It’s time for the notorious notation debate! Strings or staves, numbers or notes? It’s an age-old argument as divisive as cats vs. dogs.
Let’s take a level-headed approach and weigh the pros and cons on both sides. Then, we can decide once and for all which is the best one for guitarists.
Music notation systems are languages that musicians use to learn and communicate. Understanding notation allows you to translate mere dots and lines into beautiful melodies and harmonious chord progressions.
What to know before we jump in:
- TAB: Stands for guitar tablature and refers to a notation system developed specifically for guitar players to read. It has 6 lines that refer to the 6 strings on a guitar, and numbers on each string to dictate which fret to play.
- Sheet music: Also known as standard/staff notation and is the universal music notation used by vocalists, piano, violin, and horn players, along with many other instruments. It details the notes, rhythm, and dynamics.
A visual comparison of guitar TAB and sheet music
This diagram shows a C major scale – on the top is standard musical notation, and underneath is guitar TAB.
- Notice that the TAB shows two different ways to play the same scale in each octave.
- Most instruments only have one choice of where to play each note.
- Standard notation shows time signatures (4/4) and the length of each note – guitar TAB doesn’t contain any rhythmic information.
What is guitar TAB?
Guitar TAB is an easy-to-read notation system that allows guitarists to learn how to play practically anything by themselves.
- Each line represents a string, and each number represents a fret – it’s that simple!
- The system also contains symbols to represent guitar-specific techniques.
- Learning to read guitar TAB takes very little time, so it’s great even for absolute beginners.
Check out our guide on how to read guitar tab if you need some more detail.
Why do most guitarists use TAB?
One reason the guitar is the coolest instrument you can play is because learning chords and scales is a very visual experience – it’s all repeating shapes and patterns.
- Guitar TAB and chord charts allow us to look at a sheet of paper and transfer those patterns directly onto the guitar neck.
- This means guitarists easily connect chords and scales together to build a visual map of the fretboard without needing to understand all the music theory behind it.
The benefits of learning guitar TAB
Here’s a list of reasons TAB might be the perfect notation system for you.
- TAB is designed specifically for the guitar, so techniques like hammer ons, pull offs, slides, and bends can be included in the notation.
- Perfect for visual learners – reading TAB is like viewing the fretboard from a bird's-eye view.
- Anyone can learn TAB! One of its biggest advantages is its simplicity – you can understand it in minutes.
- If you want to learn how to play certain guitar parts, you’re more likely to find guitar TABs online than sheet music.
The drawbacks of guitar TAB
Nothing is perfect! As useful as TAB can be for guitarists, it has some downsides.
- The number system that TAB uses has no connection to music theory – things like note names, intervals, and keys are missing.
- TAB doesn’t show any rhythmic notation – this can be a big problem if you want to play in an ensemble.
- Non-guitarists will have no clue how to interpret TAB, which makes it difficult when trying to communicate your ideas to other musicians.
Only reading TAB will limit your access to learning other styles of music.
- Lots of music, namely classical, folk, and jazz music, is only available in standard notation.
- Learning to play a piece of music that was not written for guitar can be extremely difficult if you don’t read sheet music.
What is standard notation?
Standard notation is literally the standard for most musicians and has been used for hundreds of years!
- It’s designed to give the musician as much information and detail as possible.
- This can be a great thing for performing complex music with lots of playing instructions (think Beethoven’s piano concerto!).
- Most professional musicians can sight read, but it takes a lot of time and dedication to build that level of fluency.
- There’s also an extra challenge for guitar players that we’ll describe a little later on!
We’ve got a great article on how to read sheet music for guitarists if you want to learn more.
Is standard notation useful for guitarists?
For hundreds of years, standard notation has been the go-to writing system in Western music. This universal method allows musicians to literally be on the same page regardless of spoken language, instrument, or genre – pretty cool!
Sheet music can get very complex, but this allows the composer to convey all the subtle nuances they want to express in their music.
The benefits of standard notation for guitarists
Why would a guitarist want to know how to read standard notation? Great question!
- Knowing how to read sheet music will open the doors of communication with other musicians who aren’t guitarists.
- Reading and writing in standard notation is important for arranging and transcribing music for other instruments.
- Standard notation can be sight read – which just isn’t possible with guitar TAB.
- Learning to read sheet music will undoubtedly improve your understanding of music theory.
- Standard notation has a lot more detail attached to it than TAB – things like dynamic markings, phrasing, or any particular instructions that the writer wants the musician to perform.
The drawbacks of standard notation
Things aren’t always so rosy for guitarists reading standard notation. In fact, there are a lot of situations where you may favor guitar TAB.
- Sight reading is a little more complicated for guitarists compared to pianists.
- The guitar has several ways of playing the same note in the same pitch register – standard notation doesn’t account for this.
- It takes a lot of practice to read standard notation to fluency – if you don’t plan on playing in a professional ensemble, you may never need it.
- Using standard notation relies more on your reading skills than your pattern-based recall or ear training, which is often a harder skill to master for guitar players.
There are always going to be guitarists that fall on either side of the fence when debating whether it is better to read guitar TABs or guitar sheet music. Hopefully, now your perspective is a little more balanced, with an appreciation for both.
Here are some of the main uses for each:
- For beginner guitarists, TAB is a no-brainer – it's the simplest way to transfer ideas from paper to guitar.
- If you only ever want to play guitar by yourself as a hobby, the investment of time to read standard notation may not be worthwhile.
- Guitarists hoping to play professionally or in an ensemble should learn standard notation.
- Learning complicated guitar parts may be easier with TABs as many techniques can’t be expressed in sheet music.
At the beginning of this article, we drew a similarity between musical notation systems and language. The simple lesson is this: what's better than speaking one language? Speaking two, of course!
Having knowledge of both systems will give you the best of both worlds and allow you to play and understand music written by all musicians. If you’re aspiring to compose or write your own music, knowing standard notation alongside TAB will allow you to translate all your cool ideas into a language that any musician can understand!
Author: Jack Handyside
Music Theory Learning Pathway
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