Are Tabs Harder Than Chords? | A Complete Comparison

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Ask any guitarists, and they will tell you how they learn to play the instrument by reading tabs and chords. In fact, they are the cornerstone of guitar playing, as they can help you to learn your favorite songs in little time. However, which is harder to learn? Are tabs harder than chords?

Generally, you may assume that tabs are harder to learn than chords, although your personal experience may vary. Tabs are more detailed, which means they are more complex than chord notes. However, it allows you to play very close to the actual song, compared to chords. 

This article looks at if tabs are harder than chords. We also discuss if you should learn tabs or chords first before looking at if professional guitarists actually use them.

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Are Tabs Harder Than Chords? | A Complete Comparison


How Are Tabs Different From Chords?

In general, tabs are more detailed, telling you what position of strings to press and what moves to execute, such as hammer-on or slides. Chord notes only indicate what chord to use and when to transition from one chord to another. Tabs use lines, while chords use lyrics.

Notation BaseLyrics of the songLines to represent guitar strings
Level of DetailLess detailedMore detailed
Similarity to ActualPlayLessMuch closer

Notation Base

Notation base refers to the base of how the notes are written down. In the case of tabs, you tend to see 6 lines with numbers and some letters. The strings represent the strings on the guitar, and the numbers are the fret position. 

If you see number 3 on the 2nd line from the bottom, you press the 3rd fret on the 2nd string from the bottom of your guitar fretboard. You may see letterings, such as P or H. These indicate moves such as hammer-ons or pull-offs. 

With chords, you see the song lyrics, with the specific chord at a certain point of the lyrics. These indicate that you should change your chords at that point in the song. You may need to memorize how to press these chords, as they are usually not indicated. 

Level Of Detail

Tabs are much more detailed, as it shows the string and frets position for you to press on. It also indicates embellishments such as hammer-on, pull-offs, and wah pedal pulls. 

Chord notes only show chords. As a result, tabs can notate things that chord notes cannot do, such as a detailed guitar solo.

Similarity To Actual Play

Due to its level of detail, tabs can notate very closely to the actual play. This makes tabs very powerful. For example, if you wish to pick up Slash’s ‘Sweet Child Of Mine’ guitar solo, many guitar tabs have done a great job notating it.

Chord notes can never achieve this, as the notation system cannot write down single-note plays but only chords. 

Are Tabs Harder Than Chords?

Generally, tabs are harder than chords. This is because tabs are a more complex notation system. Tabs are also harder to sight-read and play along with. There are more things to pick up in tabs, such as hammer-on or other specific guitar plays.

When looking into how tabs are written, they are harder to read, learn and play than chords. Tabs have a more complex structure and are capable of notating more complicated guitar plays compared to tabs. 

More Complex

Tabs are simply a much more complex notation system than chords. Tab notes may contain string lines, numbers, letters, and occasional notes from the tab writer. 

Chords only notate down the chords to play at a particular point of the song. You only need knowledge of the chords and know how to sing the song to play along to it.

More Terms To Pick Up

Since tabs are more complex, there are more terms for you to pick up when learning or reading a tab. 

You first need to understand the notation system and how the lines and numbers connect. Then you also learn about the letters and what they mean. You also need to learn to play these notes to beats and the actual song, which may take practice.

Chords are simpler simply because you only need to have knowledge of the song and the chords in the note. As you sing along to the song and play, you will naturally learn to transition from one chord to the other. 

Harder To Sight Read

Due to their complexity, tabs are much harder to sight-read compared to chords. In fact, most competent guitar players can easily look at a chord note and play it immediately, provided they know the song. This is effectively sight reading. 

Tabs are much harder. A competent guitarist may be able to sight-read simpler tabs. However, with harder-to-execute single-note plays and slides, hammer-ons, or pull-offs, some practice may be needed to get them right. 

Are Learning Tabs Better Than Chords?

A guitarist should learn both tabs and chords. However, learning tabs may be better than chords, allowing you to play more complex guitar plays in the long run. Chords may allow you to play a song fast, but tabs allow you to learn more advanced plays, such as solos, from your favorite players. 

To start, if you wish to play guitar, you should learn to read chords and tabs. This is because both notation systems are helpful and can allow you to play many songs easily. 

If you learn chord notes, you may be able to become a casual guitar player very quickly. If you have memorized the common chords and know the song, you can easily go online, find the chord notes of the song, and play them immediately. 

This allows you to play guitar socially and entertain your friends and family easily. You can even use the skill to entertain song requests. 

However, learning tabs are where you will really transform. Tabs notate guitar plays in a much more detailed form, which means you can learn how to play the most complex guitar plays and riffs from real professionals. 

If your goal in guitar playing is to one day shred it like Angus Young from ACDC, you can look for the tab for the song ‘Highway To Hell’, and learn to play it. Sooner, you will play the solo exactly like the actual song sounds. 

Do Professional Guitarists Use Tabs?

Professional guitarists generally do not use tabs. Instead, they rely on sight reading and their knowledge of chords, keys, and progressions to inject their own playing and blend with the other instruments present.

Generally, professional guitarists do not use tabs for many reasons. Some may use chord notes, however. There are several reasons why they do not need them:

Tabs Are Rarely Used

Tabs are generally rarely used by professional guitarists. Depending on the type of guitar and music they are playing, they may be given any of the following:

Sheet Music: Suppose you are a classical guitarist playing for an orchestra, jazz band, or solo. In this case, you will likely receive a full sheet music, such as a standard music score. A piece of full sheet music dictates how the guitar should be played and has a very detailed reference for the professional to play it well. 

Chord Notes: For modern guitarists, such as in a rock band, the professional may receive a chord note indicating the song lyrics, the chords to be used, the key, and maybe the time signature and tempo. This may make it easier for the guitarist to play, as not all guitarists are able to read sheet music. 

Song Title & Key: If you are jamming in a rock band, chances are you will be told of a song title, and the key will be played in. This method can work well, provided the guitarist knows the song and has deep knowledge of chords and notes progression. It also gives the guitarists the freedom to play as they see fit.

Tabs Are Very Limiting To Their Playing

There is a reason why professional guitarists are different from regular players out there. They are armed with the ability to play very creatively and blend their playing well to the tunes they are playing with. 

However, this can only work if the professional guitarist is free to play. As a result, you may find many professional studio or session guitarists play with nothing but perhaps keys and chord progressions. 

Tabs are too detailed, causing them little space to improvise and play to their creativity. As a result, many professional guitarists may find tabs very limiting to their playing. 

They Do Not Need Tabs

Many professional guitarists see tabs as something in between. They may go with a chord sheet if they want freedom in playing. If they want maximum guidance and reference when playing, they get sheet music instead. 

As a result, professional guitarists work with these notations instead. They also prefer to play by ear, use their knowledge of chord progressions to predict what may come next, and play to their guesses.

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