Learning Chronicles: Guitar TABs vs. Reading Music

Guitar is one of the most popular contemporary instruments today, well represented in just about all genres of music, from folk and rock to jazz and hip hop. Part of the popularity is due in large part to the ease of learning songs and common techniques that accompany them. While learning to play by ear is undoubtedly a wonderful skill to have, many guitarists find themselves using guitar TABs or reading standard notation to learn new music. So when it comes to learning a song and understanding what notes to play, is it better to understand guitar TABs, or is reading music better?

This is a question that has circulated amongst guitarists for decades, and when it comes to learning new music for guitar, both options have their pros and cons. While learning guitar TABs does not require hours of practice to understand and can be a quick visual solution to playing a specific song, reading music can help provide a better understanding of music in general, more translatable skills, and greater grounding in developing musicality. 

Let’s take a closer look at both options to evaluate the positive aspects of each, as well as any drawbacks or challenges.

What Are Guitar TABs?

Guitar TABs are one of the most common methods of learning a song. This simple tablature notation is quick and easy for students to understand, which makes it very popular for beginners. Tabs are a staff based on six horizontal lines, representing the strings on the guitar, read left to right in sequential order and feature a number on each line indicating which fret needs to play. This is similar to the way many video games operate.

Pros of Learning to Play With Guitar TABs

There are many benefits to using TABs, with the most significant being that it is incredibly easy to learn. As one of the most accessible ways to get started playing right away, beginners can quickly understand what notes to play by visualizing the fretboard and finger placements. 

Guitar TABs are also widely available, ensuring those learning to play guitar can find their favorite song tabbed out for free. They are also very easy to create, so teachers and more experienced players can create TABs for other guitarists.

TAB also helps see how to technically execute musical passages, where reading standard notation doesn’t give that kind of technical detail. The design can show special fingerings and techniques, such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, and glissando. These are very guitar-specific techniques that standard music notation lacks symbols or typical annotations for.

Cons of Learning With Guitar TABs

While there are pros to TABs, there are also some cons. The major drawback is that tablature can not translate to other instruments. By solely learning TABs, not only are players unable to interpret sheet music, but rhythmic information, dynamics, and articulations can be lost. 

Accuracy is an affliction suffered by a significant amount of tablature accessible online. Because TABs are typically submitted to online tablature sites by users without any verifiable credentials, they can often contain mistakes throughout.

reading music on ipad

Reading Music with Standard Notation

Reading music can be a far more time-consuming process to master, but it helps to unlock a greater range of understanding and interpretation, as well as translatable skills to other instruments. This form of sight reading for guitar requires players to understand the five lines and four spaces that make up the music staff. 

Pros of Learning to Read Music

There are many benefits to reading music, with one of the most significant being that it gives players a greater understanding of the notes they are playing and their relationship to not only each other, but the harmony of the composition.

Reading standard notation is a transferable skill across a range of different instruments. With enough practice, being able to read music will help musicians learn to hear the music in their head just by looking at the notes, patterns, and intervals. 

Reading music also gives the ability to notate and communicate a greater range of important musical concepts. With standard notation, musicians can communicate concepts like meter, rhythm, phrasing, sound articulations, and dynamics of a piece of music. 

Sheet music with standard notation is generally found in published volumes by the actual publishing company, so accuracy is ensured. This is a major positive, as you’re likely to be getting the proper music for any selected songs.

Cons of Learning to Read Music

Reading music does also have challenges. Primarily, it can take a very long time to understand and master. For guitar specifically, it is more challenging to show accurate strumming and fingering techniques, as there are multiple ways to play the same note on a guitar. Sheet music for guitars can be more difficult to find online compared to guitar TABs. 

One specific obstacle of reading music on guitar is that inexperienced players might not be able to determine the best position or way to play a note. There can be upwards of five places a single note on the instrument, so indicating proper fingering and placement can be difficult.

Guitar TABs vs. Musical Notation: Which is better?

Ultimately this choice is going to come down to what helps you learn to play and make the experience more enjoyable. When it comes to sight reading for guitar, both TABs and sheet music are a great option. For beginners and less experienced guitarists looking to quickly play their favorite song, TABs can be incredible helpful and encourage new players by giving them a sense of accomplishment. However, for players looking to build a greater knowledge of music and musicality, taking the time to understand standard notation in sheet music can unlock a world of sound! 

Are you looking to learn guitar? Here at Forbes Music Company, our expert teachers provide students with options for in-home guitar lessons and online guitar lessons, helping them to nurture their passion for music. Want to find out more? Get in touch with our team today!


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