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Guitar Tab or Standard Music Notation?

When you've become interested in learning how to play the guitar, you may find yourself wondering at some point if you should be learning Standard Music Notation or if Guitar Tabs will do. Not all instruments give you that option, so learning to play the guitar gives you the option to be able to play the instrument without having to learn the entire traditional musical language as well. But is it enough?

Standard Music Notation

Standard Music Notation is a visual representation of the pitch and duration of the notes of a piece of music. The pitch of the note is determined by the position of the note in the staff. The staff are the 5 lines on which the notes are positioned. The higher the note is on the staff, the higher the pitch. The duration of the notes is determined by the notes' shapes and whether they are black, white, punctuated or not. Standard Music Notation doesn't show you how to play the sound on the instrument but merely shows what the tune sounds like. No matter what instrument you are learning, standard notation will always be the same, albeit that some instruments have one staff line and others (chord instruments) will have two.

Guitar Tabs

Guitar Tab stands for Guitar Tablature. The 6 lines represent the 6 strings of a guitar in ascending order. The numbers represent the fret that needs to be played. So if it says the number 3 on the second line it means you hold the 2nd string (B string) on the 3rd fret.

Pros and Cons

Standard Music Notation includes all musical information. You can have never heard the piece before and will know how it is supposed to sound and be played. It is the universal music language and can be read by musicians of all instruments and singers that are trained to read it. On the downside, it takes a long time to learn and master, it is not as easy to find standard notation free sheet music as it is to find tab sheets and some guitar techniques, such as strumming aren't easy to show in standard notation.

Tablature is intuitive and can be learned in minutes. There is a vast amount of free tabs available online, so you'll find pretty much any one of your favourite songs and learn it. You don't need any special software to create tab music sheets, as you would with standard notation. Any text editing app will do, using numbers and dashes. The downside is that tab music in its most basic and common form, will not show you any information on timing of the notes. You will need to know the song, to know the rhythm and timing of the notes shown in the tabs. Accuracy of available online tabs is not the best due to the fact that its so easy to upload online. Tablature cannot show a second melody, such as a bass line, that the guitar can play at the same time.


To choose whether or not to put the effort in to learn music notation, depends on what your musical ambitions are. Classical guitar courses are always taught with notation and knowing the universal music language will be necessary if you'll be accompanying other artists.

But if you want to play in a cover band, or in a band with your own songs, then tabs will do the job perfectly and music notation is not really necessary.

If you're only starting out and you are embarking on the journey, simply because you want to play the guitar, then it's probably better to start without standard notation. You can always add it to your all-round guitar skills at a later stage if you feel you want to expand.

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