When you’re a beginner just starting out to learn how to play the guitar, there may be many things about the whole deal that may seem a bit overwhelming to you. For many players, the idea of learning to read sheet music or guitar tablature can definitely be one of them.
And, truthfully, for a good reason. Let’s be completely clear here, though – taking the time to learn how to decipher all of those dots and lines can be beneficial to you as a player, especially if your goals are to play professionally (particularly studio work and ‘paid sideman’ gigs).
But…wow…what an undertaking…especially when you have your hand’s full learning about chords and scales and solos and phrasing and….well, hopefully, you get the picture here.
But does it really have to be that hard? Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a quick and easy way to learn how to play a song without mastering a skill like sight-reading traditional sheet music (often called ‘standard notation’)?
Luckily for the majority of guitar players out there, there is. It’s called ‘guitar tablature’ (‘tab’ for short), and while it may not be a perfect substitute for sheet music, it most definitely can get you where you need to go. It’s intuitive and straightforward, and it really doesn’t take all that long to get the gist of how it works.
It’ll only take a few minutes for you to ‘get it’ – we promise!
How to read guitar tablature
Whether you are looking at the latest issue of your favorite guitar magazine or whether you are surfing the internet on one of the bazillion guitar tab sites.
Before long, you’re going to come across a host of various diagrams that will look something like the one below:
It seems crazy, right? It’s not, really. We’ll do a quick breakdown of all the components, and you’ll quickly see how easy it is to understand how it works.
The top portion is typical sheet music. Don’t fear it, though! You don’t have to understand how to read it to use tab. It’s not uncommon to see it here, and it really is an excellent reference to the actual tab.
The bottom lines are where the tab lives and breathes. Actually, it’s a simple graphical view of the guitar itself. The six horizontal lines are meant to depict each of the six strings on your guitar, with the line at the top representing the high E (thinnest) string and the bottom line showing the low E (thickest) string. It makes sense, right?
One difference that tab has compared to sheet music is that there are many numbers instead of dots. That’s how you know where you put your fingers on a particular string to play a specific note (or notes…more on that to follow). In our example above, you’ll see that the first two numbers (5 and 8) are on the bottom line. That means you play two notes, one right after the other – first, you play the note on the 5th fret of the low E string, then play the note on the 8th fret of the same string.
Fingers on the guitar naming convention
Pretty easy, right? It really IS just that simple!
Furthermore, your next two notes are on the 5th and 7th frets of the A string. Then the 5th and 7th frets of the D string, and so on.
Put all of the single notes in this exercise together, and you’ve just played an A minor pentatonic scale – all without having to read a single note of sheet music or having to dig heavily into a ton of music theory!
Just as a side note (no pun intended), if a string is to be played open, you’ll see a ‘0’ for the number.
How to play several strings at once
Sure, we all love a great guitar solo. Truth be told, though, soloing typically is a relatively small percentage of what a good guitarist plays. So how can tab show you how to play chords?
Take a look at the numbers at the very end of our example:
See how all of the numbers are on top of each other? It’s the same thing as the sheet music above – when more than one number is stacked vertically on top of each other, all of those notes are to be played simultaneously.
We have an open position Am chord, which perfectly matches our A minor pentatonic scale.
Pros and cons of guitar tablature
Just as with anything, there are pros and cons to using guitar tab. In our opinion, the pros outweigh the cons, but we would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t lay things on the line…
Pro – Simplicity
Do you see how powerful guitar tabs can be? It’s an excellent tool that many guitar players of all skill levels have used to quickly learn how to play a particular song or guitar solo. The ease and simplicity of hitting the ground running is probably the biggest’ pro’ to learning how to read it correctly.
Pro – Exact note positions
It may be useful to say that traditional sheet music works best for an instrument like a piano. Why? Mainly because on a keyboard, there is only one key that plays a particular note. A guitar is different because many different locations play the same note with the same pitch.
For example, the same E note (that is, the same pitch – not an octave) can be played on the 12th fret of the E string, the 7th fret of the A string, and the 2nd fret of the D string. Sheet music doesn’t make that distinction – with a piano; a specific note means a particular key on the keyboard. Guitar tab takes the guitarist’s viewpoint into account and shows you exactly where to play.
Con – Timing
Not to be a downer here – there is one particular area where guitar tab may be lacking as a total solution for learning to play a specific piece of music.
One thing that tab doesn’t do very well (actually, not at all) is show note duration and timing. Sheet music is designed by nature, where each type of note depicts how long a note is to last. All you have with guitar tab is just a number on a line. Yes, it shows you where to play the note, but it doesn’t tell you the amount of time it’s supposed to ring out.
If you’re trying to learn a song or solo that you already are familiar with, this may not be that big of a deal as you already have a pretty good idea of timing. It’s a challenge if you use a tab to play a song you have never heard before.
This is one good reason why having sheet music on the top is a good thing. You can use the tab to get the fingering positions right and then develop your reading standard notation as time goes on and practice more and more.
Learning how to read guitar tablature is a skill that doesn’t take a lot of time, and it certainly can provide a significant benefit to you and your other guitar-playing band members . Gone are the days when you either had to know how to read sheet music (which is typically set up for piano anyway) or work on getting your ear developed enough to figure out a song by listening to it over .and over…and over…
Sure, it’s not the complete answer that traditional sheet music can be, but it’ll get you pointed in the right direction a lot faster. That alone is worth the price of admission, which is nothing more than taking a few minutes of your time to understand how it works – time well spent!