Tabs can be helpful when learning to play the melody of a song. They provide a visual representation of the notes when learning a song. But what about professional guitarists—do they rely on tabs, or are they good enough that they can use regular sheet music?
Most professional guitarists don’t use tabs. Instead, they learn to sight read because they won’t be given sheet music that contains tabs. Since professional musicians might be in situations where all they’re given is the chord progression, they rely on theory, experience, and their ears when playing.
Eddie Van Halen once claimed that guitar tabs started because musicians couldn’t use sheet music to notate his licks. The truth is that guitar tabs existed before he was born. Keep reading as we explore the history of tabs and why most professional guitarists do not use them.
Why Most Don’t Professional Guitarists Use Tabs
Most professional guitarists don’t rely on tabs for various reasons, but the main one is they’ll rarely see them when playing, so they learn to read standard notation.
They’ll Rarely See Them
The primary reason professional guitarists don’t use tabs is because they’ll rarely see them. Instead, they’ll be playing with one of these:
- Modified notation sheets that have the melody, words, and chords. Books written for piano, vocal, and guitar use this format. The words and melody help with the timing, and a guitarist uses the chords for rhythm playing or the standard notation for individual notes. Fake books also use this format.
- A chord sheet indicates the chords to play for the verse and refrain. Session guitarists will sometimes be given a sheet that has the key, chords to play, perhaps with the lyrics and time signature. It’s assumed a professional session player has the chops to use that information to play rhythm and maybe add some improvised bars.
- A complete score. A guitarist playing with a symphony or Broadway show will usually be given the same score as everyone else. Some players might use the score to write tabs, but guitars who work in these settings can sight read.
- The title and key. Sometimes a guitarist will be given the title and key. The other players will expect him to either know the song or use music theory and careful listening to know when to make chord changes.
One exception is if a guitarist plays in a cover band where the guitar licks should duplicate those in the originals. In that situation, the player might have a voice/guitar book that contains melody, words, chords, and the tabs for solos.
They Find Tabs Limiting
Guitarists find tabs limiting. A note on the guitar can be played in many places along the fretboard, and the same is true for chords, which can be played in different positions. But on a tab, the notes must be played with the fingering as shown.
A guitarist who avoids tabs can choose where to play those notes and which chord structure to use. Also, a skilled guitarist will try to keep the number of moves on the fretboard to a minimum. For example, jazz guitarists seldom use all six strings to play a chord and instead use chord forms that are only a few frets apart.
Professionals focus on different voicings for chords and how to play arpeggios and scales in various locations on a fretboard.
They Don’t Need Them
Professional guitarists have at least some understanding of music theory, experience, and a good ear. By the time they’re in a position to play and get paid, they’ve been in situations where they couldn’t rely on tabs. At that point, tabs seem almost pointless.
Since pros rarely see them, they learn how to play without them. Classical guitarists are traditionally taught with standard notation, so although they might write a piece in tab format, they’ve learned to play in standard notation, so why learn something else?
Guitarists in a rock or pop band typically play by ear, use chord sheets, with maybe some tabs for lead solos. Standard notation was never learned by the Beatles, nor by the great majority of pop and rock guitarists.
Jazz players can read standard notation, but since there’s a lot of improvisation in jazz, tabs would be pointless.
When Were Tabs First Used?
Tabs for stringed instruments like guitars aren’t a recent invention.
Tab notation was first used in the medieval period, and the Renaissance saw wide use of tablature. Originally, tablature was used for organ music notation. Eventually, tabs were used for stringed instruments like guitars and lutes.
Standard notation was developed for other instruments due to the limitations of tabs.
At first, tabs weren’t consistent. For example, the frets are represented by numerals in Spanish and Italian scores, just like in modern tabs. However, unlike modern tabs, the lowest-pitched course or string of the instrument is represented by the top line of the staff.
In contrast to the Spanish and Italian methods, French tablature used letters rather than numbers to indicate which fret to play. The open string is represented by the letter “A.” Like modern tabs, the top line refers to the guitar’s high E.
Due to limitations of tabs, by the mid-1850s, most serious guitarists and other string players were using a single staff to notate and play their instruments.
What Are the Limitations of Tabs?
Tabs are limited in what they tell you—when you should play the notes and for how long. Unless the song is simple, you would need standard notation or to listen to the song to play it correctly.
A guitarist who uses tabs might point out that advanced tabs show timing information. That’s true, but the symbols need to be learned. So again, why not just learn standard notation?
A single guitar may play many parts at once, such as a bassline and melody, for example. Standard notation can indicate each line individually. Tabs cannot.
Singers and musicians of many instruments can understand standard notation, and you can use it to modify a violin or saxophone piece for guitar. Not so with tabs.
Finally, many tabs are inaccurate. Because they’re so simple to create and post online by anybody with a computer and a text editor, many are of low quality and accuracy. Even tabs in books are only someone’s interpretation of how a musician played a song. The musician himself is not going to write out the tabs.
Do Tabs Have Advantages?
Tabs have many advantages. Of course, a rhythm guitarist doesn’t need them, but tabs are excellent for performing complicated compositions where the exact precision of playing a song is critical.
Using tabs is helpful when playing music that has a four or five-octave range. It’s much easier to see the fingering on the fretboard instead of having to interpret additional ledger lines and 8va indicators.
Some guitarists will take guitar pieces written for guitar and convert standard notation to tabs (Question: Why is a guitar tab upside down?). And programs like Finale have started adding tab conversion. So perhaps in the future, guitarists will get music in an electronic format and be able to convert it to tabs with a click of the mouse.
However, that day isn’t here yet. Until then, tabs are a good learning tool but not something most professional musicians will use.
What You Could Do Instead of Learning Tabs
Although you could use tabs to help you learn specific licks and solos, you’ll make more progress if you focus more on learning how to read standard notation, music theory, and how to voice chords, arpeggios, and scales in various positions on the fretboard.
One of the first things to learn is how to play guitar chords in positions besides the standard one. Most of us know how to make a standard C, but there are more than ten other ways to play the chord. You can build the chord from the 5th, 8th, and even 10th fret.
When you learn alternative chord positions, you can change the sound of a chord. Also, you don’t constantly have to race down the neck to play a chord.
Also, learn the formulas of music. For example, most songs have predictable chords. A song that begins in C will typically have an F as the next chord and end with a C chord. Begin to
develop an ear for a chord’s flavor—is it a minor chord, is the musician playing a 7th, and so on.
Finally, work on figuring out which chord you should play next. Once you become confident in predicting what chord is coming next, you’ll use chord progressions and variations successfully.
So, if you’re a newbie to guitar, using tabs can help you learn how to become acquainted with the notes on your fretboard. Also, learning how to copy licks and solos will teach you how other guitarists put music together. And it feels good. But if your goal is to become a professional, you should learn to read sheet music.