Guitarists often want to know if tablature, or tab, is a form of cheating, or if tab itself is a bad thing for guitar players. This is probably because tab has unfortunately developed a false reputation as a lazy workaround for learning standard musical notation. In this article, I’ll explain the pros and cons of tablature, and why tab has been a good thing for guitarists.
Are guitar tabs bad? Guitar tabs are highly useful for guitar players in certain situations, and have several advantages over standard notation. This makes guitar tablature (tab) useful for modern guitar players.
The Myth of Guitar Tablature
Guitar tab, or tablature, is not a bad thing, or something that has hindered or weakened guitar players, as some people may believe. Tablature is not even a new phenomenon, since some forms of tablature date all the way back to the middle ages. In fact, it is very possible that tablature, or some form of it, was the first method used for notating guitar music.
Tablature gained a strong resurgence in the 1980’s and 1990’s as guitar-based rock music became popular, and new guitar players needed a quicker way to learn the music that they were hearing on the radio.
Tablature therefore got a lot of new guitar players up and running with songs that they could play, without having that much musical training or playing experience. Also, since tabs could be written out by just about anyone on the computer, and then eventually shared on the internet in text files, tab’s popularity and use quickly spread.
Two Types of Musical Inputs
When it comes to the process of documenting, sharing, and learning music, we actually have two input processes that we can use. In other words, there are two ways that you and I can learn new music.
First, we can learn by ear. We can use our hearing to recognize and then learn and memorize a song. This is commonly referred to as “learning by ear” or “ear training”. We also use our hearing to document a song by creating a recording of it that we can reference and listen to later.
But we also can write down music on paper to document and save our musical ideas. The challenge with writing down music on paper is that we need a method to describe the music accurately enough so that our musical ideas can be remembered and shared with others accurately without the benefit of being able to hear it, like we can with learning by ear.
And when it comes to writing down our music, we actually have three main options that have been developed over time: standard notation, chord lead sheets, and tablature.
There is an important point to make here, and that is that all of these forms of written music communication are legitimate ways of getting guitar music understood, documented and communicated to others. They are all legitimate because they are just tools that enable us to do these things, and they are all useful because they are all ideal in certain situations.
Different Uses of Tab, Standard Notation, and Lead Sheets
If you consider the differences of standard notation, tablature, and lead sheets, you’ll notice that they have different pros and cons from each other that each make them useful and valuable in certain situations.
For example, standard notation has the benefit of providing us with both the pitch and duration or rhythm, while the other two forms don’t do this. This factor makes standard notation great for learning and playing music where we might not have an audible reference. In other words, we might not be able to hear a recorded example of the music, so we need all of the facts to be able to play it on our guitar without that example.
This means standard notation is great for playing classical guitar music pieces, or playing old forms of blues or jazz songs that are from the pre-recorded era. Standard notation also works well in orchestral settings, where as a guitar player you are playing along with a large group of instruments.
Guitar lead sheets are great for rhythm players that need to play along with songs quickly without having to memorize them beforehand. Lead sheets are great for jam sessions and group playing, such as at a church service.
In cases like these, guitar players just need a reference of the chords to play, and they can fill in the rhythm details as they go. Playing lead is not important in most of these situations.
Tablature provides us with the pitch, but unlike standard notation, doesn’t provide us with the timing or rhythm. But in some cases, this is not critical.
For example, when we have a recorded example of a piece of music available to us, like we do with modern music that we hear on the radio or on an app, we can reference the recording to learn the timing and rhythm and other nuances, and use tab to learn or verify the pitch.
Tab works great in these situations because standard notation might be overkill while lead sheets don’t provide enough.
Benefits of Guitar Tablature
Tab Helps Beginners Get Started
Guitar tab has a lot of benefits for guitar players that are often overlooked. Perhaps most notably, tab is great for getting new guitar players up and running, and learning songs, before they would have time to learn standard notation.
This means that tab enables a new guitar player to learn a song or songs immediately (even on their first day of playing). We all know the benefits of learning songs, so tab is effective in this regard.
Tab Works Well For Rock and Blues
Tab is also great for rock and blues styles of guitar music. This is because these forms are so syncopated and rhythmic that standard notion often makes things more difficult to read than what would be ideal.
And because we usually have recordings of these forms of music, we can reference them to get the rhythm and duration information.
Tab Provides the Location of Notes
Tab is also helpful because of the design of the guitar. What this means is that since the guitar has multiple locations where many notes can be played, players will often play the location that is more convenient and natural for our hands to play. Tablature points out which of these locations is the correct one.
For example, it may not feel natural to play A note on the 10th fret of the second string with our hand at the fifth fret, but playing the A at the fifth fret is much easier to play during a lick due to our hand position. Often, which location of a note to play is chosen based on convenience, and tab is able to show us exactly which one is being played.
Should You Learn Standard Notation and Lead Sheets?
Tablature has gotten a bad rap because it has enabled many guitar players to become fairly proficient without ever having to learn standard notation. This is probably fine for rock guitar players that are not looking to play professionally, or hobbyist guitar players. But if you’re planning on taking your guitar playing as far as you can, and you’re willing to put the time into it to do that, then you can’t shy away from standard notation (or anything else) on the guitar.
Standard notation is not as overwhelming as many beginning players believe it to be. So consider that as you progress along your musical journey.