Cage Match: Standard Notation vs Tablature

Posted on by Dave Eichenberger

In this series of articles, I will attempt to encourage an open dialog about very polarizing viewpoints regarding standard notation verses tablature, but in a more or less positive manner.

Some people know only one, some know both. Usually guitarists have pretty strong views on why one is better than the other. The great thing is that both, as written languages, are widespread no matter what your spoken language is. At no other time in history has more music been available for guitarists to read. It is a great time to learn, and no matter which method you continually use, you will learn something you didn’t know.

If you can’t read music, you don’t understand this. If you can, it is just stupid.

Let’s start with tablature. Tablature, or tab, started back in the mid 1500s with stringed and fretted instruments that were strung with goat intestines. Now, if you were a musician back then you either worked for royalty or the church, or you begged on the street. If you were lucky and you were a trained musician, you worked for the King. When the Queen’s sister was visiting from France, you were charged with writing a song for her. Usually you would compose this at whatever instrument you played (a lute was a good choice) and, since you were trained, you wrote it down so you wouldn’t forget it. And you wrote it in tablature. Early lute tab does exist, although there was no widespread acceptance of exactly how it was written, and scholars have debated for years what certain symbols on the paper actually meant. However, one thing it did have was rhythmic markings on the paper which allowed the musician to replicate his composition and teach it to other musicians.

Fast forward 470 years, and guitar magazines started their rise to prominence in popular culture. They realized guitarists were terrible readers of standard notation since they learned usually by sound and sight. They started transcribing their lessons and songs in both standard notation and tab – and started teaching the guitar playing public how easy tab is to read. They started using some symbols not available in standard notation for such guitaristic things like bends, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, whammy bar dives, etc. After a while, some guitar magazines dropped standard notation entirely in favor of tab. It is faster, takes into account the position of the guitar the notes were actually played, and it doesn’t concern the reader with such things as flats, sharps, or note names for that matter. For years, guitarists have had to learn songs from chord charts, so this was an extension of that. If it sounds like the song, you’re playing it right.

This sounds nothing like Seek and Destroy!

Now, standard notation is a different matter. Like tab, notation is really old. It didn’t have a standard way of being written until the mid 1700s or so, and even then, many modern readers would have a hard time reading a manuscript from Bach’s own hand. It evolved over time and became the lines and dots we know today. Most music books until the late 80s (even guitar books!) were written only in notation, so a guitarist has to try the music in several positions unless the transcriber left specific notes. If you learn two lines of music and reach a note or chord that might be easier in another position, you might have to learn the previous two lines in the other position. Reading notes consists of looking at the note, deciding what letter it is, and then finding the right place on the guitar to play it, and playing it using the correct rhythm. It’s a frustrating exercise for some, but like anything, it gets easier with practice.

Now tablature seems like the winner here, right? Well, not so fast. Most tablature (especially on the internet) doesn’t notate rhythms at all, so unless you have a great memory for the song you want to learn, you need a copy of the song to listen to while you read through the tab. While tab is the clear winner as far as what is available online (by about 1000 to 1, if not more), most tabs we look up online are sloppy, incomplete, and just plain wrong. So we have to rely on our ear (and eyes if we see a YouTube video) to figure the song out.

From Bach’s own hand. Interestingly, after the 4th line, in tiny German handwriting, it says ‘Play this like Yngwie’. Go figure.

Notation fails guitarists in several ways too. With tab being so prevalent, not many teachers are teaching it, and the written language isn’t evolving with guitar’s ever-increasing techniques. Notation is written one octave above the pitch of the guitar, which can be confusing when composing for guitar and other instruments. It seems as though the whole thing is better suited to a French horn player than a guitarist who just wants to rock. And, truth is, as a professional guitarist, I have never been in a situation that required reading for a performance, either in the studio or live. It is used for theater or studio work in New York or LA, but not most professional situations which require a good ear and great instincts. So why is it good to know?

Well, it does transcribe rhythms, which tab fails at. It gives a more complete picture of the song, rather than just numbers. It helps us communicate with other musicians, since a sax or keyboard player (who usually read much better than the illiterate guitarist) has no use for tab. Learning notation allows us to understand our musical world better, which means unlocking the connection between chords, scales and those cool arpeggios you practice. Imagine what your world would be like not being able to read words – it would be very different. In music, not understanding even basic notation leaves us out of a rich musical world, and helps us be not so guitar-centric with all of our music.

