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Guitar Tab vs. Standard Music Notation: Which Should You Learn?

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Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.

Which should you learn?

Which should you learn?

This article is aimed at self-learning guitarists wondering whether to learn standard music notation (also known as staff notation) or guitar tablature (also known as tab) or both, or even neither.

Having taught guitar professionally in the past for many years, I'm familiar with the ongoing 'guitar tab versus standard notation' debate. It's not really a valid debate in my mind because they are fundamentally different in the information that they convey. Both systems have strengths and weaknesses, but the importance attached to those strengths and weaknesses will vary from person to person, depending on their particular musical preferences and aspirations.

The Difference Between Guitar Tab and Standard Music Notation

The fundamental difference between the two systems is that standard music notation is a visual representation of the pitch and duration of the notes of a piece of music, while guitar tablature is a set of fretboard fingering instructions that enable you to locate and produce those notes.

Standard notation and tablature

Standard notation and tablature

The example above shows two bars (measures) in standard notation on top with the equivalent tablature below.

Standard Music Notation

The standard notation staff shows the notes of the music. The pitch of each note is determined by its vertical position on the staff. The higher up in the staff it appears, the higher its pitch. The duration of each note is shown by the shape of the symbol. Standard notation's purpose is to 'show' what the music sounds like. It's not meant to show you how to play it on any instrument. Learning standard notation for guitar involves locating all the notes on fretboard, learning when and how long to play them, and what all the other signs and symbols mean. It takes many months of (preferably daily) practice to start to become competent, let alone fluent.

Guitar Tablature

In the tab example above, the lines represent the six strings in ascending pitch order, and the numbers on those strings tell you which fret to hold when playing that string. Read from left to right and that's it learned There's no need for months of study to understand tab. What basic tablature doesn't tell you, however, is when the notes are to be played and for how long they should be held. The above example is so simple, however, that just by playing the notes without caring too much about timing, you would still instantly recognise it. A more complex song would be impossible to play correctly unless you already knew how it was supposed to sound.

If you're still not quite sure how tab works, see the link at the end of this article to read my lesson on guitar tablature basics.

Tab With Timing

Although basic tab lacks timing information, more advanced forms of guitar tablature show timing information using cut down duration symbols based on those of standard music notation. They're not as sophisticated, but they work well enough. Of course, unlike basic tab, those symbols aren't self explanatory and have to be learned just like with standard notation.

If you want to learn those tablature timing symbols, look at my lesson: Timing and note durations in guitar tablature

Tab duration symbols

Tab duration symbols

Web-friendly tab duration symbols

Web-friendly tab duration symbols

The Pros and Cons of Both Systems

As mentioned earlier, each person will find aspects of either system to be an advantage or disadvantage depending on what they're using it for. What one person finds to be an advantage, another may find to be a disadvantage. Most people agree, however, that there are pros and cons to both systems. Here are the most commonly cited ones. Also keep in mind that the cons of standard notation refer to its use in notating guitar music and not necessarily to a weakness in the system itself.

Standard Music Notation: Cons

  • It takes a l-o-n-g time to learn and master standard notation. That's not really a weakness, though. Learning any musical instrument also takes a long time.
  • It's not easy to produce standard notation on a computer or to upload it online unless you have software that is designed to produce it. The examples here were produced on Guitar Pro and converted to image files for uploading online.
  • It's more difficult to find free notation online than free tabs online.
  • Some guitar techniques, such as strumming, aren't easy to show accurately in standard notation. A strumming pattern might be very easy to play by feel but can actually have a complex rhythm that would be very difficult to read if written out accurately in notation. String bending is another technique that standard notation wasn't designed for.

