Scales, whether it be the Pentatonic scale or Major scale, are a selection of notes from the Chromatic scale that sound good in concert with each other — according to my best understanding. If I take the time to learn scales, will I begin to recognize them in the Tabs that I am studying? If so, is it safe to say that learning scales will help me better play Tabs because when I do come across a sequence of notes in a Tab that aligns with a scale I recognize, I will be able to more easily play it because I already have the structure in mind?

This is perhaps a super obvious question, but I am new to the art and I'm just trying to put all of these concepts together and I want to make sure I got it right.

For context, I am playing electric guitar. The genre I want to master first is metal. With this, I am not sure which scale I should learn first, the minor pentatonic scale or the natural minor scale. Guidance on this question would help as well. Thanks.

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    Note, the question would be the same (in a way?) if you were reading from staff notation instead of tabs. Others can elaborate, but my answer is yes, learning scales "out of context" helps you recognize them "in a real song" and play it better. You might need a different definition of "scale," though. Sometimes it just means "a collection of notes, in any order." I'm thinking of the definition that means "only in order going up and coming down." Commented Apr 12, 2023 at 15:05
  • @AndyBonner - 'scale' surely means a set of notes in ascending/descending order? A collection of those notes could be 'diatonic'.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 12, 2023 at 15:40
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    @Tim I hear guitarists often use "scale" interchangeably with "key," or to describe a "pitch set", i.e. "this song is in the pentatonic scale," rather than "this riff is an ascending pentatonic scale." For both uses, practicing the scale would help you recognize it, and improve your technique, though the benefits are a little more obvious when the actual song contains literal scalar passages. OP's "a selection of notes from the Chromatic scale that sound good in concert with each other" suggests that they're thinking of the "pitch set" definition. Commented Apr 12, 2023 at 16:05
  • Tabs are pretty much showing the cents/100 for each note instead of graphically showing how high the pitch is. Chords are almost but not quite symmetrical with respect to how high they are placed in sheet music, so unless you do math lightning fast you will probably learn the chords one by one rather than a bunch at a time with tabs.
    – Emil
    Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 5:56

3 Answers 3



Learning to play anything, chords, scales, progressions, etc., will help you recognize those elements in any notation system and also help you play those things when you come across them. That’s why people practice scales and arpeggios, etc.

Side note:

Ignore anyone who tries to shame or diminish whatever kind of notation or marks you use to learn, perform, or compose music. All these systems exist for various good reasons and working professionals do whatever it takes to make sure the show goes on and goes well.

  • Dv for the side note: most pros will be capable of reading dots, and would either rely on them, or their ears in preference to tab.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 12, 2023 at 19:44
  • @Tim Ok. I mean, I've earned money because of my ability to read tab in the past so I'm not sweating it. Commented Apr 12, 2023 at 22:50
  • @Tim So the entire answer is "not useful" because you disagree with one ancillary part of it?
    – Aaron
    Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 2:26

It really depends on what you mean by "recognize". If you extensively practice scales, your fingers will be used to moving in certain patterns (yes, it's obviously not the fingers but the motor control that is involved here, but the meanin should be clear). In combination with your hearing and tab reading skills, this will progress to fluid playing, with the notes mainly falling in places you are musically anticipating. That is some kind of recognition.

If your primary focus is on analysis, being able to sight-discern harmonic frames, voice-leading, and improvise alternate lines and patterns outside of the given score, the visuals of a regular score tend to facilitate a more direct grasp of the musical framework you are moving in. It functions better as a conveyance of musical concepts than a tab, a tool primarily intended for conveying motoric patterns rather than musical content.

There is a reason that tabs (not just for stringed instruments) have started falling out of favor for professional musicians sometime since the late Baroque period, possibly partly driven by ongoing evolvement of instruments and tunings that made for more of a nuisance adapting tabs rather than note-based scores. The additional considerable learning effort required for a fluid interpretation particularly of polyphonic note scores over their tab equivalents tends to deliver returns regarding the bars for expanding on musical content.

With regard to how recognition of scales in tabs vs notes will affect your playing abilities, I consider it likely that you are overthinking this. Unless you have additional affinities to note scores by playing other instruments or singing, I doubt that at the mere scale level you'll experience persisting limitations of either notation.

In the end, the main improvement to playing scales is to be expected from practising playing scales and in that way cementing the connection with what your fingers are doing and what you are expecting to hear.


I believe that those who read tab do so a note at a time, in ignorance (that's not knowing) what they're actually playing. Sequentially, note by note, with little or no regard to what those notes actually are, just where they live.

So, no, knowing scales won't help reading tab, and probably vice versa.

Knowing scales will help with sight-reading dots, as they can be directly related to those notes in the scale.

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    I'd give a devil's-advocate argument in support of tab. True, it's often used by beginners, but that's a cultural association (and generalization). There are historical reasons that it got so ingrained in guitar-world; 16th-century lute and guitar stuff was mostly tab. It's just another written system, and represents the same musical output. I hedged my comment, saying it was the same "in a way," thinking there might actually be some advantage in seeing a visual representation of the physicality of the scale as applied to the instrument, seeing how certain patterns "map" over the fretboard. Commented Apr 12, 2023 at 16:10
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    Other point in support of tabs is that the same notes on guitar can sound different depending on how they are played. And I seriously doubt anyone reads tabs without eventually noticing the larger patterns that are often called boxes but are really scales.
    – ojs
    Commented Apr 12, 2023 at 16:18
  • @ojs - this is somewhat dependant on the quality of the tab. Tab for one song will use certain strings/frets, but another, in the same key, may well not. So no pattern could emerge in cases like this.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 12, 2023 at 17:02
  • @Tim the same argument could be made for the quality of the sheet music too. If it's transcribed wrong, it's transcribed wrong. With tabs there are more options to go wrong than with staff notation, but it can express things that are lost in staff.
    – ojs
    Commented Apr 12, 2023 at 17:30
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    Only the last sentence of this answer has any merit. Commented Apr 12, 2023 at 18:18

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