Write Now: Are You A Fan Of Guitar Tablature?

The debate lives.

It’s one that guitarists and bassists often have.

The debate is over the use of tablature vs. musical notation.

For me, it’s a simple answer. I would rather read music than to read tab. To me, and some other bassists and guitarists may agree, it is that tab doesn’t really show anything, except where to place one’s fingers on the fretboard.

Who is to say the tabs are correct?

I have long championed learning how to read music because it opens many more doors than just reading a tab does. Reading music teaches one:






¯note value


Reading tab doesn’t offer any of these previously mentioned. It’s just a picture of the fretboard with the number of the fret and string of which the note is played. To some musicians that may be a starting point, but if one relies only on tab, then one will only get so far with his technique. It’s almost as if someone who is trying to learn guitar or bass and someone shows him a guitar chord or some bass notes. Now the musician may now know one chord or some note phrases on a bass, but doesn’t know the relationship between the notes on the fretboard. Whether it’s a guitar or bass guitar, the peculiar thing is that there are places on the neck where the same note can be played, but on a different fret and string.

And that’s where tab falls short.

Tab is one person’s way of figuring out a song and notating it so others may play the song. Here in lies the rub. It’s one person’s interpretation. It may be incorrect because there may be other ways to play the song. With a transcription, one may be stuck with one way to play the song. If you watch any Youtube videos where musicians show how to play a song, and you see them play it differently than you play it, and you wonder if you are correct.

I remember in the early and mid 80s that there were several guitar magazines that included music transcriptions of popular songs that included most genres.

There was usually one bass transcription as well. I lived for those magazines because it gave me insight on how something was notated and what the notes were if I could not decipher them by ear. To me the transcriptions are reference points. I still look for transcriptions online, so I can learn a song.

I like hybrid notation where the tab is paired with the music. I don’t rely on the tab because I’m looking at the notes.

Here is a scenario where needing to know theory prevails. If a guitarist or a bassist goes to a session where all that is given out are lead sheets where only the chords are given, then one has to know which notes to choose when playing. For guitarists, there are different ways to play chords on a guitar.

If the guitarist only knows one way to play for example an A Major chord, then the guitarist is limited on what he can play. The same goes for a bassist. If he is given chord names, and he doesn’t know the notes that spell or outline a chord, then the bassist may not choose the correct notes to play or it may take him longer to find the notes.

Don’t change what you play because songs can be played in different ways. What works for you may not work for someone else. If you are going to learn guitar or bass, take the time to learn the fretboard and learn how to read music.

There are many ways to learn how read music.

What’s ironic to me is that one doesn’t see tab for a string section in an orchestra.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record (pun intended), but with knowing some theory, one will be able to hold a better musical conversation.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)


Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today