9 Guitar-Specific Musical Notation Symbols Explained
Guitar Sheet Music Notation: what do these symbols mean?
Classical guitar music notation can sometimes look like a secret language. There are numbers, squiggles, circles, and abbreviations all over the musical staff.
So what does it all mean?
Use this guide to unlock the guitar player’s notation code. And spend your time creating beautiful music instead of solving puzzles.
1. Numbers in a Circle
Numbers (1 to 6) in a small circle refer to the string on which you should play the note. We can use letters or number to denote the guitar string names.
You will see them on the staff next to, or under, the note to which they refer.
“6” indicates the lowest-sounding E string, and “1” is the high-sounding E string. “2” is the B string, etc.
2. Numbers on the Staff
Small numbers on the staff show which left-hand fingers we should use for a particular note. They are numbered from left to right as you look at your palm. So 1 is the index finger, and 4 is the little finger.
3. Roman Numerals
On a classical guitar, fret one is the one nearest the nut. Fret twelve is usually (but not always) the last one before the edge of the guitar body.
Guitar frets are usually identified by Roman Numerals.
Frets one to twelve are indicated like this: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI and XII.
These Roman Numerals indicate the position in which we play a note, chord, measure or phrase. A guitar ‘position’ is the fret number upon which the first finger is placed.
So if we see the roman numeral VII above the staff, we know to play the chord in seventh position.
What are Roman Numerals?
Roman numerals are made up of adding combinations of numbers together.
- One = I
- Five = V
- Ten = X
Most combinations are self-explanatory.
Three is I + I + I. Seven is V + I + I. Eleven is X + I.
But for extra mind-bending, if a I precedes a V or a X, it is subtracted. The number four is indicated as five minus one (IV). Nine is written as ten minus one (IX).
As a side note, Roman numerals are also used in formal music analysis. But you won’t see that in normal music notation.
4. Capo (‘C’)
Guitarists will often see the letter C marked above the staff. This tells us we need to use our first finger to cover two or more strings.
This action is called a ‘Barre’. (Sometimes we’ll see a B instead of a C. It means the same thing.)
The fret will also be indicated. So CII means we should place a barre at the second fret.
Why “C” to represent a barre chord?
In music, we often find different terms originate from different countries. It can all get confusing.
- The letter C stands for ‘capo’. The word capo comes from the Italian term ‘capotasto’, which means the nut of a stringed instrument.
- It is also sometimes thought to be an abbreviation for ‘cejillo’, which is Spanish for capo
- The word ‘barre’ comes from the French for ‘barred’
5. The Half-Barre
We might also see some alternative barre instructions.
If the C has an oblique slash through it, it means we don’t need a full barre across all six strings. It’s usually called a half-barre, although it can involve more or less than three strings.
Different editors notate half-barres in different ways. Sometimes the notation will tell you how many strings to cover by showing a ratio or fraction, eg. 5/6 means bar five out of the six strings.
6. P I M A
Right-hand fingering can be found above the staff, or sometimes, next to the notes. Each right-hand finger has its own name which comes from the initial of the Spanish name for that finger.
- p – thumb (pulgar)
- i – index finger (indice)
- m – middle finger (medio)
- a – ‘ring’ finger (anular)
- c – little finger (chico or chiquito – but hardly ever used)
7. Slur Markers
A small curved line joining two different notes indicates a ‘slur’ (or ‘ligado’.) This tells us to ‘pull off’ or ‘hammer on’ the second note with our left hand only.
Don’t get it confused with a ‘tie’. Tied notes have a curved line between them too, but the two tied notes are always identical in pitch.
8. Squiggly Line
A wavy line in front of a chord tells us to ‘roll’ that chord. This is done by playing a fast, smooth arpeggio. It can be done with a thumb strum, or by plucking P, I, M and A (thumb, index, middle, ring) in quick succession. This should be done within the notated duration and rhythm of the notes.
The squiggle may have an arrow at one end. This indicates the direction of the roll (for instance, from the bass note to the highest treble note.) If a composer has indicated a roll, they often want us to restrict rolls to those marked chords only.
9. Diamond Note Head
A note head written like a little diamond tells us that the note should be played as a harmonic. We do this by lightly touching a string over a particular fret wire.
Harmonic notation is not standardized in guitar music. We usually also get extra instructions so we know which string and fret to play.
Learn to Recognize These Guitar Symbols
As we become more experienced guitarists, most of these strange notations become second nature to us.
And as we gain sight-reading skills, some even become unnecessary.
But for now, memorize the notation symbols above, and you’ll be armed for any piece of music you choose to pick up.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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