If you want to write parts for other musicians to play, you have to speak their language. And it isn’t that hard to learn.

And why is tab great? It is fast and easy. It gets us where we want to go quickly, and we can learn the exact way the guitarist played something. That is pretty cool. Yeah, tab rocks.

To me, mixing rhythmic notation with tab makes it hard to read. But hey, some people like it.

Some magazines, like Guitar World, try to combine notation’s rhythms with tablature, but it ends up more confusing. Most magazines and songbooks these days use both. However, it doesn’t help when artist interviews proudly proclaim ignorance about their musical world. Great guitarists are great despite their lack of musical knowledge, not because of it. Why aspire to be just like an artist like that when you can be even better?

Which brings me to…who wins?

Well, this isn’t so clear. Both have terrible disadvantages and huge advantages. So learn both. Hey, you probably already understand tab, so take a summer and go through a basic reading book. You will be a better guitarist for it, and even more importantly, a better musician. We guitarists need every skill we can acquire to compete in this world. Plus, we might just be able to understand our books and magazines better if we can read the notation as well as the tab. Bohemian Rhapsody will make more sense to you too, I promise.

So which is it? Which one do you like better, and what is your excuse for not learning both? Keep it respectable and open up those books!

Written on April 15, 2013, by Dave Eichenberger

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Comments (29)

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    If you live in Chicago or in the Midwest, you need to go to Frankportolese.com and buy his “Sight-reading for Guitarists” book. He is a Jazz master who has been playing for over 40 years. The book starts from ground zero so there is nothing to be afraid of. He is a genius, as long as you follow every instruction he says to do in the book, you will learn to read. He is one of my teachers at Elmhurst College and we spent a whole semester working out of his book. I am actually sight-reading now and I cannot believe it! It works! Go check it out ya’ll

    • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

      Thanks for the tip. I am always looking good books to start my students reading notation. It is a shame it seems so difficult for guitar (it isn’t) when students of other instruments pick it up quickly. It is like guitarists have a giant mental block.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    Where I find tab far harder to read than regular notation is to get a sense of the underlying chord – you have to read ALL the numbers to know what the notes are. With regular notation, fairly rapidly you can read the shape of the notes on the stave to suggest a chord – it’s definitely a higher-level activity. Where you do want to indicate positioning and fingering, it can be done.

    Where I really like full-on tab is alternative tunings, where I don’t have the mental picture of string layouts for notes – but I have no melodic understanding of what I am playing without dual notation.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

      Oh, when I was young I learned ‘The Rain Song’ using a bad piano score in standard tuning. I wished that I had tab then!

      • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

        I too learned “The Rain Song” (circa late-80’s) on what was probably that same bad piano score! Until about ten years ago, when I read the tab and went “A-ha!” Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. For guitarists who only read tab, I would suggest learning how to read charts, brush up on “every good boy does fine” and “FACE”, and learn your modes and scales.

        • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

          Yeah, didn’t that suck? Not only was it a bad piano reduction, it wasn’t really right. Scores for guitar music 30 years ago were as bad as internet tab is now!

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    As a bassist that started out in the classical/jazz world, I originally poo-poo’d the idea of tab, since I grew up in the notation realm. However, I have come to appreciate the benefits that tab affords, mainly in terms of hand positions and fingerings. Like you said, notation is great but you may spend a good amount of time finding that perfect fingering that unlocks what may be an incredibly difficult passage.

    By incorporating tab with notation, it’s very easy for me to write out music (especially solo pieces) that say “Here’s the tune, and here is where I’m playing the piece on the bass, so you can fully understand how I’m approaching it.”

    • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

      Yes, this is the point- it is all important. I find tab without notation incredibly difficult to read. No tab? It can be hard for me too, but I can play the rhythms right, and I will learn something by reading through a piece. So yeah, to me, it is all important.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    Notation is what MUSICIANS use. You’ve got to be able to read it if you want to go places.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

      There are plenty of great musicians who have achieved fame and fortune that don’t know either. For the rest of us, we need all the help we can get.

      • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

        Fame and fortune are not the goal, are they? They are a by-product.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

      i learned standard notation as a child learning piano, when i was in my teens and wanted to learn guitar (this was the early 80s) i knew nothing of tab, but i didn’t read guitar magazines either. i was very dedicated to notation until just recently, like in the last 5 years. but yes, jazz guys i know can give me a piece that i want to learn (caravan for example) in notation and i can figure it out from there. and then try to learn it in different positions. but there is soooo much tab available. sure some if it is crap but you can learn those great solos that you love with very little more effort than doing an internet search and trying a few of the results you find. i would recommend learning both. you will be that much ahead of the game,

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    Standard notation is how music is written, period. There is no disadvantage to not having the fingerings printed in standard notation. As a musician, you should be able to quickly judge where to play a passage based on it’s range. Especially since 99% of the music encountered on gigs simply isn’t very difficult anyway. As for “plenty of great musicians who have achieved fame and fortune that don’t know either”, well, that is demonstrably false. The only people who “achieve…” without having a knowledge of written music are a very small group. They are rock stars, pop stars, and similar ENTERTAINERS. Their careers are in show business, not music, which is why they are famous. It’s also why they can’t or don’t read music. Not to mention that they are an incredibly small group of people. I mean really Dave, this kind of political pandering does nothing to advance the guitar and it makes you look rather foolish. Even hinting that there may be some kind of parity between tab and standard notation is like saying there is ongoing debate in the scientific community about global warming. Tab is used to sell magazines to children who would be better spending their money studying with a competent instructor. By not reading music you condemn yourself to a life of musical mediocrity, as well as significantly limiting your earning potential. You will never be handed charts written in tab on a gig. No band leader will ever give you his bands arrangements of material written in tab. It will never happen. Why waste your time learning something that has no use in the professional world? If all someone wants to do is play along with their records at home and pretend to be a rock star, so be it. No one will ever hear them anyway. But if you wan’t to be a musician, if you want to play for money, if you want to be considered a knowledgeable and skilled professional, you have no choice but to learn to read. This is not my opinion, it is musical fact.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

      Relax, I do know how to read music. Tab is a fact of life for guitarists, and saying one is better than another is foolish. In the guitarist’s musical world, tab is 100x more prevalent than notation. Our musical world is changing and we had better change with it, or lead the way. Does it make lazy musicians? Yeah. And I stand by the fact that most working guitarists and bassists I know are not readers. I wish they were too, but hey, this is the world we live in.

      • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

        NO, in a ROCK guitarist’s world, tab is more prevalent. Good luck getting a jazz band leader or conductor or show director to spoonfeed you a guitar part because you never made it through Mel Bay #3. And no, I don’t mean you, personally…I know you are a great reader.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    Ahh, you can almost smell the condescension….. “Only amateurs don’t know how to quickly and easily read standard notation! If you’re a real musician, you throw away any book that includes tablature or performance notes!”

    Give that a rest (yes, pun intended) already! Notation is indeed very important for the reasons noted above, BUT also for the reasons noted above, tablature is every bit as legitimate when you play stringed instruments. You don’t get to go around claiming that somebody else isn’t a “real” musician, or that there’s no accounting for any method other than the one you were taught. It doesn’t make them any worse, or you any better – it just makes you look like a snooty arsehole whose parents could afford to pay for years of lessons that many of us had to forgo in exchange for actually having an instrument to play.

    Not knowing notation doesn’t make a great musician “not a musician”, PERIOD. Somebody made all of it up, and it’s continued to evolve since then. You guys (and they always seem to be guys) might want to note THAT down somewhere…. or does standard notation not have symbols for that, either?

    • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

      Disclaimer: Yes, actually I can read standard notation; I learned it in band-class playing the sax, trumpet, and piano. When I started with guitar a few years later, I started trying with notation….. and almost immediately noted the problems Dave mentions above. Notation makes learning the guitar, or any other instrument where the same notes can be played with multiple fingerings, a nightmare of unnecessary memorization. Tablature is far, far superior for these instruments; why do you think it pre-dates standard notation by a few hundred years?

      • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

        Not to mention, notation fails when you have to learn something in a completely different tuning. The connection between the eyes, brain and hands are lost reading a score in an open tuning, or something like the ‘new standard tuning’ of CGDAEG. Add multiple songs of different tunings, and you have to relearn the fretboard all over again. This is where tab excels.

        • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

          Dave, I agree. Years ago, I got a book of transcriptions (notation and tab) of Michael Manring’s album, Thonk. There is only one of his solo bass pieces (Monkey Businessman) that is in “standard” tuning in terms of intervals, and the entire bass is tuned up a fifth. I spent more time looking at the tab to learn it, because exactly like you said, you’re in completely unfamiliar territory. The notation was written to pitch (and not like in the classical realm, where it’s written in standard with the note to tune up to the desired open pitches).

          I could’ve stuck to my guns and stayed on the notation and nixed the tab. I also wouldn’t have had as easy a time (and truthfully, “easy” is a loose term compared to Manring) picking up the song.

        • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

          Oh yea, I’d forgotten about THAT situation! I remember being so frustrated trying to learn the simple-sounding acoustic parts in The Black Crowes’ “She Talks To Angels” as a kid, until I found a tab with the tuning and fingerings…. welcome to Facepalm City.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    I am an electric bass player who happens to be a very good reader. I often get hired because of that. I can read both clefs and in the jazz world, often everyone is given the same lead sheet. I have never heard of a professional situation in which tab was given to the musicians.
    You can search the internet and let me know if you can find bass tab for the melody of Ornithology.
    If you are a good reader, you can look at groups of notes and know where to finger them on your bass or guitar.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    I’m currently finishing my dissertation on the role notation plays for the modern guitarist. This is a well balanced and open-minded article. My research has shown that guitarists are caught between the oral folk traditions that shaped early american popular music and the influence of european art music. As an amatuer you can learn to play through listening, videos, tablature or notation exclusively but a professional player or instructor needs a firm grouding in all methods. Dave your thoughts on this subject are going to help greatly on this paper, thank you.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

      Thank you so much! I am happy that it helps- let me know how it turns out.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    Tab dictates fingerings, which is incredibly limiting. You should be able to read both if you’re planning on making a living (unless you become a rock star,…hahahahahahahaha)

    • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

      Although tab is great when you are using alternate tunings, something notation is terrible for.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

      Actually, tab doesn’t really dictate fingerings as much as fretboard position. I see more fingerings notated in classical guitar scores.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    Making a living depends on appealing to the lowest common denominator. That is why american education is in a downward spiral. If you want to be a real musician who can do gigs with other musicians, you need to read standard notation. Depending on the gig, you may not need to be a monster sight reader, but you need some ability. Time spent learning to “read” tab is like time spent watching reality TV. Reading on the guitar requires you know all the positions and the ability to see the patterns of the notes, hear it in your head, visualize it on the fretboard. All things you need anyway to be a great player Sketching out notation for a little cheat sheet takes seconds, tab takes who knows how long. This is absurd that we even are having this discussion.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    Wow there is a lot of close minded people commenting on this article. I find tab to be much more useful for the type of music I play (although I can read standard notation). I usually play music in Drop C or Drop A#, and tab is so much more beneficial. Its almost impossible to even find music in those tunings. And to those people saying that if you don’t read music, you’re not a true musician: people that get famous playing pop and rock, still do it for the music. Just because they don’t like to play the same music as you doesn’t mean that they’re not true musicians. I think that all guitarists should know how to read both types of music.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 7 years ago

    I think it’s important to read both. I mean, if you can already read notation, there’s no reason not to learn tab, it’s super easy and very fast, especially for someone who is already skilled. I teach bass lessons and I always teach tab, standard notation, and chord charts/lead sheets as well. That being said, when I was in middle/high school and teaching myself how to play guitar and bass, I never learned to read notation for guitar or bass. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I sat down at my first college jazz band rehearsal and the band director put a folder full of standard notation music in front of me. Thankfully, I could figure out what the notes were thanks to my 3rd grade stint as a clarinet player, but it was extremely clumsy and took a long time to decipher at first. Obviously, it’s hard to deny that tab is more common on the internet and is also frequently used among rock musicians. However, if one ever expects to play with a jazz group he or she should absolutely know how to read good ol’ notes on a page because as several people have ever pointed out, no band leader beyond high school is going to hand you anything with tab on it.

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