chords, and both G and B strings are used to produce that same B note—the difference in timbre makes the two B notes sound different and more full. How would that be notated?

    • Cameron says:

      There would need to be two notes either on the same stem or in two voices, one stem up and one stem down. The open string would be noted by a small open circle “o” over one note, and the fretted note could either have a 3 inside a circle to tell the guitarist it is played on the 3rd (G) string, or you could put a 4 next to it indicating it’s played with the 4th finger, which by default would put it on the G string.

  26. João says:

    Hello. I need a professional sheet writer to write me a 10 seconds piece of a well known rock music.
    I only need an arrangment sheet for the guitars in that part. I will pay for the job. Can you tell me someone that is able to do this for me? Thank’s (sorry the bad english)

  27. Crow says:

    I looked EVERYWHERE, it seemed, for hours, to find the information written so concisely and thoroughly here. I’m trying to help my daughter notate a piece she’s composed, and though I have a Master’s degree in music I am not much of a guitarist. I’m surprised that it’s so difficult to find the types of tips and notation techniques that you’ve so perfectly outlined. Thank you so much, Cameron. This is exactly what I needed. I have permanently bookmarked your site. :)

  28. Adam says:

    Many thanks for this Cameron, I have also sent it to someone [a wind player] who is writing some arrangements for me.

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