This article is aimed at self-learning guitarists wondering whether to learn standard music notation (also known as staff notation) or guitar tablature 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 tab and standard 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
The example above shows two bars (measures) in standard notation on top with the equivalent tablature below.
Standard 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.
Tablature In the tab example, 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 – 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. This 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
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, 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 years.
• 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 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, 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, 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”, 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, including 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, 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 the classical guitar courses in books are in standard notation (e.g., solo guitar playing by Frederick Noad).
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 when 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 round 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.