Why Is Sheet Music Better Than Tab?

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The most common notation systems for guitars are chord notes, tablature, and sheet music or scores. Many have mentioned that sheet music is the hardest to learn but is the best. Why is sheet music better than tabs?

Sheet music is better than tabs because it is a more detailed form of musical notation. Tabs note down pressing position and some embellishments. Sheet music specifies more, such as expression, time signature, key, tempo, and more. With sheet music, you also get to play classical pieces much better.

This article discusses without sheet music, specifically who it is better than tabs. We also look into situations when tab may be better than sheet music and if all professional guitarists read sheet music.

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Why Is Sheet Music Better Than Tab?


How Are Sheet Music Different From Guitar Tab?

Sheet music and tab may differ in complexity and ease of learning. They may be more common with different types of guitarists and music genres. It could be said that modern music played with electric guitars is more commonly notated in tabs. In contrast, classical guitar pieces may be notated in sheet music. 

AspectsSheet MusicTablatures
ComplexityMore complexSimpler
Ease Of LearningHarder, often requiring formal instructionsEasier to learn
Music GenresMore common with classical, jazz musicMore common with modern music such as rock
Guitar TypesMore common with classical guitarMore common with acoustic and electric guitars


Generally, you may assume sheet music to be much more complicated than tab. This is because sheet music contains much more information to read and digest than tablature. 

For example, sheet music contains a time signature, key, tempo, expressions, and rhythm. This allows a competent guitarist reading music independently without the need to know the song beforehand. Some can even play right away by reading the scores, a skill called sight reading. 

Unfortunately, guitar tab do not contain this much information. This means players usually need to know the song beforehand, then play to the tab while adjusting their rhythm to the actual song.

Ease Of Learning

Sheet music would be harder to learn compared to tabs. In fact, many people actually studied sheet music in a formal class, learning music theory and concepts. Colleges and universities actually offer music theory classes as well. As a result, people who picked up an instrument casually may not have sheet music reading skills.

Tabs are easier to learn and pick up, as the standard notation is more straightforward. You press on the strings based on the numbers and string position they are printed on. As a result, many people can actually pick up guitar tablature without proper instruction. 

Music Genres

You may see sheet music used to notate more classical music genres, such as jazz. In fact, orchestral musical pieces may also use sheet music to notate how guitars should be played

This is the reverse of modern music genres. More modern, electric music, such as rock, uses tabs. This is due to the more casual nature of this music, meaning that not all guitarists can read standard notation. 

Guitar Types

Classical and some acoustic guitar notations may come in sheet music in many situations. This is because classical guitarists tend to have received formal music theory instruction, meaning they can read them. 

With tabs, you are more likely to see them used to notate for electric guitars, bass guitars, and some acoustic guitars. This again points to the fact that many modern guitarists may not know how to read sheet music, which means Tablature are the next best thing for them.

Why Is Music Notation Better Than Guitar Tablature?

Sheet music may be better than tab because it is much more detailed. Sheet music is also capable of notating almost all instruments compared to tabs. Guitarists can also play sheet music immediately, even if they do not know the song. This is rarely possible with tabs, as it does not contain enough rhythmic information.

Sheet music can be seen as superior to tab in many ways. This is because sheet music can do things that tablatures cannot, thanks to its more complex music notation.

Sheet Music Is More Detailed

Why Is Sheet Music Better Than Tab?

Standard notation is better than tabs because they are very detailed. Tablature usually contain information such as where to press on guitar strings and embellishments such as hammer-ons or pull-offs.

Sheet music contains this information but in individual notes. These notes are arranged in rhythms and may come with a key. Standard notation also contains information such as expressions, time signature, tempo, and more.  

As a result, if you play guitar to sheet music, you are more likely to play closer to what the original score writer wants from the guitar. 

Sheet Music Can Be Played Without Prior Knowledge Of Song

One of the biggest weaknesses of tablature is that it does not note down things such as rhythms well. As a result, most guitarists and musicians tend to need to bridge this gap themselves. 

This is commonly done by humming the song and then playing to the tab. While playing, players try to get a feel for the rhythm and speed. It may be a good strategy, but you need to at least be able to hum and sing to the song before you can play with a tablature.

Standard noation does not have this issue since the notation is very detailed. In fact, a competent guitarist can look at the score and try to play with it immediately, even if they do not know the song. This skill is known as sight reading, which may be much harder to acquire if playing with tab.

Sheet Music Is More Flexible

Sheet music is a comprehensive notation for music. It can notate many instruments as long as they express notes within its ability. 

Most instruments are notated in sheet music, such as brass (trumpet, trombone, tuba), woodwind (clarinet, flute, saxophones), or even percussive instruments such as drums, piano, and bongo. Due to its notation, tablature tend to be limited to only stringed instruments such as guitars, lutes, or ukuleles. 

If you can read notation, you can easily transfer the skill into learning another instrument. You can also use your guitar-playing skills and transfer between genres, such as using tabs to play rock songs and sheet music to play in an orchestra.

When Are Tabs Better Than Standard Notation for Some Musicians?

Tabs may be better than sheet music when someone is trying to learn to play harder guitar plays but does not have adequate knowledge of sheet music. This is because tabs may be the most complete notation system for guitars after sheet music. 

If you are serious about being a musician, you may want to ensure you can read music notation. This is because it is probably the best and most complete notation. 

However, if you cannot, you may focus on learning tablature first. This is because it is simpler to pick up. You often do not need formal instructions to learn tabs. This means you may be able to play guitar to your favorite songs faster, which can motivate many.

Aside from that, if you enjoy modern, electrical guitar music such as rock, tabs may be better than sheet music. This is because most of the notations for this music tend to be in music tabs. If you learn to read tablature, you can quickly find the right tabs to learn the songs and play them in no time. Also, it is used very often for chords.

Do Professional Guitarists Read Music?

Not all professional guitarists know how to read sheet music. This is because not all guitarists are formally trained. Some professional guitarists are also appreciated for their ability to improvise while playing. This means they need knowledge of the key, notes, and chord progression, rather than sheet reading ability.

This may surprise you, but not all professional guitarists are capable of reading sheet music. Some very legendary guitarists are sheet music blind:

  • Eric Clapton
  • Prince
  • Eddie Van Halen
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Slash (Guns and Roses)
  • Noel Galagher
  • Bob Dylan

This is because the guitar has always been seen as a more casual instrument than the piano or trumpet. As a result, you may see more maestros of these instruments learning them without formal music theory instructions. 

Plus, many guitarists are appreciated for their ability to play impromptu on the spot. In many cases, they are given only the key, chords progression, and accompanying instruments such as rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and drums. They then play freestyle, improvising as they go along. 

To do so requires deep knowledge and confidence in note and chord progressions, as well as matching their notes with the key used in the song. To perform this way, little to no music sheet ability is required. 

However, most classical guitarists would know how to read sheet music. This is because they tend to play in an orchestra, a jazz band, which regularly uses standard music notation. Classical guitarists may also play classical pieces from historical composers, meaning they need to be literate in sheet music.

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