Should A Guitarist Learn To Read Music Notation As Well As Tab?

Do you wonder whether or not you should learn to read music notation, as well as tablature (tab for short)?

If you are a guitarist learning any style of music outside of classical or jazz, the chances are high that you learnt to read tab early on, but you have not yet learn to read music notation.

If you are unclear about which is which, here is an image of some guitar music with music notation on the top and tab on the bottom:

dun laoghaire guitar lessons tab notation example

Tab is relatively easy to read – it shows you 6 lines, one for each string on the guitar, and it shows you which fret to play on each string. Most people can learn how to read tab slowly by their first lesson. Probably the most confusing thing about it is remembering which is the top string and which is the bottom string! The line at the top of the page is the 1st string (the High E String) which is at the bottom of your guitar (closer to your feet). It’s easy to get this mixed up at times, in fact I remember doing it occasionally even after having played for a few years! Sometimes people wonder why they didn’t just make tab the same way up as your guitar; I used to wonder too. A couple of reasons why could be:

1) When you look at the page, it’s just like what you see when you look down at the strings of your guitar
2) It follows the same orientation as traditional music notation; the notes higher up on the page are also higher in pitch, and the notes lower on the page are lower in pitch. In this way it is actually your GUITAR which is upside down! The lowest pitch strings are at the top of your guitar, whereas the highest pitch strings are at the bottom of your guitar.

OK, so tab is fairly easy to read once you get the top and bottom figured out. What about music notation? Music notation is a completely different system. There are 5 lines (called a “stave”), but the lines have nothing to do with strings! This system is used by EVERY instrument – not just stringed instruments, or not just guitars. The lines represent different notes, and so do the spaces in between the lines. There is a symbol called a clef on the left hand side of the stave – this symbol determines which notes the lines represent. For guitar we use the treble clef lines represent the notes E, G, B, D and F – Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge

This squiggly fella is the treble clef symbol:

dun laoghaire guitar lessons treble clef

There are a lot of different sentences to help you remember the strings on your guitar, and the lines on the stave. Don’t get them mixed up! Remember: EVERY instrument uses music notation – so the sentence to remember the notes on the treble clef starts with the word EVERY. And remember, only EDDIE plays the guitar, so the sentence to remember your strings starts with the word EDDIE! Eddie Ate Dynamite Good Bye Eddie. E A D G B E are the strings, starting with the 6th string, going down to the 1st string at the bottom of your guitar.

So now you know which is which. And music notation is certainly more complicated than tab, because you have to learn the note names on the guitar, not just the frets. Which takes longer and it’s definitely harder, but there is a huge payoff beyond the obvious fact that you get to know the guitar much better.

The main difference in my opinion is that in tab, you don’t know exactly WHEN to play the notes. If the tab is written well it might give you some rough idea of when to play the notes. But unless you know how it should sound, it won’t tell you exactly how to play it. Music notation tells you what notes to play, and exactly WHEN to play them. If you start with very easy music, then it is actually easy to learn to read. Just learn another note each week, and progress through slightly harder rhythms each week. It’s easy if you have the right system.

Interested in learning to read music on guitar? Fill out the form on the guitar lessons contact page to set up a free introductory session.