In the quest to start learning how to play guitar, there are many paths one can take. Books, YouTube, online guitar schools, traditional lessons, and magazines all have a lot to offer and each of them comes with a variety of resources and reference material. The most popular reference materials for learning guitar include chord charts and tablature.
To learn guitar effectively, a student should learn how to read music. Sheet music is another option but is not a popular form of reading music for the guitar except for classical guitar. Compared to other instruments, the guitar is much more difficult for traditional sight-reading for the simple fact that there are several different pitches that are duplicated along the fretboard.
For this reason, I personally do not teach how to sight-read very often. It’s good for very young students who don’t have the dexterity to make chords, and it’s good for the student who is interested in learning theory. Sheet music is a great tool, but for most people – especially adult learners – the most effective methods are going to be chords and tab. But which one should you start with?
Without a doubt, tabs are the best way to go for those learning how to play guitar. It’s simple and intuitive. It allows the student to learn without the need for much theory in order to understand it. If desired, more theoretical knowledge can be obtained to learn more complex pieces and how to write your own tab.
So how do the two compare? and what do you need to understand about them in order to make the decision for yourself. We get in to the detail below.
Tabs vs. Chords
When I say “chords”, I’m talking about chord charts. When learning chords, there are usually chord diagrams that show the shape on the fretboard and the fingering being used. A chord chart is a piece of paper with the chords mapped out, and often are paired with song lyrics with the chord changes written above the corresponding lyric.
More detailed chord charts will have the chords written in such a way where they are mapped out by measure so the player knows how long to count with each chord. Other annotations such as accents, syncopations, chord substitutions, and other directives can be present. Sometimes this can make things easier for the player, but depending on the song’s complexity, it can also make it more difficult to read.
Usually, a chord chart is very simple, acting as a guide for the player. The guitarist is better off using their ear to learn the idiosyncrasies of song and just have the chord chart for a short-hand reference.
Learning how to read chord charts is definitely the way to go for new players. This will be the most common use of reading music for the contemporary guitar player. Chord charts are used in books, in the studio, for band practice and live performance, and are most prevalent online when researching how to play a song.
Tabs, short for tablature, is a system of reading music that uses a six-line “staff” and numbers instead of traditional notation that uses the five-line staff. Tablature is designed to indicate the fingering of a stringed instrument rather than pitches. Tab tends to be more complicated than a chord chart and is most often used to map out melodies, riffs, solos, and the like rather than just being a roadmap for chords.
Tab notation was employed for keyboard instruments and for the lute during the sixteenth century and made use of letters and numbers instead of neumes or squared notes. The numbers, letters, or combination of the two were placed on a staff-like diagram that represented the strings, frets, or keys.
So for the guitar, the basic principle is that its six strings are represented by six horizontal lines where the lowest line indicates the lowest string. The numbers, then, represent the frets: 0 is the open string, 1 the first fret, 2 the second fret, and so on.
Since numbers are used instead of the standard note head and stem, which indicate not only pitch but also rhythm, a different way of notating the rhythm is needed for tablature. In early tablature, there were two systems. In one system, the rhythm was indicated by notes placed over the six lines; in another system, flagged stems were set just above the numbers to show the rhythmic scheme.
In modern tab, it’s very similar. Either the tablature is paired with its sheet music equivalent directly above it (in the case of typical guitar songbooks), or rhythmic values are assigned to the numbers by attaching stems and flags to the numbers as if they were noteheads. See the examples below.
These methods of reading tablature are far superior to what one might find on the internet which looks more like this:
There is no rhythmic value assigned to the notes, nor is there any other musical direction other than just which strings and which frets to play. It is useful to someone who has a good ear and just needs this for very quick reference, but it is not sufficient for the beginning student.
Guitar tab can get very detailed, so it usually behooves the student to have some basic theory under their belt, as well as a few technical skills such as hammer-ons and pull-offs, slides and bends. Once an understanding of these concepts has been achieved, learning songs by reading tabs can be very effective. Check out this example of an iconic Jimi Hendrix song. See if you can tell which song it is:
And here is the more simplified, tab-only version:
What’s The Difference Between Chords and Tab?
As you can probably guess, the best use of your time, in the beginning, is to stick with chord charts. Reading chords with tablature is really not necessary as the sheet music is quite cumbersome and redundant if you already know the chords and have easy access to a chord diagram. For example, a chord chart for the song above would simply read: //: E7+9 / G – A ://
Here’s what it looks like in tab form:
It’s detailed and accurate, but it’s more detailed than the guitar player typically needs and is just more difficult to read.
The reason one would use a chord chart is just to be able to play along with the song and follow the chords. The rhythmic structure is just as easily learned by ear as it is to learn it by reading it.
