Classical Guitar TABs: Both Terrible and Wonderful
Guitar “TAB” (short for “tablature”) is easier to learn than music notation. It’s a quick way to learn songs.
But while there are definite upsides, TAB also has serious shortcomings (especially for classical guitar music).
So is it for you? Keep reading to learn what both TAB and standard musical notation bring to the table, and what they lack.
What Is Classical Guitar TAB?
TAB is a music notation. Classical guitar TAB is the same as regular guitar TAB.
TAB tells you where to put your left-hand fingers on the guitar.
The 6 lines represent the 6 strings of the guitar (lowest sounding . The numbers placed on the lines represent the fret number.
So without knowing note names, or anything about music, you can get your fingers where they need to go.
Early Use of TAB
In guitar music, TAB actually predates standard notation. In lute music, TAB was the norm.
Eventually, leading classical guitar composers adopted standard notation, and largely abandoned TAB.
What is Standard Notation?
Standard notation is “the little black dots”. When you think of sheet music, with the lines, and the dots and all the strange markings, you’re likely imagining standard musical notation.
Notation for guitar consists of notes on a staff (5 lines, containing 4 spaces between them). Each line or space represents a specific pitch. Rhythm is indicated by the type of note head, stem, and flag (or lack thereof).
Musical notation tells us what notes to play, in what order, and in what rhythm.
We learn the pulse of the music, and how the notes are grouped together into musical ideas (in the same way that words are grouped into sentences).
These groupings can tell you how to play and inflect the music (in the same way that a question mark implies a rise in pitch and specific vocal phrasing).
Musical notation also contains words that describe:
- How to play specific passages (legato, cantabile, leggiero).
- The speed “of the piece (moderato, allegro, largo).
- The ”mood” or emotional intent of the music (agitato, pastoral, scherzo).
- When to slow down or speed up (accelerando, ritardando, fermata).
- When to get louder or softer (diminuendo, crescendo).
- and more.
When you learn musical words, you strengthen your music understanding, and you build a “library” of musical possibilities.
And musical notation also contains many symbols that tell us:
- How to play certain notes (short, smoothly connected, louder than the other notes, longer-lasting than other notes, etc)
- How to phrase the music to convey the emotional intent (get louder or quieter, play it light or playfully vs. plodding and heavily, etc)
- The directions within the music (repeat a section, go back to the beginning, go to this certain place, jump to the end, etc)
The Upside of Musical Notation
Standard musical notation is rich with information. Composers can communicate intricate musical intent using a relatively small collection of symbols.
Practicing the “language of music” over time connects and activates parts of the brain that otherwise don’t work much together.
As you get better at reading music, and become better able to understand how music works in time (rhythm) and space (pitch, tone quality, volume), music notation becomes a language that tells stories and paints pictures.
The Downside of Musical Notation
Musical notation is far from perfect. For starters, it’s complicated.
To start using it, you must be able to identify and decipher several symbols. To play even one note from standard notation, you must understand:
- How western music is organized.
- What pitch is being denoted, and the name of that pitch.
- Where the given pitch is located on the guitar (and there are multiple locations for most pitches on the guitar. 2.8 locations per pitch, on average!)
- At the beginning, you can become overwhelmed balancing all these mental requirements. Learning to play guitar music from notation can be mentally exhausting.
So there is a “frontside load” on the learning curve of playing from musical notation. This means that to develop music-reading skills, you have to be willing to invest time and work (practice) before seeing results. For many, this is a tough sell.
Why TAB is Wonderful
TAB has a lot going for it. People the world over use and love TAB, and with good reason.
Easy to Understand
There is a very low bar to entry with TAB. It’s very easy to understand. The information on the page directly relates to the guitar neck.
And you don’t have to know anything about music to use it. You can get the basic idea, and within minutes be fairly proficient at reading it.
Minimum Viable Information
TAB also cuts directly to the chase, so to speak. If your goal is to figure out where to put your fingers, TAB will get you there.
It’s like Google Translate. It provides the basic information to get you started.
Allows Beginners to Play in Higher Positions
This is one of the biggest advantages of TAB. Even if you don’t know the name of a single note on the guitar, you can play a song that spans the length of the neck.
