TAB versus Music Notation

In this article, we have a look at the benefits and drawbacks of using TAB instead of standard notation. It looks at how TAB can be a great help to beginning guitarists, but possibly a hindrance for greater guitar development.


TAB and standard notation are actually very different to each other, and comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. TAB is only used in rock guitar circles and generally only prevalent in magazines and on the internet. Standard notation, on the other hand, is used for all musicians – not just guitarists. It’s a unified language, which helps with communicating ideas with non-guitarists, musical directors and producers.

TAB only tells you where to put your fingers, but standard notation can include fingering, pitch and rhythm, and because it gives you the actual pitches, experienced guitarists are able to interpret the chord structure, the phrasing and the key, and identify motifs, sequences, and other compositional ideas in the music.

Most importantly, standard notation allows the development of theory knowledge, and has a hugely positive influence on your ear training. Players who can read standard notation and have developed their ear, can read through a piece of music (without the guitar in hand) and imagine accurately how the piece should sound – even if they have never heard the piece before.

In a word, standard notation helps develop your musicianship, and is much more than just a set of instructions on where to put your fingers. TAB is very limited, and although it is good for learning songs it does nothing for your overall musical development.

So I Have to Learn Standard Notation?

No! You can still develop good musicianship without studying standard notation. The most direct way is to work on your ear training. Ear training is the single most important aspect of all musical education. Whether you bother to learn standard notation or not, making sure that you focus on your ear training will ensure that you make good progress.

Also, making sure you cover your theory thoroughly will complement your ear development and make you a better musician. Of course, learning standard notation ensures that you develop your ear and your theory, since they pretty much go hand in hand. However, if you choose not to learn to read standard notation, you can still make excellent progress provided you spend enough time on these key areas.

Ear Training and Theory

Whilst this is really a topic for a whole other post, I would quickly like to draw your attention to transcribing. Many of my readers will decide that standard notation is not for them – and that’s fine – but I still do not recommend TAB as a substitute. Like I said, the benefits of standard notation are ear training and theory understanding, however TAB does not develop either of these aspects.

If you choose not to learn standard notation, rather than just continuing with TAB I suggest that you begin to figure out your own transcriptions, rather than just reading them in magazines or downloading them from the net. This will ensure that you understand what you are playing, and are not mindlessly putting your fingers on the frets. In fact, even if you do learn standard notation, you should still make the effort to figure out transcriptions regularly.

The Greats Never Learned Standard Notation

Most great guitarists never learned to read standard notation, but I can guarantee you that none of these players relied on TAB either – after all there was no such thing as the internet, and there were few (if any) instructional books and magazines. These players developed their musicianship through listening to music, and then imitating it – this is the process of transcribing. Also, there are few great guitarists even today who rely on TAB. Accomplished guitarists usually play entirely by ear and ‘feel’ (i.e. musicianship), or use a combination of standard notation and playing by ear. But they never rely on TAB.

So is TAB out of the Question?

Not necessarily. I understand that for most people, most of the time, TAB is perfect. It communicates guitar ideas quickly and succinctly and it’s easy to learn. For those who just want to learn a few songs and play a few riffs TAB is ideal, but if you are serious about your guitar development, you are doing yourself a disservice by relying on TAB. You would be best to either learn standard notation, or start using your own ear to figure out your own transcriptions.

Many great musicians developed their own ear their own way and never learned to read music. Whether or not you choose to learn standard notation is really up to you. If you feel you can do it like the greats did, doing your own transcriptions and learning straight off the record, then great! On the other hand, if you’re like me with zero natural talent, learning to read notation may just be the ticket.

If you just want to have fun, TAB is okay. If you want to understand what you are playing, you need to transcribe for yourself, or learn standard notation. Better yet, do both.

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