Standard Music Notation: Pros

  • Standard notation provides complete musical information, and some guitar-specific fingering suggestions can be added as small numbers next to the notes. Fretboard position instructions are shown by Roman numerals above the staff. When you become more fluent, you can read and play in real time pieces of music you've never heard before (provided you're physically capable of playing them, of course).
  • Standard music notation is a universal musical language that can be understood by musicians of countless instruments as well as by trained singers worldwide. You can take a violin or a sax piece and adapt it for guitar, for example.
  • It's more meaningful visually. With enough practice, you can hear the music in your head just by seeing and recognising the note patterns. Beethoven wrote whole symphonies that way after he was completely deaf.

Guitar Tablature: Cons

  • No timing information is given in tablature's most basic and common form. Tab with timing information provides more information, but it's no longer self-explanatory in that case.
  • As tab is so easy to produce and upload online by anyone with a computer and text editor, lots of online tabs are of very poor quality and accuracy.
  • A single guitar can play more than one part at the same time such as, for example, a bassline plus melody. Notation can show each line separately by the direction of the notes' stems (up or down pointing), but tab can't show this, even with timing symbols included.

Guitar Tablature: Pros

  • Tab is self-explanatory and, in its basic form, can be learned in minutes, rather than months.
  • It's very easy to write and upload tabs online - no special musical software is required. Any text editor will do it just by using letters numbers and dashes. (See the web-friendly 'tab with timing' pic, above).
  • Altered tunings, such as DADGAD, or 'open G, etc., make no difference to reading tablature. It's just as easy to read any altered tuning tab as it is to read standard tuning tab. Standard notation would need to be relearned (to an extent) for each altered tuning.
  • A huge amount of free tabs are available online. It's not all good quality but it can give the basics if you're trying to work out a song.

Should I Learn Guitar Tablature?

You already have—at least the basics. It's up to you whether to use it or not. If you want to learn the fancy fingerstyle intro to "Stairway to Heaven", for example, you can easily find a free tab of it online, and play it straight off just by following the fingering instructions and by knowing how it's supposed to sound. There are also a bunch of symbols that are used in tab that show guitar-specific techniques such as hammer-ons and pull-offs, string bending, palm muting, pinched harmonics and more, but they're not essential to understanding the basics of guitar tablature, and many are obvious anyway.

Should I Learn Standard Music Notation?

While it's great to know standard notation, it depends on what your musical ambitions are whether it's worth investing the time and effort required to learn it. If you want to become a session musician booked to accompany artists, then, yes, it's an almost essential requirement if you want to make a living at it. If you want to strum Bob Dylan songs around a campfire, then no, it's not necessary. Reading music won't help you strum those songs any better.

If you want to learn classical guitar, then yes because that's how it's traditionally taught. All classical guitar courses and scores are in standard music notation.

How About Professional Musicians?

Many, if not most, jazz guitarists can read notation while most rock and pop guitarists don't. If you want to play in a rock or pop band playing your own songs or covers, then it's not essential. Most of that is more easily done by ear and chord sheets and tab for lead solos, etc.

The Beatles (like the vast majority of pop and rock guitarists) never learned standard notation. It wasn't necessary. But whenever they wanted orchestral accompaniments or string sections or brass or whatever, then it was necessary to use standard notation to convey to those other musicians what they had to play. Their producer, George Martin, and others took care of that. The point is that they themselves didn't need standard notation in order to write and play their own songs. Without notation, they'd have had no orchestral backing, but they'd still have continued to write and perform great songs.

If you want to be an accomplished, knowledgeable, all-around guitarist, always looking to expand your musical horizons, whether professionally or as a hobby, then YES. Standard music notation can open up a whole world of new and rewarding musical experiences for you.

So the final answer is that it's up to you. Will it be useful for what you want to do in music?

