Tabs vs. Music Notation

What is the best - tabs or music notation?

Ultimate Guitar
Tabs should never be discarded although they fall far short of the information provided by correct music notation.

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

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23 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Personally I don't really see it as a "versus" issue...There is definitely merit to learning both, and in doing so it certainly won't hurt your abilities as a musician. Standard notation is definitely more "universal" among traditional instrumentalists and it is beneficial to be familiar with it to that end (i.e., being "conversant" with other musicians). In my opinion it is also aesthetically pleasing (something to me about a piece of sheet music that is simply "pretty," but this of course is a subjective assessment). Furthermore, it is more intuitive for dynamic markings and such. Being a pianist/keyboardist in addition to playing the guitar, no doubt standard notation is a go-to there, and while I'm not a great sight reader I am very familiar with both bass and treble clefs and can easily learn a song or piece from sheet music if necessary, as well as to transcribe music or jot down ideas. Tablature, on the other hand, is obviously fairly specific to the guitar, bass, and related instruments. In this specific capacity I personally regard tabs to be superior, as for me it is more intuitive to figure out fingerings and positions/position changes with tab than standard notation. For example, an A on the 17th fret of the low E string also occurs on the 12th fret of the A string, 7th fret of the D string, and 2nd fret of the G string. This is unambiguous in tab notation, but an "A" in the second space from the bottom of the treble-clef staff ("F[b]ACE") denotes all four equivalent notes. As for rhythmic notation, I find that the "hybrid" format--i.e., of guitar magazines (e.g., Guitar World) and in the Guitar Pro software (at least in version 6 if you disable the standard notation for a given track the remaining tab of that track adopts this format)--is a great solution to this problem, wherein the rhythm stems and rests are included in the tablature staff. I also approach music from a more theoretical/traditional background and much prefer having the explicitly noted rhythms over the ASCII eyesores of the tab world (I'm not a "play by ear" person at all either, and avoid the latter at all costs to the point that I would sooner transcribe a melody in hybrid notation than to try to figure it out from ---17-15--13----12---12--14---- ..ewww, no!!!). I realize that in classical guitar literature there is more guidance to this end with the explicit position and barre markings, but I personally still find this to be cumbersome (I don't have extensive formal training on the classical guitar, however, so I reiterate that this is just MY personal opinion and not a definitive/universal assertion). In the end, I think notation in general is a means and not an end. If it helps you learn songs, develop your music theory background, and explore your creativity, go for whichever (or both) helps you achieve those goals. I would also encourage guitarists to look at both and not just set their sights on one or the other, as this can potentially cut you off from half of an undiscovered world of music. That ended up longer than I was expecting but the subject at hand sparked my personal interest! Anyways that's just my two cents.
    Tablature also has a distinct advantage over standard notation for notating elements that are characteristic of the guitar such as bends, slides, hammer-ons/pull-offs, vibratos (wide vs slight and/or with tremolo bar), etc.
    You can notate legato, slides, vibrato and bends on standard notation too. The upside of tabs is that it shows what frets to use. You don't need to figure out the best position by yourself. But that's also the downside of tabs - you don't need to think at all, which may make your playing kind of mechanical.
    The thing that always puts me off is that people who use standard notation seem to have an obsessive need to point out how it's the "correct" way of writing or that "you're not a complete musician" without it. Neither is true, especially in case of guitar. Essentially the only advantage of standard notation over tabs for guitar is that they provide rhythm, except you can easily go around that (more advanced tabs have time signatures written as well as length of notes). But it lacks the basic information of where exactly you need to play a certain note, which makes a huge difference in some cases (the exact same chords can be played in a million different positions - and sound completely different). Not to mention that creates a lot of unnecessary difficulty in reading. I'm sorry but there are no advantages of standard notation over a good, detailed tab in case of guitar. Use it if you like it, but please stop using the "you're not a complete musician without it" thing.
    Way Cool JR.
    All the TAB books I ever bought over the past 25 or so years have the regular music notation (time signatures and everything) and the tab translation right below it. Plus they have notes for types of effects used in differnt parts of the songs, and if it's 6-12 string, electric or acoustic. I think most if not all TAB books are this way, I haven't seen one that wasn't. I don't bother with any tabs off this site or any other. I would much rather buy my music, it's much more accurate and is much easier to read. I encourage everyone to buy the actual books over the free TAB's found on the net (the free ones are not accurate due to copyright laws). A great tip: Buy the Recorded/Studio versions, they are the best, and avoid the easy TAB books.
