In guitar culture, tablature is a big thing. Reading music isn’t always top of the list of skills to acquire, unless you are learning classical guitar, or taking lessons from a teacher or school that requires you too. The popular culture is to learn by ear, from a friend or teacher, by TAB, and of course these days by YouTube. This was the way that most of our guitar idol’s have done it (minus the YouTube). Not to say that some of them don’t know how to read music, but the majority of them do not, and they still become monsters in the music world.

For this post, we will be looking at the culture of using TABs vs. music notation, but there are many other topics that this can branch off too.

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Lets first take a look at the benefits of both systems.

Music Notation Benefits

Music notation has time values, which means that you can pick up a piece of sheet music of a song that you have never heard in your life and play it very close to the original. It also has a key signature, and a time signature at the beginning of each song or section telling us the key and time that the song is in.

Another benefit of reading music notation is that you are forced to know the notes on your guitar. This is a big bonus as this kind of knowledge is a huge help in understanding theory and what you are actually playing, and can open up your improvisational skills a lot. The final benefit is that you also have to understand how “time” works in music. Learning exactly how quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes and so on work is a big thing. Understanding that the blues song you are playing is probably a 12 bar, or is in 12/8 timing can help out a lot when hitting the studio, counting songs in, or even just practicing to a metronome.

Music Notation Problems for Guitar

So the main problems with music notation are that you have to spend a lot of time learning the system which ends up turning a lot of people away from it. All of those benefits listed above take quite a while to learn and become proficient enough so that you can actually learn a decent song. Chances are that you will be playing 1 string versions of “Ode to Joy” for the first month or 2, and this turns a lot of people away from the coolness that originally attracted them to the guitar in the first place.

Aside from the extra work involved, there are some actual real problems with reading music for guitar. The biggest one being that you have “unison” or “replica” notes in multiple places on the guitar, making it confusing as to where you should play them. Most other instruments do not have this problem. A piano has only 1 middle C, and a guitar has 5. Which one you should hit on a guitar is very important as they are in different parts of the neck, and can have a serious impact on the playability of the part. Sure there is the “Berkely Method” of using hand positions on the guitar, but it is still a clunky system.

The other problem is that reading music is heavily reliant on sight reading. This system requires you to not memorize, but to read the notes on the sheet as you are playing them. This puts you in front of sheet music during any performances, and how many of your guitar idol’s do you see with sheet music stuck in front of their face? Unless you are a classical music fan, I’m guessing none.

Benefits of TAB

Right away TAB is so much easier. I can teach a student to read Tablature on the very first lesson. Sure there will be some symbols later on like “bends” and “hammer-ons” that I will have to teach them, but overall its a very basic concept. This means that the student can put 95% of their effort into playing the guitar and about 5% effort into reading the notes. Where music notation its about 80% learning how to read music, and 20% playing the guitar in the first few months. It also means that we can focus on much cooler songs, like AC/DC or the student’s favorite rock, or pop song.

Tablature also tells you exactly where to play that middle C, and doesn’t leave you guessing. It is also better suited for the techniques of the guitar like “bends”, “hammer-ons”, “pull-offs” and an entire list of things that guitar players do on a regular basis. It also can tell you how your guitar should be tuned by showing the notes of the strings on each TAB line, and we know that there is a wide variety of popular tunings being used on the guitar.

Downfalls of TAB

So I hate to admit it, but we all know that Tablature has some major downfalls. The biggest one being that traditionally there are no time values, so you will have to have a copy of the song cued up if you want to learn the timing of those notes you are reading.  The other problem is that it keeps us guitar players ignorant about what notes, keys, and timing we are actually playing. Now, this can be a benefit in the beginning as we are just learning the instrument, but it does become something that eventually will hold us back.

Another unforeseen problem is that the majority of Tablature is written by amateurs and a lot of the times only 75% correct. The only way to get solid TAB’s is to go the music store and buy a professional TAB book. Even then I have noticed mistakes in them. With music notation, you rarely run into this problem. That’s because you have to really know what you are doing to even try and score something.

Time Value Tablature

So that brings us to TAB’s that have time values, and I have been seeing these more and more as the years go on. Do they solve the biggest problem of Tablature? I would say yes. You can now pick up a TAB of a song with time values that you have never heard before, and play it pretty accurately. Of course, you will have to learn how to read the time values and properly play them. But still, this solves its biggest problem. It is not a perfect system, but I believe as a guitar teacher who teaches both music notation and the TAB method that it is the best of both worlds for my students.

You will still have to make a separate effort to learn and understand the notes you are actually playing. This is really what music theory is. Music theory is not reading music. It is understanding the ideas and concepts of music, and by no means do you need to learn how to read music in order to understand any musical concepts at all. Just remember that music notation and Tablature is just a written language, and you can always learn to speak a language without learning how to write it.

What are your thoughts? Have you tried time value Tablature? or are you happy with learning by ear or the traditional TAB that has no time values at all? or maybe you are a rare guitar player who strictly uses music notation. Let me know your thoughts.

I’ve been teaching in the Ottawa area for over 10 years now, and continue to do so with my company Go Guitar Lessons. Feel free to give us a call or email us: We teach in Stittsville, Kanata, Barrhaven, Nepean, Orleans, Westboro, and the core of Ottawa.