There’s the old joke about “how do you get a guitarist to stop playing? Put some sheet music in front of him!” Well, there’s definitely some truth to that one, and it also applies to my case! Now, being a self-taught player, I have no problem understanding what to play, and when to play it, and I can obviously pick things up just by hearing it. But there’s no doubt about the fact that being able to read will always help you in your career.
Most of the time, when a guitar player is on a recording date, and there is some reading to have to be done, it’s often mostly just a chord chart, with an occasional actual lick that must be played thrown in. So, 90% of the time, “true” reading is not a “must” for a guitar player, but lord knows there are times when is certainly is, and I suggest you be prepared. I have witnessed some amazing studio players who not only read perfectly right from the first downbeat of the song, but it even gets done with immediately the right feeling! This is truly a marvel to watch, especially for someone like me, who goes about it the total opposite way, where I feel it, hear it, and simply play it!
I suggest that you begin to read while also understanding tablature for guitar. This is because the tab is a good way to better understand the actual positioning on the neck of what you are playing, and therefore, as you work your way through the music you’ll be concentrating on remembering the various shapes and positions as well. I’ve had to read at sessions where the chords themselves are not even named, they are simply huge stacks of notes, piled on top of each other! Add that to the general stress of the recording date as well, and you’re really talking about major headaches! But I’m sure that for the true reader, after awhile, all the stacks of notes, and rhythmic notations become like second nature. Ideally, it should become like reading words on a page for you, and it’s a very rewarding thing to be able to do.
I also think that for many folks, the hardest part of reading music is understanding the rhythmic phrasing of the actual notes….this is also something that comes with experience, and if you have a good sense of rhythm to begin with, it becomes that much easier to adapt to.
In the end, it’s very important to cultivate both sides of your playing experience; reading is great, and you should work on it, a little bit each day, while at the same time, playing strictly from the heart, and by ear. If you really develop these skills simultaneously, the experience of living and working as a guitarist will be as complete an experience as possible. Good luck with it all!