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Tablature vs. Traditional Music Notation

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

by Fernando Brahms, Music Instructor @happysoundmusic

Perhaps the most frequent question I’m asked as an instructor for guitar is “if tabs are easier, why not use tabs instead?” I grew up on both and still use both to this day. So which one to learn? What helps our students more? The answer is not as simple as one reigning supreme over the other. It’s more a question of your goals as a musician.

Tabs are a form of music notation which uses numbers on 6 separate lines to indicate where to play notes on the guitar. Just look up the song you want to play and you can easily see what to do. Seems pretty simple and convenient? Of course it is! It’s a simple way to learn a song you may already know and very advantageous for beginning students because of that simplicity.

Compare this method to traditional music notation. A student must learn rhythm, musical basics such as clefs, time signatures, key signatures and note names. There is quite a learning curve to it and it can seem a little daunting. The process can feel like a bit of a slow crawl to their ultimate rockstar goal. The biggest advantage here is that once you get past the initial barrier for entry, things begin to click and click fast!

Communication and musical vocabulary is also key here. Now that our student knows the note E, they can play E whenever prompted. Whereas on tablature, us instructors would need to clarify this as “open note on your first string” (in this case) or physically demonstrate. However, if your student knows and understands what it is they are learning, they will build a musical foundation that they can then use to do whatever it is their hearts desire.

Personally, I enjoy teaching traditional music notation for this exact reason. Think of it as giving the student all the tools to eventually achieve their musical goals. It’s much easier to teach fundamentals and correct technique early to ensure your student is confident and successful. I can definitely help you play the guitar within minutes using tablature. No problem! You learn how to play that specific exercise or tune but not much about WHY you are playing that. Teaching you traditional music notation, however, takes more foundation building and reinforcement of musical concepts including some music theory.

Typically, as a guitar student here at Happy Sound, we will assure you learn basic note reading with different rhythms. As the primary guitar instructor, I want to teach you how the guitar truly works. My students will typically understand the guitar in a few sessions depending on the age group. Sometimes it is easier to take things slower to truly make sure our student understands the concepts they are being taught during our lesson time. Which is why I also teach using music that they may be familiar with. Once all the basic reading is done, students will then be given a deeper explanation of how the instrument is set up and how to use that knowledge to their advantage. By this point, students will be able to play simple scales and begin to play music in different places along the fretboard of the guitar. With this understanding, the possibilities are endless and students will consistently practice improvisation to help achieve mastery. Come on in and let’s get you going! Just ask for Fernando.

Finally, I want to end with the acknowledgement that there is no wrong way to learn an instrument. It’s truly up to the student and, as someone self taught on tabs, I can tell you it helped my physical skill and technique on the guitar. Traditional music notation came later but helped me mentally understand music, become a better overall musician and apply all that technique properly. The point of it all is to become the best possible guitar player you can be while also enjoying the instrument. Fun is always the goal. As an instructor to you or your student, I will always try to make it a fun process using both tablature and music notation because both are amazing tools at your disposal.

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