I've been playing guitar for a year now and I don't know much theory. I typically learn tabs, practice them, and finally (the climax) is to play while the song is playing.

The way I learn guitar tabs is fully merging the bass line with the melody. That means that if I have this tab:

 G----4-----4--------------0-----0----0---   (...)

             ("Keep it healthy" by "Warpaint")

I will see it as a whole and I will not care about the fact that there is in fact a bassline and a melody and both are two separable things. So, if I was learning this tab I would memorize that after playing with my thumb the 4th fret of the D string, I will have to play the 4th fret of the G string and the 3rd fret of the B string

Only after recording myself playing the song (just for fun) I started noticing that the bassline was almost "a song by itself" and the melody too. Like they were totally separable.

I recently got a MIDI piano keyboard and started learning a few songs. I noticed that I could learn the songs this way:

  1. Learn left hand by itself (pretty easy)
  2. Learn right hand by itself (pretty easy)
  3. Play both hands at the same time (pretty hard!)

So, this "piano fact" and the "just-for-fun-recording-fact" have made me question myself if I should start separating the bassline from the melody in guitar tabs.

This is a more stronger and clear question under this scenario:
Yesterday I wanted to play a song but the tab didn't exist on Internet, so I decided to learn the song by ear. As for documentation I started writing in tab notation what I was finding out about the song (guitar part).

After a couple of hours, I had this:

   The thumb does this during the entire song:
   D ----2---0---2---0--------------------------
   A --0---2---3---2----------------------------
   E -------------------------------------------

   Other 3 fingers do this:
   e --------------------------------3--0h1p0-0----
   B --0h1-3--0h1-0h1-3---0h1-0h1p0----------------
   G ----------------------------------------------

   e --------------------------------0-0------------------
   B --0h1-3--0h1-0h1-3---0h1-0h1p0------3--0h1-0h1-0h1---
   G -----------------------------------------------------

Here comes the question:
From my experience in learning tabs, I know that if I merge the above thing into one integral tab, I could learn it as a whole. A fully merged thing. And after practicing a while and playing fluently, the bassline will arise byitself, magically.

Should I learn this like that? (merging into "an integral tab") or should I learn this as I learn things in the piano?

Its kind of sad that if I learn it mechanically (by merging) I will reach faster to the "climax", which is enjoying the song by playing fluently.

This is the song: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_XAMeEu_FQ

Instead of "bassline" and "melody", we could call it: "thumb-part" and "other-3-fingers-part". If its more correct theoretically

  • "Should I do this" is pretty subjective -- depends on what you want and are attuned to; asking "What are the advantages/disadvantages of this approach?" would be better.
    – Dave
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 13:00
  • You won't escape the fact that the bassline is actually a separate "voice"; this is especially noticeable in classical music, but you'll also find it in blues pieces (albeit there directly linked with the treble notes as chords, typically). I sometimes learn only the "lead" parts first, and if it helps you, I don't see why you shouldn't do that. Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 13:01
  • I can easily play the thumb part, and I can easily play the "other-3-fingers" part. But Im not able to combine them if I think of them as two independent things... so, at the end, knowing these two voices isn't helping me much. I know that if I start thinking of them as a full merged thing I will be able to play it, with muscular memory
    – sports
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 16:08
  • So then you are really talking about finger picking on your right hand? What style of music are we talking about? Not that it changes anything much.
    – amalgamate
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 16:18
  • I think the style actually does matter in this case, so seconded; what kind of music are you playing?
    – Sandalfoot
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 20:03

2 Answers 2


I gather that we are talking about practicing. I think it is good that you notice these issues. There is another (related) can of worms to bring up, that sometimes it is good to separate your left hand and right hand practice on the guitar, depending on what you are trying to achieve....

Experience guides guitarists to recognize tricks that often aid the performance of a particular segment of music (use of open strings in a particular way, use of tapping, or sliding up and down the frets versus changing the fingering, for a few examples). Sometimes the separation of parts is useful, but often it is not compatible with these tricks.

Your suggestion to separate the parts may often be useful in figuring out music by ear. But in performance and practice, usually the whole thing is combined in one thought process for the guitarist. It's a left hand right hand/ left brain right brain thing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lateralization_of_brain_function#Movement_and_sensation) that you take advantage of on the piano, and is distributed differently on the guitar.

That brings us back to this: Sometimes it is good to separate your left hand and right hand practice on the guitar. Sometimes when one or both hands have something difficult to do, you can improve your ability on the whole thing by focusing on one hand at a time, or just the hand with the difficult part. (As long as you also combine hands for some of your practice session.)

note @tim 's comment is an important one so I add it here to emphasize it. This technique that I am suggesting as an alternative is useless without combining it with and comparing it to with more standard practice where you work on and listen to both hands at once.

  • how does one separate L.H. and R.H. when practising on guitar?
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 16:02
  • even though I tagged my question as "hand-independence", in this case I think its more of a "finger-independence" (there is no such tag though), because the piano "left hand / right hand" turns into "thumb / other-3-fingers" in guitar
    – sports
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 16:03
  • @sports I did understood, and I am saying that it is rarely useful in my experience. Actual left hand right hand independence rather than a focus on the separation of parts is more useful by comparison.
    – amalgamate
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 16:10
  • @tim you can finger a chord or note in your left hand and not strike it with your right. Imagine the rhythm as you move from chord to chord or note to note.... That is Left hand practice on the guitar....
    – amalgamate
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 16:12
  • @tim you can strike or pluck the strings with your right hand with a required pattern and rhythm without worrying about what your left hand should be doing and that is Right hand practice on the guitar.
    – amalgamate
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 16:15

It's more complex than just a melody and bass line - obviously a melody line exists whenever there is a vocal but the music could also be considered as a sequence of chords or as a bass plus multiple lines if you are playing multiple notes at once.

The actual "bass line" isn't even shown on a guitar tab; you're only seeing what the guitar part for that song is. There would normally be a whole separate bass part for the bass player so you're really playing in the mid-range and trying NOT to impinge on the bass.

For guitar playing, I think recognising the chords the tab is based around (it nearly always is) is more useful. But it depends a lot on the song - is it a singer-songwriter-just-a-guitar song which is mostly chords with a few twiddles, or the guitar part in a full band where 2/3 of the music isn't played by you anyway?

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