Having been trained at conservatory I use proper music notation because it is now second nature to me and after years of training and practice a guitar fret or neck board reads like a music sheet. I admit that at first it was very difficult because it was like learning a new language but thanks to perseverance and an excellent tutor, I kept at it and music sheets are very easy to read and it is possible to play any song very quickly. I would qualify this by saying that there is a drawback and that is I need a music sheet to play a new song. Once I have a music sheet I can soon play any song. I kept at it because it has been hammered in to me that while I could play the guitar without knowing music theory I could never become a complete musician without knowledge of music theory and with the ability to read music quickly and easily. I agree with this point of view. I have known many lucky people who are able to "play by ear" and they have an inbuilt "feel" of music. Unfortunately, I do not have this ability and for me learning how to read and write music and advanced music theory was the only way to be able to play.
Music has several advantages over tabs in that it gives you the rhythm and timing as well as the note. For example if you take "Baby's in Black" by The Beatles it is written in 12/8 which is 4 beats or twelve pulses to the bar. A person with music knowledge can play this in a very short time even if you had never heard the song before. For people like me This is the only way. I have seen my tutor pick up sheet music for songs he has never heard and within minutes he has it down correctly. Now I am not that good and it takes me a lot longer to do the same.
Now does this mean that tabs are of no use? Nothing could be further from the truth. As a devotee of the fifties music, particularly honky-tonk and rockabilly you soon find that music for much of these great songs is missing or never existed. Tabs are a great way to get these songs started even though I eventually convert them to music. The trouble with the latter is that it is very time consuming even though it is a mus. For example if you look at Johnny Cash's "Hey Porter" it was written in the key of F Major and this means that every B is a B flat and unfortunately tabs do not provide for this. Again though those who have trained ears pick out the correct fret as the 4th on the 1st string simply by the sound. My tutor and I took 3 months to write out Johnny Horton's "I'm a One Woman Man" and life is not long enough to do this for every song. So much music has been lost and tabs are a great shorthand. It saves me a lot of time to use someone's tabs and it is easy to convert them to music. There are also times on complicated pieces of music that you can use tabs as a partner to music theory and indeed this is true for all songs. So the conclusion is that both music theory and Tabs are important to know in playing the guitar. It would only be music snobs that would dismiss tabs.
Having learnt the guitar in the 1950's and 1960's when the only music sheets available were piano music sheets and you had to translate them into guitar music and watch octaves very closely, you realise how fortunate we are to have these magnificent collection of tabs such as Ultimate Guitar has. I would add that it is so much easier today to learn with such things as Tascam CD players and 8 track stereo recorders that you can hold in your hand.
The reason I signed up for Ultimate guitar is because they do have such a marvelous collection of song tabs and I have found this to be so helpful. I only wish I was young again and I would not want to be a performer but rather like J.D. Laudermilk (for those who don't know him - "Tobacco Road" and other great songs) and become a writer, arranger/composer and sit back and rake the billions in.
The important thing to remember is that tabs are very useful and should never be discarded. They have earn their right to a place in guitar music.
By Brian Battle