Are Guitar Tabs Considered Cheating? 7 Things To Know


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Guitar tabs are a subject of controversy to some people. While new and veteran guitarists alike use them to provide a level of clarity that sheet music might not have, some people think that they provide a shortcut to playing music that could be described as cheating. 

Guitar tabs are not cheating. Like sheet music, all guitar tabs do is provide you with the building blocks of what you need to create a song. However, guitar tabs are far easier to read and do not need as much prior musical knowledge to use. 

Guitar tabs remain a controversial topic, and with different people taking up opposing sides, it can sometimes be difficult to hear above the noise. To this effect, this article will delve into guitar tabs, highlighting a few things that anyone looking to learn more about tabs should know.

7 Things To Know About Guitar Tabs

1. Guitar Tabs. What Are They?

Guitar tabs are essentially a guide on how to play music on a guitar. The most common musical representation is sheet music which requires prior knowledge of staves, clefs, and everything in between. 

Tabs are a lesser-known form of writing music that requires none of this. They teach you to play by giving you a visual aid of what strings to strike to produce each note in a song. With practice, you can eventually become proficient enough that you bypass the need for sheet music and can play songs entirely with tabs.

2. They Require No Prior Knowledge

A major barrier to learning for many people is the amount of time and dedication it can take to learn to read sheet music. Beginners usually struggle for months before understanding the basic concepts well enough to use them, and this can last even longer before you learn how to read and play concurrently.

While it can come as second nature to people that have been playing and learning music for years, to the newcomers, it can be a large hurdle to climb. Guitar tabs provide an alternative route to sheet music, allowing anyone from veteran to complete newbie to play songs on a guitar.

3. Differing Notation

Suppose you struggle to wrap your head around the multitude of things you don’t know about standard musical notation and need a potentially easier alternative. In that case, tabs could be your saving grace.

Unlike the standard notation used almost everywhere in music, tabs have a concise, easy-to-understand notation that is far better suited to beginners than the stiffness of standard notation. Rather than showing abstract labels designed to lead you to a picture of what to do, tabs give you the exact picture you need to play what you want. 

Another point where they differ is in how they are read. Reading standard notation from sheet music requires prior knowledge of each symbol, staff, clef, and how they all function together. 

Using tablature is a lot more simplified. Guitar tabs simply display finger positions, showing exactly where to put your hands to produce the desired sound.

4. It Is Not an Easy Way Out

While tabs can be easier to read than sheet music, they still require you to put the work in. One big misconception by people new to using tabs to play their music is that it’s a shortcut to success. It’s best to remove that preconception right from the start.

Tabs are easier for some to read and make playing easier, but they are not the equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme for music. Rather think of them more as training wheels on a bike. They allow you to get comfortable playing music on a guitar without worrying about learning things other than the guitar itself. 

Like training wheels, they will not move the bike, or in this case, play the guitar for you. What they represent is an easier learning environment. You will still need to put the work in to learn to play properly and even more work if your goal is to play without errors. Like many things, this will only come with time and practice. Whether your choice is standard sheet music or tabs, there is no substitute for practice.

5. They Can Smoothen Your Transition to Sheet Music

If your goal is to eventually play like the pros and read along with sheet music as you play, tabs can be a great stepping stone towards this. While the notation and directions for use are different for each, the practice of reading and playing simultaneously can make you relatively adroit enough that reading sheet music the same way could become easier.

Similarly, if you’re just getting started learning sheet music, using tabs as training wheels can also help. Using tabs will be great practice for following a form of notation(although the notations are different). It will also familiarise you with playing the guitar enough that it becomes second nature.

6. Tabs Will Not Teach You Theory

Music theory is essential for anyone looking to truly master their instrument. Whether you plan to learn only one instrument or a wide range, learning theory is one thing that is universally accepted to be required. 

One pitfall of tabs is that they will not teach you proper theory. Proper mastery of theory requires knowledge of melody, rhythm harmony, intervals, and many more. While tabs will help you play specific songs properly and help you learn some form of theory, they will not give you the well-rounded exposure you need to understand every aspect of theory.

Over time, a lack of proper foundation in music theory will do more harm than good, especially as you begin to diversify your interests. Most tab-only players begin to stumble when they move away from the guitar to other instruments. As tabs are instrument-specific, they do very little to help you in other areas.

To properly learn theory, you will need to delve further than just tabs and immerse yourself in various types of notation. 

7. Tabs Are Limited in Scope

Tabs are great for learning guitar. However, if you need to learn another instrument, you will find yourself back at square one with no recompense. Tabs are made for guitars, and as such, the knowledge you gain from using them is not directly transferable between instruments. They are great to learn with and truly are a wonderful alternative to try, but if you hope to become diverse and learn multiple instruments, you will eventually have to learn to read other types of notation.

Relying excessively on tablature will eventually leave you extremely limited in what you can play. Even outside of playing other instruments, sole reliance on tabs leaves you familiar with the guitar but unable to play songs outside of the specific ones you’ve learned. Using other forms of notation like sheet music, chord charts, and lead sheets will give you a deeper understanding of music.

Understanding these blocks over time will give you the ability to play songs that you’ve heard rather than just the ones you’ve already learned. The ability to do this is a skill that every musician should hope to have in their arsenal.

Guitar Tabs vs. Sheet Music: Which Is Better?

It is easy to dismiss other forms of notation as worse than tabs when you first discover the wonderful world of tablature, but there is quite a bit of nuance in reality. The crux of the matter is that no one method of notation is entirely better than the other. Each has its benefits and pitfalls, and any aspiring musician will do well to learn each one to an acceptable degree.

Guitar tabs are easier, but sheets are more versatile. Although tabs can be used by anybody with the desire to do so, they are well suited to beginners for the ease they bring to playing music on a guitar. However, standard notation is a lot more versatile and will teach you more about music.

Guitar tabs, for example, bring a level of ease that is hard to find elsewhere. On the other hand, they lack the level of versatility that sheet music offers. With sheet music, you see the relationship between notes, beats, rhythm, and much more. Although it lacks the ease you get from tabs, it will over time familiarize you with the building blocks of music far more than tablature will. 

No one form of writing music is infinitely better than its counterparts. They all coexist and fulfill different niches. 

The Verdict

Guitar tabs are not cheating. Usually, the narrative is pushed by purists who believe that playing music should require the deepest knowledge of theory and years of practice under your belt. While there is some truth to the fact that theoretical knowledge of music will boost your final product, you can play perfectly fine without it.

Tabs are a great tool for beginners to figure out their way around a guitar, and for more experienced players, they can be a welcome break from the stress that can come with reading standard sheet music.

David Sandy

Hey there! My name is David Sandy and I'm the founder of Sandy Music Lab. I've been playing guitar for several years now and created this site to be able to share and explore music with others. Check out my recommended guitar gear!

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