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Learning Guitar: The Debate Between Tabs and Standard Notation

  • 3 min read
Learning to play the guitar can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, but for beginners, knowing where to start can be challenging. One of the most common debates in the guitar community is whether to learn with tabs or standard notation. In this article, we'll explore the pros and cons of both approaches and how to find the best method for you.

Tabs vs. Standard Notation: The Pros and Cons


Tabs, or tablature, is a simplified way of representing music that focuses on showing the player where to place their fingers on the fretboard. This approach emerged as a response to the need for an easier way to learn and teach guitar. Unlike standard notation, which can be complex and time-consuming to learn, tablature is more straightforward and easier to understand.

Tabs work by using a series of horizontal lines to represent the strings on the guitar and numbers to indicate where to place your fingers on the frets. The numbers correspond to the fret numbers, and the lines indicate which string to play. For example, if you see the number "3" on the third line from the bottom, it means to place your finger on the third fret of the third string. Tabs can be found in many places online and can be a great starting point for learning how to play your favorite songs. 

However, tabs alone do have some limitations. They do not provide information about the rhythm, timing, or other aspects of music that are important for developing your musical abilities. As a result, tabs can be limiting if you want to learn how to play more difficult songs or if you wish to have a deeper understanding of music.

Standard Notation

Standard notation is a more traditional way of representing music that can provide a wealth of information about the song, including rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, and more. It will also help you learn the names of the notes on your fretboard and to understand music theory better. 

The drawback of standard notation is that it can be daunting and confusing for beginners without the proper guidance. It can take a long time to become proficient at reading notation. This may lead to frustration and cause some students to lose interest. 

Although learning notation may not be necessary for those who just want to learn how to play as a hobby, it is certainly worth considering as it just might spark your interest and lead to greater achievements along your musical journey. You might even find out that you enjoy studying standard notation. The benefits are hard-earned but worth it, so give it a try and see if it's right for you.

Combining Tabs and Standard Notation

Learning both standard notation and tabs can be beneficial for guitar players of all levels. By combining the two approaches, players can develop a well-rounded understanding of music and improve their overall technique and musicality. Some argue that it is best to start with standard notation and then learn tabs once a solid foundation has been established, while others advocate for starting with tabs because it's easy to understand and gets you playing your favorite guitar riffs quicker. But by combining both, you can get to playing faster with tabs while working on your long term development as a musician with notation. 

Finding the Right Approach for You

The choice between tabs and standard notation depends on your goals and preferences. If you just want to play your favorite songs and have fun, tabs might be the way to go. However, if you want to further develop your understanding of music theory, and become a well-rounded musician, standard notation can be valuable.

It is also important to note that learning with audible references such as recordings of songs or interactive software such as Guitar Pro can help you learn tabs more effectively. This not only helps with timing and phrasing but also allows you to become more familiar with the overall sound of the song.

When it comes to learning the guitar, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Some people may prefer to start with tabs and progress to standard notation, while others may be interested in learning standard notation from the beginning. Some may want to focus on learning specific techniques, while others may want to focus on improvisation. The most important thing is to find an approach that is enjoyable, engaging, and effective for you.

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