Some guitarists decry guitar tablature as a cheat or, at best, a crutch, instead telling guitarists to learn standard notation. I can understand this position, although I don’t hold it myself. (If you don’t know what guitar tablature is, read this.)
I think guitar tablature has made the guitar a much more accessible instrument, almost a paint-by-numbers introduction to the instrument. Looking at a page of sheet music with notes seemingly randomly scattered across the page can be daunting and, I suspect, off-putting to someone new to the instrument.
There is certainly a place for standard notation for guitarists, and I highly recommend that any guitarist learn standard notation. In fact, it’s essential for many styles of music, such as jazz and classical. And, although I think teaching standard notation should be a part of any guitar instruction program, I don’t think it’s helpful to hold a dogmatic approach that only standard notation should be taught as part of guitar instruction. There are many different ways to learn the guitar.
A little background about me and why I feel the way I do. I started playing guitar at the age of 15. Like many teenagers, I didn’t have much of an attention span, and guitar tablature provided a quick approach to playing actual music. I think if I had tried to learn standard notation first, I would have been more likely to put aside the guitar and never return to it. As it turned out, I got hooked fairly early on because, thanks in large part to guitar tablature, I was able to play real music quickly. And, several years later when I started college, I decided to get a minor in music and took up classical guitar. As part of my classical guitar studies, I honed my sight-reading skills. But, as I mentioned earlier, I may have never made it to the classical guitar if I hadn’t first discovered tablature.
Of course, the flip side of the debate is that it’s easy to bypass important musical learning points by using tablature, which results in guitarists who do not have many of the basic skills that other musicians learned as a result of studying music theory. Additionally, sometimes the nuance of the music gets lost if all you’re doing is connecting numbers together. In cases like this, it does become a bit of a cheat.
I’m wondering what others think. Do you think guitar tablature is evil, great, or somewhere in between? In my opinion, I think the benefits of guitar tablature outweigh the negatives, but I think it’s important that guitarists expand beyond tablature at some point in their learning.
Does standard notation have symbols for bends, slides, etc? Perhaps they’re the same as tablature.
I like tab myself. I see the value of standard notation, but as with you, I probably wouldn’t have stuck with guitar without tab.
And how do you handle the fact that a given note is present in several places on the guitar? Take whichever is most convenient?
I teach both. I think that it’s part of my job as a guitar teacher to ensure that my students have a good idea about the three forms of notation we have to read the most often: TAB, standard notation and chord charts.
It’s a good way to get students playing things they like from the start. I always edit my tab into chord chart things as soon as the student can handle it, though. I will never give a student a tab of power chords. I’ll make them read it from a chord chart, etc.
I do try to tell my students about the limitations of tab, though good powertab type stuff makes those objections smaller. My big thing is the shear lack of information that tab conveys vs. how much info can be put on a staff.
Standard notation can use the same symbols as nicer tab for bends and slides. Bends usually use those arrow things. Hammer-ons and pull-offs are written as slurs, and slides are usually written with a little line–glissando. Where to play a note is often up to the player, but there’s notation to handle that too. Numbers in circles are strings, otherwise some notation will include roman numerals above the staff which are meant to be position markers.
I used to be a “Standard Notation First” um…snob. Then I ran across two young guitarists.
The first, my niece, played piano using standard notation for years. She picked up the guitar and taught herself using tab. Hooking up her guitar playing with standard notation later shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
The second, a friend’s daughter, tried for six months the standard notation way and just couldn’t get it. She then went to tab and is having a fun time actually playing instead of struggling. It is my hope that later she’ll work through standard notation.
Both are Tab success stories that have changed my thinking.
I for one do not think that tablature is evil or a cheat. Whatever helps an individual to learn his or her instrument is beneficial. However, knowing both standard notation and tablature will benefit a musician even further. Thus, tablature is certainly not a cheat and if it helps you to learn your instrument better and/or faster, how could it possibly be evil?
@Chris – good call about teaching all three forms of notation. If nothing else, it helps new guitarists decide which they prefer to learn from, which is really what matters, IMO.
@Steve – glad to hear of those success stories. I think tab is like a gateway to get people hooked.
@HowlingWolf – I agree. What ever it takes to get someone learning the guitar is the approach that person should take.
I think guitar tabs have value, if you have heard the song before. Otherwise, there is not enough info to play the song.
A big concern is that any idiot can upload a guitar tab, even when they have no clue what key the song is in. Many online guitar tabs are a waste of bandwidth.
@freddy – you are correct there. Most of the uploaded guitar tabs are pretty far off. However, there are some good tabs out there too. Whenever I do use tabs, I tend to use officially released (either magazine or book) tabs.
Robert Fisher says
Standard notation and tablature are different tools for different jobs.
Tablature allows us to convey techniques that are cumbersome to try to convey through standard notation and harder to read. Tablature focuses on the act of playing the guitar. It is more about how to play than what to play.
Standard notation is about communicating music. The particulars of the technique used to perform that music is left up to the musician with (ideally) only a few hints towards technique. Standard notation focuses on the musical ideas. It is more about what to play than how to play.