Guitar tablature or music notation? Which should I learn?

About Glenn Sutton

As a professional guitar teacher with 25 years of experience (see, people sometimes ask me whether they should learn guitar tablature or standard music notation. This article and video explain each form of notation and I also give some guidelines as to which notation guitar students should learn. I have included the video I recorded at the end of this article.

Types of music notation for guitar

The two most common forms of guitar music notation available are what are referred to as guitar tablature music notation (‘tabs’) or traditional sheet music also know as standard music notation (SN).

Standard Music Notation

Standard music notation uses a five-line staff. Round-headed notes are placed on the lines and in the spaces between the lines. This form of notation provides everything the player needs to know in order to play a piece of music including notes, tempo, rhythm, and timing. SN provides detailed information about rests, dynamics, and duration of each note. Tablature music notation does does not provide this information.

A disadvantage of standard music notation for someone learning the guitar is that it is somewhat complex and it can be discouraging for someone who just wants to play the guitar. Music reading takes time and extended practice.

A major advantage of standard music notation is the most detailed and much more ‘accurate’ than tablature.


An example of standard musical notation showing the treble clef

Tablature Music Notation

Guitar tablature Guitar Lessons Poway 619-306-3664
Guitar tablature
Guitar Lessons Poway 619-306-3664

Guitar tablature or “tab” consists of a staff of six horizontal, parallel lines, one to represent each string of a six stringed guitar, The high e (1st string) is represented on the top and low E (6th string) on the bottom. A number placed on a line indicates which fret the guitarist should press on that particular string, read from left to right. For example, a number 7 on the third line from the top would mean to press the 7th fret on the G string.

Here is an example of guitar tab. It is not necessary to learn about musical notation to play an instrument such as the guitar. For a beginner to the guitar, or even a professional, guitar tablature gives you a great shortcut to musical notation You will likely want to see results right away – guitar tablature is excellent for being able to play songs with a minimal time investment. Tablature gets a beginner playing quickly without getting involved with sometimes boring musical notation knowledge.

Music publishers often include guitar tablature along with the music notation. To help in understanding what the music should sound like, an audio C.D. often supplied so that the student can hear and play along with the composition.


If you are a beginner, guitar tablature means that you can play and enjoy songs very quickly. It will help to keep you interested and motivated to learn the guitar. Without interest the desire to learn can fade or die off completely. However, the notation to learn depends on the styles you want to learn. For Classical and Jazz guitar, standard notation is the best. I would suggest that for all other styles, tablature is the way to go. For a student with a music background, the choice of S.N. or tablature really depends on the style of music you want to play the most..

If you are an intermediate player, tablature means you can quickly learn guitar riffs, solos, finger picking, and chords.

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