What are the colours all about?

Here are seven notes written on the musical stave (you can make them bigger if you like, by clicking on the image):


Whether you read music or not, you can immediately see a musical shape here, rising steadily from low to high. If you do read music, you will identify the notes immediately as D, E, G, A, B, C, D. If you play an instrument at any level you will probably be able to play these notes as soon as you see them on the stave, with almost no conscious thought. If you have had the training, you may be able to sing them at sight, or hear them in your head without sounding them at all. The stave system is simple, elegant, and rather beautiful. Above all, it is intuitive – in fact so intuitive that as soon as you have “got it”, you find it quite hard to get inside the head of someone who “doesn’t get it”!

However, if you have ever taught a beginner

– on any instrument – to read music, you will know how hard all this can be at the outset. The information on the stave may be very simple and elegant, but it is also completely abstract and needs decoding. And you have to learn to do this at the same time as you are getting to grips with the concrete realities of playing the instrument.

Try stepping into the shoes of a beginner guitarist for a moment. Those seven notes require you to play on three different strings, using a mixture of open strings and three different fretting fingers. Suddenly there is not much mental capacity left for the work of decoding the stave – and as your brain gets overloaded, the abstract ideas and the concrete ideas start to get confused. Those five lines look awfully like guitar strings! (You know of course that this cannot be right, as there are five lines and six strings, but still the thought is difficult to shake off). And those bar lines look a bit like guitar frets, don’t they? And then you start wondering if maybe the notes on the lines are the open strings and the notes between the lines are the fingered notes. Then you realise that can’t be right either. How can anyone play a tune, let alone play it musically, with all this going on in their heads?

So if you are going to teach a guitar pupil to read the stave – and I am making the bold assumption that you are convinced of its benefits and wish to do so – then you have to go slowly and find lots of ways of making the work easier. The Rainbow Guitar book features one very powerful way of doing this.

Here are the same seven notes as they appear in Rainbow Guitar (again, do click on the image if you want to see them better):


They fall on three different strings, and the strings are colour coded – 4th string = blue, 3rd string = red, 2nd string = green. The strings are constantly referred to in lessons as e.g. “the red string” or “the blue string”. Every time a 3rd-string note appears in the book, it is printed red, etc etc.

To begin with, when the pupil plays on open strings only, the colours actually do all the work! In the following example the pupil does not need to look at the stave lines at all (though it does no harm to print the notes on the stave, and helps with that intuitive ability to see the melodic shape).


Later, as the fingered notes are added, the colours help the pupil to focus on particular areas of the stave while learning the concepts of “on the line” and “in the space”. Once the colour has guided the pupil to the correct string, the choices are mostly just 2-way, either-or: “Line or space?” “Open or fingered?” “G or A?”


As the music becomes a little more complex and the pupil becomes more experienced, the colours help above all to answer the question “Do I stay on the same string now, or do I have to cross?” (from observation of hundreds of pupils, I would say this is the single biggest single question facing the novice guitarist when reading a tune). Here is another example:


So the colours ease the load, break things down, focus the mind on one thing at a time, and add concrete information to the abstract stave.

But – and this is really important! –  pupils are learning to read music from very start, and they are looking directly at the notes. That means they are not looking at any fingerings, string indications or note names that the the author, or teacher, has added above or below the stave. All those things have their uses, but they can be distractions and cause the pupil to look away from the notes themselves. The colours just remove the need for all that – I almost never have to pencil in a fingering or note name in the Rainbow Guitar book.

So teachers, self-teachers, parents … do try this system, it works! The first Rainbow Guitar book covers just the seven notes above, and I am working on a 2nd book covering the whole of the first position (here is the full “rainbow” in all its glory):