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classical guitar tab

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.

guitar tab example

Example of TAB

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).

notation-example

Example of Music Notation

Notes

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).

Words

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.

Symbols

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)
music notation example

Musical Symbols

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.

early classical guitar tab

Early classical guitar TAB

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).

Know Thyself

If you’re currently learning to read music, or practicing your sight-reading skills, TAB could be a dangerous tool to leave lying around.

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.


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14 Responses to Classical Guitar TABs: Both Terrible and Wonderful

  1. Richard Ogilby September 17, 2016 at 7:27 am #

    I am a flamenco guitarist(traditional) and have used TAB (reading and writing) for ever.
    Flamenco has a problem that classical guitar doesn’t.
    The compas is a tricky problem consisting of 12 beat cycles.
    TAB is the best for this
    .I write TAB in “One beat ;one measure” 12 measures equals one compas.
    Also I found in a Flamenco method from 1905, the use of indicating the Barre (IE. 8 or 5) and then using the appropriate numbers for that fret (IE 1,3 or 4) the problem of wring 8’or 15’s solved.
    Thanks for you generous articles
    Richard

    • Allen September 17, 2016 at 7:31 am #

      Thanks for the info, Richard. That’s interesting!

  2. Cadie September 11, 2016 at 8:00 am #

    I usually use combined notation and tab when it exist… This way I get the best of both worlds and I coupled it with a few interprétation from youtube to inspired me in my interpretation. Work’s fine for me.

  3. Fred G Addley August 27, 2016 at 8:22 am #

    such a great experience listen to you instruct you speak so eloquently and precision. I have skipped and tried to learn guitar from various sources But it seems all the tidbits all come together. with your instruction you seem to be so well educated yet loose enough to explain every aspect of classical guitar. . I continued to listen to more artist like John Williams on You tube and brought tears to my eyes with the beauty and sounds thanks for turning me on to beautiful guitar .and the theory and skill it takes to learn this craft. I heard this on youTube It takes only 12 weeks to learn Standard Guitar But 12 Years to learn Classical Guitar

    • Allen August 27, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

      Thank you so much, Fred!

  4. Margreet de Brie August 8, 2016 at 11:23 am #

    I can attest to the huge benefits that reading music has. I have a disabiliy benefit, and the institute that pays it out has a magazine and an online forum. A recent article featured the amazing story of a woman who suffered a water head, resulting in brain damage. She decided to learn to play the flute. She told that reading music was almost impossible for her, but she persisted and eventually she could read a few simple melodies. Then the miracle happened: all of her brain functions improved! The online forum was flooded with similar stories when the question was asked ” Should people with a disability/chronic illness play an instrument?” (Overwhelming yes). It helps reduce pain,, stabilize mood-disorders, and a lot more.

    Have a great time on the old Continent, Allen! Is this your first visit to Europe?

    • Allen August 8, 2016 at 11:38 am #

      How inspiring! Thanks for sharing this.

      (and thanks! yes, first time to the Continent!)

  5. Vivian August 7, 2016 at 6:52 am #

    In my opinion all TAB does is to make guitarists look like less serious musicians, to other instrumentalists, that is. A cellist or violinist for example doesn’t even have frets! Why should all other instruments require the ability to read standard notation except guitar? It just cheapens it. Just my two cents.
    As for the ease? I tried to play from tab once and failed. It just doesn’t work for me.

    • Allen August 7, 2016 at 8:32 am #

      Hi Vivian, That’s a good point. TAB probably does look like “training wheels” to other instrumentalists. There are many areas where the basic standards for guitarists are lower than that of other instruments. Of course, guitar is much more difficult that most other instruments as well. And many guitarists are just dabblers, learning a bare minimum so they can strum and sing a song. So perhaps the goals and assumptions of guitarists are more varied than those of other instrumentalists (such as cellists). I frequently lament the gap in standards between classical guitar and say, piano (at professional levels especially). But that’s a whole different soapbox. Thanks for the comment!

    • Richard Ogilby September 18, 2016 at 11:11 am #

      Vivian,
      Just explain you are a secret lute player and that you insist on using original methods

  6. Pete Howard August 6, 2016 at 10:11 am #

    I don’t think anyone could claim that tab is musically equivalent to notation, because it isn’t. But what it did for me was to enable me to get to grips with pieces that I probably wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. In truth I like tab and notation side by side (preferably on alternate lines), transcribed bar for bar. I use tab for fingering and the notation for phrasing and timing, etc. Of course it’s a cheat. But I’m getting better at reading both. Works for me. Other opinions are available.

    • Allen August 6, 2016 at 10:53 am #

      I agree, Pete. It does let you expand your repertoire faster and/or explore pieces that would otherwise be out of range.

      Thanks,
      Allen

  7. Eric Biemiller August 6, 2016 at 7:54 am #

    Only recently have I tripped over TAB. First piano, then choir, finally guitar and folk music; basic melody lines in notation were the norm. When I finally took classical guitar lessons, reading music was the only way to go. Fortunately, it stuck, however… My first difficulty with guitar was I’d see the notes in my head on the piano and would have to translate for the guitar. That was frustrating. Very! After a thirty year layoff and retired, I now see the notes on the guitar (still learning of course). Fingering notation on the sheet music helps as to the fret location. For example in “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” the run of D, F#, to A, then C uses the fourth finger on the fifth string, fifth fret, which makes the run easy. The following C is played on the third or G string at the fifth fret. Finger numbers in the sheet music allowed me that insight. Then I saw the sheet music in TAB. Bottom line. TAB is a useful tool, but I do not see it as a substitute for reading sheet music.

    Thanks for your article.

    Eric

    • Allen August 6, 2016 at 9:06 am #

      Thanks Eric, great example.
      You said, “My first difficulty with guitar was I’d see the notes in my head on the piano and would have to translate for the guitar.”
      I had the same issue when I first reading music on guitar. I’m glad to hear you’re making the switch.
      Cheers,
      Allen

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