Further Reading

© 2012 Chas Mac


Adam Anderson on October 23, 2019:

WOW!..I just saw you answered my question and I thank you very much. I can tell your focus is sharing your musical knowledge unselfishly, a rare quality indeed. I took a music course at a local community college and at the time standard notation was the main direction of guitar music. I understood it well enough but my retention dwindled away as I am 74 and learning tab is much faster in my case. I made a " ledger line" study of standard notation for guitar note not in 1st position. .I also have seen instructions in the Bible book of Palms to " stringed instruments" and other terms a very ancient book, and makes me believe some tablature system possibly was used. and humans were far more developed than many think today..You are completley right in " thousand" of years. Its only conjecture on my part but music is the " order of sound & time". Much of the timing of a note could quite possibly be " instinctive"...its right or wrong to our senses, referring to the tab system, I am only guessing how music could be beautiful only becase it SOUNDS so, since no quarter,eighth. whole or rest symbols are in the tab that i am familiar with. Honestly I speed rdad your article but am going to take my time, again kudos to a masterful work. BTW, my daughter studied with world famous flamenco guitarist Juan a father I brag all the time about that..

Adam..aka Paolo...( my non internet name)

Chas Mac (author) from UK on October 21, 2019:

@ Adam -- Notation systems have been around for at least a couple of thousand years. Modern staff notation can be traced back to Guido d'Arezzo who invented the staff note names ut,(later do) re mi fa so la si (later ti) in the 10th century.

Tablature is even older as there are carvings of fretted instruments from the ancient Middle East, and it's assumed they used some form of tablature. Lute tablature is common in medieval music and Guitar's used tab long before they used notation.

Adam Anderson on October 20, 2019:

How long has tablature been around or rather when did it begin and by whom? Also same question for standard notation.

Anon on July 04, 2019:

Most of the tablature cons are fixed if you use Songsterr. However, the one con that isn't fixed is accuracy.

I'm not here to advertise, I'm here to help others learn. While Songsterr doesn't have every song, and may not be accurate with all of the songs, it does have the time signature, and information on how long you're supposed to hold a note. It also has a feature that allows you to listen to it so you know how it's supposed to sound. If it doesn't sound accurate, and you figure out how to make it accurate, you just need to sign up to submit a revision.

Michael Shipman on October 14, 2016:

Ask any person who first started playing by reading tabs & then only later learned standard notation & I'm sure they will almost universally agree they wish they had learned to read much earlier. I know I do. Also, with regard to the authors timelines, I was sight reading basic pieces within 6 months & reading intermediate to advanced classical pieces within 3 years of study. A drop in the bucket time wise far as I'm concerned.

Chas Mac (author) from UK on May 22, 2015:

Yes, you can use standard notation when learning fingerstyle - It's up to which way you prefer. Each has its advantages and disadvantages as the article explains.

adams on May 22, 2015:

thank u very much for this article.... i wanna ask u somethings and correct me if i'm wrong , first i guess all this debate is just over guitars unlike other instruments , guitar is just so different , but if i wanna play finger style guitar do u think it's possible to play it with slandered notation or will be so hard even after times ? finger style solo guitar is just too hard for me as a standard notation knowing that i just started a year ago , so should i just stay with tabs if i wanna play solo finger style songs , or u think i'll be able to play it with slandered notation with time , thx

Chas Mac (author) from UK on February 18, 2014:

Thanks Mickji. I wish you well in your studies.

Mickji from between Italy and Switzerland, travelling around the world thanks to a little special object on February 18, 2014:

It is also necessary to learn chord and chord progression, because if you learn them by ear then you will do like Beatles and play songs without knowing how to read sheet music ... However if you want to be a jolly in every situation and feel confortable playing with everybody, it is good to know every notation, so you'll not be unprepared. I play the ocarina and wants to learn to "understand" the other instruments too, so I am trying to learn sheet music, tabs and numeric notation of all the instruments. Good luck with your playing and your articles ! Please continue to write because they are useful and interesting ^^.

Chas Mac (author) from UK on September 21, 2012:

Thanks Aficionada. I'm glad you found it useful.

Aficionada from Indiana, USA on September 21, 2012:

This is absolutely excellent! Even though most of my students are fairly young and probably not interested in reading a helpful article, it will help me to be armed with this information so they can understand the likely benefits of what they are learning.

I look forward to reading your other articles on tablature and standard notation.