The purpose behind tablature is to learn detailed parts of riffs, solos, or chords that might have a lot of melodic movement in them. It can be a good way to take a simple chord chart of a particularly difficult song and put it under a microscope.
Here’s another example of the difference between a chord chart and tablature – “Stairway To Heaven”.
The chord chart for the intro looks like this:
//: Am – Cmaj7/G# / C/G – D/F# / Fmaj7 / G/B – Am ://
Now listen to the song. The notes are picked one by one and the chords are in different positions. Here, the chord chart does not provide enough information to the student. For that, we need tablature:
This example has the best of both worlds. The chords are up top, the notation is below that to show the specific pitches and rhythms, and the tablature is at the bottom to show the placement of the fingers. This is my choice for teaching people how to play the guitar and read music. When the lyrics kick in, then those are added between the sheet music and the tablature for an even more detailed written piece. This would be known as a lead sheet.
Are Tabs A Good Way To Learn Guitar?
Without a doubt, tablature is the way to go for those learning how to play guitar. It’s simple and intuitive. It allows the student to learn without the need for much theory in order to understand it. If desired, more theoretical knowledge can be obtained to learn more complex pieces and how to write your own tab!
There are musical purists out there who tend to be more classically trained that see tablature as inferior. I agree with that to the extent that most tab that you will find on the internet will be incomplete and limited at best. Musicians who transcribe music using notation tend to know what they are doing and usually have a better ear, so the written music is less likely to have mistakes.
Furthermore, there may be a bad taste in the mouths of traditional musicians who studied music history because they were likely taught the shortcomings of tablature as it was used in classical music. They will then often project those same shortcomings onto the modern tablature used for guitar music.
You see, tablature notation was unsatisfactory in its early, pre-guitar years because it had no graphic relation to the actual musical pitches being played. It showed only finger placement on a key, fret, or string. What’s more, is the system varied greatly from instrument to instrument and even from region to region. Italian lute players would use it differently than the Spanish or the French. Fun fact: Italian tablature used the lowest line to represent the highest string, whereas the Spanish (and today’s tab) had it represent the lowest string.
That being said, when written properly, tablature is far easier to read and much more accessible for guitar players, making for more effective learning. Tablature is best used when paired with standard notation, or at the very least, integrated with rhythmic notation.
Consider the source when using tablature to learn the guitar. If you have an instructor, are they actually showing you how to read and write tab? Or are they just using it to show you how to play a particular song? There is a big difference. One method shows you how to learn, whereas the other method just shows you how to play, making you more dependent on the instructor rather than being self-sustaining.
If you are searching the internet, you likely come across the tabs on sites such as Ultimate Guitar. You must be careful and use discernment when using sites like this as it is easy to learn bad habits without knowing it. That’s why I don’t recommend beginners use these sites without supervision.
A great tool to use for guitar players is the Guitar Pro software. It’s high quality, easy to use, and easy to download tabs from various sources, and for a one-time $70, it’s dirt cheap. Compare that to other software like Sibelius which is $200/year or Finale which is almost $500.
Using the aforementioned websites for finding tabs becomes less of a risk when using software as people who submit these usually are more serious musicians who know more about what they are doing. Students still need to be cautious, but this is more helpful for the students that are learning on their own.
Should I Learn Sheet Music?
This then begs the question of whether or not one should bother with sheet music, a.k.a. “Standard notation”, “dots and sticks”, or “fly poop”. If a guitarist has chord charts and tab, is the sheet music necessary?
While it’s not necessary, it is highly recommended to at least learn the basics. The reason you should learn the basics of sheet music as a guitarist is mainly in order to learn how to read rhythm. It’s helpful to learn the pitches for the purposes of music theory and ear-training, but it is not necessary in order to be a really good guitar player.
To learn the notes of the staff and the various rhythmic values will take you quite far without having to learn how to “sight read”. Sight-reading is the practice of reading a piece of music while simultaneously playing. This is necessary for classical players, and to an extent jazz musicians.
A practical example of where it would be beneficial to learn sight-reading would be if you were going to audition to be a pit musician or play in the military. These auditions usually involve someone handing you a piece of sheet music (that you most likely have never heard, much less have ever played) and you are expected to sit down and play it.
Learning the basics would put you leaps and bounds ahead of those who choose not to, and it gives you a great advantage when acting as your own instructor. Spend a couple of weeks going through Hal Leonard’s Method 1 book (+ Method 2 if you’re feeling froggy), then learn how to read the various subdivisions of rhythms all the way from whole notes to 16th notes, as well as triplets. No need to go any further than that if you don’t want to.