a music score
Tabs and sheet music both help you read the music you’re learning, but which is best for you?

The Hard Baroquer is a home musician that has pursued music as a hobby for nearly 20 years. An intermediate guitarist, beginner bassist and even sometimes dabbling on the harmonica, he is always learning something. In his free time, he runs The Hard Baroquer blog.

By The Hard Baroquer

Learning new songs and pieces by ear is the dream… it’s challenging to master and a definite sign of showing you’re an experienced musician. But often, on the road to developing our ears, we learn most efficiently through notated music. For those out there learning how to play guitar, there are two options: tablatures (tabs) and sheet music. So which is best?

Learning from tabs

Tablature notation is based on lines representing each string; six lines for guitar, four or five lines for bass, and the equivalent if the song is played on an extended range guitar. The tabs feature a number for each fret that must be played. This literal way of notating means that what you see is what you play, making tabs are the easiest way of learning how to read music (other than chord names over lyrics).

Sight reading (playing as you read) is more manageable as finger placement is not something you need to process.

Tabs are ubiquitous too. Every music resource available to musicians will have tabs available. Online lessons on YouTube also have tabs as the preferred method of notating the music.

Is there a downside to tabs? Hard to say because they are an effective way of allowing you to read music written down for guitars and basses.

Where they fall flat (pardon the pun) is they don’t help to understand the goings on of the music beyond ‘finger goes here’. Rhythm and timing of each notes as well as what to accentuate must all be estimated by the reader.

Music is written with lots of theory attached that helps it make sense – even the simplest pop song. Time signatures, key signatures and musical directions can all be lost.

But what tabs aim to do is give you the foundations that you can work with.

What’s more, you can’t take a tab and teach yourself piano with it. Or indeed any other instrument. Knowing only tablature pigeon-holes you to guitar.

That’s not a huge downside for guitarists, but it does make a case for at least learning a little bit of sheet music if you can.

How to read guitar tabs

Tabs are super easy to read. There is a line for every string, with the top line being the highest-pitched string. Typically dashes represent each beat and numbers signify which fret to play. You may see instructions such as ‘h’ or ‘p’ or ‘/’. These tell you to hammer on the next note, to pull off for the next note or to slide to the upcoming note.

C major scale in tab form.

Where frets are labelled in one vertical line, it means that those notes are a chord and should be played as such.

A four chord progression in tab form depicting a single strum each of C major, G major, A minor and F major.

Learning from sheet music

Reading standard musical notation is certainly a steeper learning curve. Stringed instruments differ from piano (which sheet music is optimised for) in that there are multiple places to pay any given note.

As an example, in standard tuning on a six-string guitar, middle C is in two locations: third fret on the fifth string and eighth fret on the sixth string. On sheet music, middle C is notated as having a ledger line below the bottom line of the stave, when using the treble clef.

In the bass clef, middle C is notated as having a ledger line going through above the top line of the stave and in the alto clef it is in the middle line of the stave.

So, more to learn. And when sight reading, you need to process the note you’re being asked to play and figure out where is the best place to play that note.

But, it helps you understand more too as reading sheet music allows you to more easily transfer your knowledge to a new instrument, if your aim is to become a multi-instrumentalist.

Rhythmic tabs – a hybrid

When it comes to finding tabs online on websites like Songsterr or through software like Guitar Pro, it’s possible to find guitar and bass music notation that blends the fret numbering system of tabs with the rhythm scoring system of traditional notation, allowing you to more easily understand how the melody and rhythm are being written, but also to instantly know the exact positioning for your fingers, a best of both worlds situation.

At the end of the day, both systems help you achieve the goal of learning how to play music through reading notation. If you want something that specialised to guitar playing, stick with tabs; if you want to have broader understanding of the music that you’re reading you’ll do well to invest some time learning how to read standard music notation.