Reading music in higher positions takes time and practice. But in the world of TAB, playing on the 15th fret is no different than playing on the 3rd,. No confusing notation to deal with, no multiple locations for a written note. Just “put a finger here”.
No Special Notation Software Required
Because TAB is just lines and numbers, you can avoid having to learn to use complex music notation software (or hiring someone to do it for you).
Anyone with a run-of-the-mill computer keyboard can communicate a musical idea. Which leads us to…..
Tons of Free TAB Online
With TAB being so easy to write (just plain text), you can find a near infinite amount of TAB online for free.
Nearly any tune imaginable has been represented online as TAB.
Of course, the accuracy is often questionable. But still, it’s out there. And if price is a factor, free can be attractive.
Why TAB Falls Short
With all the upsides to TAB, you may wonder why anyone would choose to use anything else.
As you may have suspected, there are also notable downsides. Lots of them.
Most TAB Lacks Rhythm
Most TAB assumes you already know “how the song goes”, and does not contain rhythmic notation.
This means it’s difficult to fine-tune and polish music. Slow-practice is especially difficult, because without a written rhythm you’ll probably become less precise at slow speeds.
Musical Parts are Not Separated
One of the defining features of classical guitar is that we play multiple musical parts at once.
In standard notation, we can easily (visually) separate the melody, bass, and interior voices or accompaniment.
In TAB, it’s all mushed together. You may guess correctly. Or you may not.
And since this information is missing, most players aren’t even aware of the different voices.
No Musical Information
TAB only provides fingering for the notes. It doesn’t tell you how to play them.
Consider the old phrase, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” Well, TAB only gives you “what to say”, not the important elements of “how you say it”.
Articulations – When it comes to articulations (staccato, accented, connected, etc) TAB leaves you guessing.
To be fair, slurs (hammer-ons and pull-offs) ARE sometimes notated. But slur markings on TAB may be chosen for physical ease, and not motivated by musical decisions (such as how it sounds).
Words – TAB does not include musical words. There is a rich vocabulary of musical words (leggiero, legato, ritardando, a tempo, etc) that give us insight into the mind of the composer or arranger. TAB is generally stripped of these.
Symbols – TAB lacks musical symbols. Like musical words, notation offers vast collection of symbols that tell us how to inflect and sculpt the music. TAB just gives finger location, and leaves the rest to the player.
TAB Doesn’t Activate the Brain like Notation
Musical notation requires many parts of the brain to communicate, collaborate and cooperate. TAB is basically one-dimensional.
Playing and reading music gives long-term benefits to the brain, but you won’t get them from a life of using TAB.
TAB Doesn’t Teach You Music
You learn everything there is to learn about TAB in just a few moments. The lack of richer information (musical information) creates a very low ceiling to your learning.
With experience, your understanding of musical notation, words and symbols grows. You form a more complex mental representation. In time you learn to “read between the notes”. This lets you recognize musical patterns, expressive devices, and common musical tendencies.
Notation provides a lifetime of constant discovery, unlike TAB, which is more of a one-trick pony.
Should You Use TAB?
Maybe. Sometimes. It depends.
There is a known phenomenon involving TAB: if it’s there, you’ll probably use it.
Like having a cabinet full of cookies, it’s great in the short term, and very difficult to resist.
If you want to play a tune that is beyond your reading level, TAB could be a valuable tool. Learning to read notation in the higher positions? TAB could be a good way to check yourself.
But in general, resorting to TAB in lieu of building your music-reading skills is a “short game” (like stuffing yourself full of cookies).
Notation is a better musical “long game”. Sure, it’s more work at first, but so what.
Therefore, learning TAB before standard musical notation could potentially slow your overall musical development.
TAB is One Tool
TAB is simply a tool. A very basic tool. It has its uses.
They say a professional is someone who has the right tools and knows how to use them. Well, the same holds true here (even if you goals are modest).
You may be better off simply avoiding TAB until further notice, because it’s so tempting and hard to resist.
You know better than anyone: Can you resist gorging on cookies when they’re the quickest, easiest option? How about when you’re tired and hungry?
Make the choice of how you’ll proceed now, while you’re in a rational frame of mind. Think of your long-term musical aspirations, and decide the best route to get you there.
Then set up your environment to support that decision and avoid any in-the-moment decisions.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully. Click here for a sample formula.
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