Music notation has been around as long as there has been music, allowing people to play repertoire from across the years. It has also evolved over time, from simple noteheads on a staff to the classical method of notation to even off-the-wall charts (just see the notated version of “Alien Love Kiss” from the tablature book to Steve Vai’s “Passion and Warefare” for a prime example.) Guitar tabs have been an easy way to learn guitar for many guitarists, including me. Do I consider using tabs as cheating?
Part of that evolution of music notation for a guitarist is the tablature. The simple-yet-effective means of notating music for guitar players. For those unfamiliar, tablature consists of a six-lined staff where, instead of traditional notes, numbers are placed on the lines.
These lines represent the strings on a guitar, and the numbers correspond to the frets on the instrument. A number “3” on the bottom line would tell the player to play the note on the third fret of the low “E” string.
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What are the different forms of Guitar Tabs
Guitar tablature (or “tab”, for short) usually comes in three forms.
- A version where the tablature appears below a classically-notated version of the song (meaning that the player must look at two staves);
- a single six-lined staff where the numbers incorporate stems and lines to indicate rhythm (much like the stems and line paters for 8th notes, 16th notes, etc.);
- or the internet version where it is only numbers on a six-lined staff, spaced out (hopefully) in accordance to their value of time.
Why do people think that reading tab is cheating?
Some people may think of this as cheating, eschewing the need to read music or to learn songs on the guitar by ear (as many of us did before the age of tablature). However, I would argue that it is not cheating (as much as a pianist buying sheet music for a Beethoven sonata is not cheating; if you want to learn the song, you may need a written form of it).
What it does provide is an easy means for a player to learn a song or exercise using the simplest way to read it. It does have its pros and cons, however.
Here is the deal, learning guitar should be an enjoyable process. It does not matter how you learn the music. I personally learned to play guitar with guitar tabs. But just the fact that I was able to learn to play guitar and later dedicate my life to music is a beautiful thing. In the end, I have been mentoring many students thanks to the fact that I learn to play guitar with tabs.
A reason why tabs would not be beneficial in people eyes.
Something that maybe people would criticize you is because the classical guitar is more into the European system of learning music. And probably you are not practicing your sight reading. Also another problem is that most classical music is written in traditional notation.
Probably for the most famous classical guitar tunes, you are going to be able to find tabs with the traditional notation. An example of this music would be Asturias, Lagrimas, and even “La Catedral” from Agustin Barrios.
For most of the rest of the classical repertoire, finding tablature will be very complicated. There are many great compositions and arrangements that you can’t find it. And if you do, there would be many elements of the music that it would miss. In many cases, composers normally would composed on a traditional notation, and there are many things that the composer is expressing that are in the music and not in the tabs.
In other words, playing guitar with a standard notation would be more convenient in the moment of sight reading without even hearing the music before. Also, it can serve as a universal language. Other instruments could follow your music.
Pros and Cons of using guitar tabs.
First, the pros…
- It’s easy to read. The player just needs to put their fingers in the indicated frets, and they’re off! No prior knowledge of reading music is required to get you playing.
- It’s widely available. From magazines to transcription books to the internet, it is quite possible to find your favorite song tabbed out somewhere.
- It’s a gateway to further music education. In order to get the most out of it, players may be compelled to learn basic music reading techniques to properly interpret rhythms, notes, etc.
And, the cons…
- The degree of accuracy can vary greatly, especially on the internet. A search for “Master of Puppets” (RIP Eddie Munson!) on ultimate-guitar.com yielded dozens of hits, with each version being different (I even spotted an incorrect first chord in one of them!) Most internet tab is written by regular players who play differently and hear differently, and what they are presenting is their interpretation. So, always best to use your ears while reading to make sure things sound good.
- Most tabs have missing musical information, particularly rhythm. (Again, I’m looking at you, the internet!) Most internet tabs do not include stems, bars and various rhythmic notations found in regular sheet music, meaning that you need to interpret when to hit chords and notes.
- You don’t get the ear training that older players got by learning songs. Before tabs, players slowed down records, dropped and re-dropped the needle on song sections, rewound cassette tapes repeatedly, etc. in order to figure out how a song was played. If you aspire to become a professional, it is best to use your ears to learn songs or use your ears in conjunction with tabs to learn.
Don’t worry too much about what others think about if you are cheating tabs or not. In the end, learning music is beautiful, no matter how you do it. Music is made to be enjoyed. That’s my personal thought about it. What do I prefer? I do prefer traditional notation. It is easier for me to follow rhythms and what other think the composer want to guide me with the music.
Sometimes, very rarely, I use tabs. But I don’t condone it. In fact, use it if it benefits you mentally and emotionally. And what I mean by this is that it would give you a sense of progression and satisfaction, and it definitely boosts your confidence every time you learn something new with your instrument.
Regardless of these cons, tablature has made the guitar more accessible to more players everywhere. So, Google that song and dive into learning; whatever gets you playing the guitar can’t be a bad thing.