    Tablature is important as a guide to where we play notes on the guitar because there are multiple places to play the same pitches. My background is with written music and classical theory and i use tablature both for myself and with students all the time. I disagree strongly with the notion that bought sheet music is accurate. I remember an ACDC Songbook that had Hell's Bells, Back In Black and numerous others written wrong and more recently, a TaylOr Swift PVG book that showed actual keys and showed barre chords where she capos. Silly really. It is easy to become discouraged with all the crap tabs on UG submitted by people who need to develop their knowledge and skills before contributing, but i would highly recommend any of you knowledgeable players to get involved With the UG community, the UG contributors group, for example, and help the site be a leader in accurate tabs
    The amount of tabs on this site where people don't even know what tuning the band plays or if they play 7 or 6 sting guitars is ridiculous. Hint youtube live videos are your friend.
    I don't see how you can determine where a note is played in music notation. The same A note with the same frequency can be play in something like 5 different positions. So it just doesn't work. That's why tab books have both, period. There is no vs. they go together. If there is no tab there are usually chords and the music notation can illustrate the strumming pattern or rhythm of the chords. If there is no tab or chords then it's mainly to illustrate vocals or harmonies.
    You can decide which position to play in by yourself. Even if the original artist played the melody in a certain position doesn't mean you couldn't play it in a different position. The original way may not be the easiest way for you. I'm not saying tab is useless of course.
    guitar for the practicing musician-old magazine had sheet music and tab .it was great to learn to play on other instruments.
    I really suggest learning by ear. You'll only learn it by doing it. Start with simple stuff. Ear is the best at telling how what you want to play should sound like. It can pick up dynamics, articulation and all that stuff. Notation can describe it but not 100% accurately. Somebody may interpret the notation a bit differently. And some things just can't be notated accurately. Of course notation is great if something is causing you trouble or you just want to learn to play the piece fast. And if you have never heard the piece, you can play it if somebody gives you the notation. Also, as I said, notation does give you some performance guides. Notation is pretty informative. Tabs are good if you want to know the fingerings for an exotic chord voicing or just the easiest way to play a lick.
    I've played guitar for 40+ years and playing each day has given me a "play by ear" association of hearing guitar tones as well as the patterns that played on the neck. Having the tabs available in the 50's would have helped me a lot. I enjoy sites having note-tabs to show the intro's and solo's that sometimes are hard to pick out as a song is played.
    Music notation, tab, and MIDI all are perfect for imparting micro-detail to someone on how a piece is to be played. However, by the denseness of this information, they also make it much harder to see the wood (theory) for the trees (the detail carried, especially in notation) ... Theory can be entirely abstracted away from this detail.
    $teve Zodiac
    If, whatever is written down on paper, either tab, piano score or any other information, enables you to play a piece of music then job done! There is no 'correct' way of writing music.
    Just one thing: Not everyone who plays by ear is lucky, your ear playing can be developed just like you can develop your music notation reading.
    Notation is the best way to write down music. But it is not made for the individual instruments. i can play a melody on guitar pass the same sheet of music to a flute and then a violin and it will all turn out the same. also there is a lot more up to you when you do it. if a song says "play with zest" and "forte" what does that mean to you. how does your forte different then mine. how do we phrase things differently. But realistically Guitar is best on tabs. its easy, you can avoid a lot of thinking, not that thats always a good thing. and you can play things that sound great, right away. if you know the song. i find so many tabs do a horrible job for people who don't know the song. also chord music sucks for guitar in notation and tabs. the best thing for both would be a Fake sheet, where it has melodies, and chords, and directions on how to play the chords. and alot is open to interpretation.
    I used to only read tabs, but now I really wish I had never used tabs at all because they don't really teach you anything. Reading sheet music can help you learn more about music theory, learning songs by ear can help train your ear but tabs don't really help you with anything. I would be a much better musician and guitar player today if I had actually learned how to read sheet music, or if I tried to learn how to figure out songs, melodies, etc. by ear when I first started playing. If you're new to playing guitar, I strongly recommend never using tabs, and instead either try to figure out how to play stuff by ear or learn how to read sheet music.
    I wish I could play both...learned using standard notation and I can't play a song with tab to save my life