Guitar tablature and sheet music for guitar look very similar at first glance. Guitar sheet music is five horizontal lines divided into measures by short vertical lines. Tab is six horizontal lines which may or may not be divided into measures. The ways these tools help you to learn new material is quite different.
Tab versus music notation
The debate over tabs versus sheet music tends to polarize guitarists into two distinct groups. One group has learned to read music, usually when they first learned to play, and therefore enjoy the benefits of being able to learn any song or instrumental by reading the sheet music. The other group learns by putting in hours listening to recordings, watching other guitarists, and experimenting with their own musical ideas. These guitarists keep a body of ideas inside themselves. These ideas give direction to which pieces these guitarists learn as well as governing how they improvise and write new songs.
Either group can learn to improvise solos or write songs according to the time and effort they put into their music, but the guitarists who can read music have a greater range of teaching materials they can use to broaden their capabilities.
Music notation is a means of communication for musicians. In a perfect world, all musicians, no matter which instrument they play, would be able to instantly play any piece of music put in front of them. If they are members of a band, each person would understand the part he plays from reading the music.
Guitar sheet music tells the whole story when it comes to a piece of music. From sheet music a guitar player can tell where the instruments play together or take solos, and where sections of the music are repeated. For simple melody lines such as those found in pop, rock and blues, sheet music tells where on the guitar fretboard the notes are played, and the time signature. It also tells the player how long each note lasts.
Where music notation fails
A lot of guitar music is played in alternate tunings. As the strings on the guitar can be tuned individually, many different musical effects can be achieved by departing from the standard guitar tuning of E A D G B E. Sight reading a piece written in a non-standard tuning is very difficult because the guitarist has learned to sight read based on standard tuning. For reading pieces in any alternate tuning, tab is easier.
Advantages of guitar tabs
Guitar tablature is a picture of the guitar strings. The names of the strings are listed down the left side of the tab, and the fret numbers are listed along the strings, telling you where to put your fingers. Using tab for guitar playing needs no special training, which means you can start hearing yourself playing the song right away. Standard musical notation tells you which notes to play, but for every note there is a choice of positions on the fretboard. Tablature eliminates this decision for the newbie guitar player, making learning a little faster.
What tablature does not tell you
Most of the basic information about a piece of guitar music can be written in tab but there is no way to represent note duration. Tab is only good if the guitarist knows how the song sounds. This means that the guitar player can tell from the tab where to put his fingers to play the notes, but he must have the tune in his head in order to put them together.
This tab shows where to put your fingers on the fourth string in order to play the riff from Smoke on the Water:
There is a technology-based solution to the problem of rendering note values in guitar tablature. Tab used to be only available in the form of hand drawn or typed text documents, but now it is possible to produce tabs using a guitar tab maker. There are several of these guitar tab software programs – notable ones are Powertab, Tabledit and GuitarPro. Most will import tab written as a text document (often referred to as ASCII) or midi files, and convert them to tabs. TuxGuitar is a free guitar editor which imports files made in other editors as well as midis and ASCII tabs.
You can download TuxGuitar here.
The time factor
Learning to read music does take time. Getting to know the names of the notes and how they relate to the dots on the page needs some study. Learning to read tabs for guitar can be done in less than half an hour.
Learning to read music is not essential in order to learn to play guitar. Tommy Emmanuel, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton are three great guitarists who never learned to read music. These players succeeded in music by the force of their enthusiasm for playing. They learned to play by ear, and other musicians played with them because of their flair for guitar playing. An article on Jimi Hendrix’s early life and music career gives an insight into how a guitarist with an individualistic approach and an overwhelming devotion to playing guitar can attract the interest of audiences and other musicians.
Many guitar teachers will insist on teaching their students music theory and music notation. This is because theory and music reading prepare the student for any challenges he or she may meet in music. This includes working with other musicians in a band or recording studio.