A Defense of Tablature

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming how-to book on running a successful guitar teaching business. I thought it would inspire an interesting discussion. What do you think?

nunI can hear the legions of Standard Notation Defenders sharpening their swords even as I write this. I’m sorry—I think it’s crazy how militant some teachers are about starting their students with note reading, as if tablature were some gateway drug that starts guitarists on a path of laziness and stupidity. The opposite is true. Tablature is a fantastic tool for making guitar music accessible to beginners.

Granted, being able to read standard music notation opens many doors. It’s essential for jazz, orchestral, classical, or studio guitarists. In the same way, understanding basic algebra is essential for anyone who wants to manage their business’ finances. So do you teach algebra in kindergarten?

Your primary goal in teaching most beginners is to get them hooked on playing guitar. Every once in a while you’ll get a beginner who’s so psyched on guitar that they’re hungry for the challenge of learning note reading. But the vast majority are wary, and rightfully so. The guitar is a tough instrument at first. It’s much harder to get a guitar to sound good than, say, a piano. Why compound the challenges of buzzing strings, tuning difficulties, sore fingertips, and the dreaded F chord, with the epic task of learning note reading?

Update: The Handbook is now available for purchase here.

Comments 13

  1. I started classical guitar lessons when I was 6. I wish now I had kept it up, but alas, a 6 year old kid loses interest in things pretty quickly… Especially when after weeks of lessons and practice he still can’t “play” anything.

    I didn’t pick up guitar again until I was 21, and taught myself open chords, and leaned to play songs that way. Later I moved onto fingerpicking and flatpicking and then scales… and now love improvising over backing tracks.

    I did take sax lessons in highschool, so I did learn to reach single note music notation, and I have pretty good knowledge of music theory because of that… but the point is… the long, slow learning curve of standard notation scared me off guitar for many years. Now I can’t imagine life without it.

    In closing, B.B. King never learned to read music, nor does he have a great knowledge of music theory (perhaps none?) and look where it got him.

  2. Great post. I get the question all the time from parents about what method of notation is best to start with and I almost always suggest tablature. It’s odd that it’s still looked down upon considering it’s been around for hundreds of years. Plus, it’s hard not to introduce a new player to the bevy of free tablature all over the ‘net. And just like you said, a serious player who eventually gets into a style that requires them to read standard notation will be ready to take on the extra bit of difficulty.

    Now, people who write the numbers -between- the lines instead of -on- the lines when they write tablature? They’re the real perpetrators!

  3. I teach guitar and agree with this: to get the student playing making good sounds and introduce tab is a successful formula…eg James Bond theme is easy and exciting….

  4. I hate to think where I’d be today if my first rock guitar teacher hadn’t taught me how to read TAB. I’ve received more students the past 23 years from other teachers forcing them to read notes and play Yankee Doodle than for any other reason. Tablature allows you to play something you want to play NOW regardless of level. I wish the piano had a similar notation method, I’d be all over it.

  5. I agree that some teachers are little to militant about teaching actual notes before the student starts to enjoy playing the guitar.

    However, I don’t think that everything sounds good when played on the piano. haha Good point though.

  6. Keeping young and new players enthused is very important. Everyone dreams of being the next rock god but it takes a lot of practice and sometimes not everyone wants to put in the work. If you can keep people excited, they will put in the hours needed to get good at the guitar.

  7. I worked part-time as a guitar teacher in a music store the mid-1980s. There wasn’t enough tab back then. To not start with tab today would be just crazy and mean. It is definitely the first step to take because it opens up so many possibilities so quickly for the student. I have nothing against standard notation except that it is more advanced — everyone who is going to play classical guitar or jazz guitar needs to learn it. Everyone who is serious about music needs to learn to read music! But most guitar students are not like that and they never will be. Let’s be fair to them.

  8. Rob, I sure agree with you on tab. When I first began teaching beginners, I tried to teach them both tab and standard notation–mainly because the parents wanted their kids to learn how to read music. I would much rather just use tab, and then, if the kid wants to read music (which of course is a plus for songs they’ve never heard before), then I can teach that too.
    I disagree though that it’s easier to make a piano sound good than a guitar. With a guitar, you can learn a few chords and be singing along to the instrument in just a few weeks to months. Mastering making music on a keyboard takes much longer. At least, it did for me.
    Keep up the great blog.

  9. I’m 72 this year. I’ve been singing in groups on and off for 40 years but only decided to learn guitar about 6 years ago. (I’m doin’ allright thankyou).
    Without tabs I would still be playing with my tongue in the side of my mouth. Tabs take the tedium out of learning and help you to entertain yourself, thus keeping up your interest. This speeds up the learning process. “Stuffed shirts” who decry those who take what they call short cuts, should check out the thousands of touch players who have absolute knowledge and control of the instrument. You know them, they can sit in on any session,in any key and not put a finger wrong! Reading music has it’s place of course and without standard notation it could never be recorded for posterity, but to rule out other ways of learning would be wrong.

  10. I’ve been teaching for twenty plus years and I always start kids with tab. If I help them develop a love for music and they stick with it, eventually they get to the point of seeing the value of notation to communicate with other musicians. I’ve been playing since 1970 and I’ve probably had people give me actual music to play less than 10 times… and that was classical stuff for weddings. It’s a different world now and a new century, certainly there’s a better way to do it now. Notation was one thing when there was no way to record sound. I do like the new hybred tab that has the time notated in it for rhythm. I like your blog! Your kids are great to watch too. This year I did a youtube recital since I have a bunch of shy kids… I let them play anything they wanted and videotaped them and put it up on youtube so they could send the link to their friends. If you want you can see it on youtube at lindabstudents. Westley reminds me of a little girl I had who played part of the velvet revolver song slither. 🙂

  11. I’ve never understood why guitar tablature was ever shunned upon. Tablature is my first choice of notation for my students, and afterward is normal music notation (depending on their resulting level of committment). Every beginner I’ve ever taught has excelled in their learning twice as fast as those I experimented with teaching normal notation to.

    Seeing as how this is my first comment here, I just want to say this blog is an excellent source for information on its topic. You’ll be seeing me around more.

    – G.E. Marrs

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