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I want to know if by learning a song from a tab I'll somehow get better at learning a different song.

I have this feeling that by learning a song from a tab I'll only succeed at learning that one song. This inkling has caused me to avoid learning any tabs up to this point and just focus on chords, learning the names of the notes for the frets, and try learning scales so I can sight-read sheet music.

I can read sheet music but obviously it's not as simple as just being able to read it when it comes to the guitar. All the same, sight-reading sheet music is a transferable skill, whereas I'm not sure about reading a tab. Will I be starting over for each tablature?

Maybe what I'm asking is: Is it possible to sight-read tabs?

Just as clarification, after posting this question I realized my main concern was not knowing how to lay out my left hand fingers when playing tabs, as they usually don't indicate finger position. This concerned me because I felt that by not having a method for knowing which fingers to use learning a tab would not be transferable to another tab because I would pretty randomly choose which fingers to use on the next tab and so the order would be different, etc. After realizing the crux of my concern, I found this post which has allayed my fears remarkably.

Thanks for all the answers, and sorry for not being clear!

  • Why do you thinking reading one kind of notation is so different? Practising something always helps you improve (barring things like "practising wrong" or reaching physical limits). – Matthew Read Feb 6 '15 at 15:22
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Sight-reading tabs, and by that I mean playing the tab off the paper is something one learns quite faster than learning to play a regular score from paper.

That's the reason for their existence. They are basically a pre-prepared performance.

Reading tabs without having an instrument in hand and figuring out what the music is in your head works worse than with a regular score.

The guitar is essentially a polyphonic instrument. That means that for sightreading you cannot afford even mild mental contortions: the fingers need to basically work directly off the score. With a regular score, the score/string/finger connection basically has to be established for every key signature anew. A tab is much more direct.

But the key signatures and intervals carry musical meaning, so that's what you want to be reading when analyzing music.

I'd not stay away from tab like the plague, but it makes good sense to spend more time with regular scores, since mastering those needs more time, but it's an important skill.

  • It's also worth noting that tablature affords some things specific to guitar that are not typically present in sheet music, like specific notations for hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, pull-off-slides, so on and so forth, so one can make an argument that while it is of utmost importance to understand music theory and be able to read scores, reading/writing tablature is actually better suited for guitar as an instrument. Plus, probably a majority of guitarists in popular music only know tablature, so that is what you will have to know if working outside of classical. – rcd Feb 6 '15 at 20:32
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The short answer to your question is yes - it is possible to sight read tabs. At least for folks who seem to prefer tabs over standard musical notation.

I have a friend who after years of piano lessons decided to learn to play guitar. Her guitar teacher writes her lessons in tab. She has learned to sight read tab but has expressed that she wishes he would write the lessons out in standard notation so she will also be learning the names of the notes she is playing.

Tablature is like musical shorthand for folks like myself, who don't want to spend the time learning the names of the notes I am playing but prefer to just know which string and which fret. I really don't care what the note I play is called. I just want to play the correct note at the right place in the song (so it sounds like the song) and that works for me.

Tabs show you were to play the note but don't tell you what the note is. Standard music notation on a 5 line staff shows which notes to play - but then you must know where that note is on your guitar.

So I would venture to say that if you started relying on tab to the exclusion of sheet music, it would hinder your ability to learn to recognize where each note was on the guitar fretboard. But learning an occasional song by using tab, probably won't hurt you.

  • One can read tablature and know the "notes" they are playing just as easily as reading notation; but tablature is more expressive as a writing format for guitar (and bass guitar) specifically, allowing for instrument-specific actions like slides and hammer-ons. You still have to know the "notes" whether you are looking at a scale or a tab; that is just related to level of musicianship. – rcd Feb 6 '15 at 20:37
  • @rcd I disagree with you about needing to know the notes with tab. I can read tab just fine. I have no idea what the names of the notes are. The tab tells me which string and which fret to play. I can't tell from that which note I am playing (and it's not important to me). Tabs also cannot visually convey the direction of the melody like notes can. Reading standard music notation you can tell where the melody is going up or down in pitch. Not so for tabs unless you read the numbers and take into account which string you are on. You can figure it out with tab but it's not intuitive. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 7 '15 at 4:59
  • What I meant was that neither a tab nor score spells out for you what note or chord you are playing–you must know that by reading music in general. Sure, one can play a tab and have no idea what notes they are playing, but I was referencing the OP vs your post (they suggest a music theory background, you suggest a hinderance). If one wants to play guitar, reading tablature is a great way of reading notation (since it provides instrument–specific notations), but one must ultimately know the notes on the fretboard, piano, etc, whether reading score or tabs, especially to transfer/collaborate. – rcd Feb 7 '15 at 12:27
  • @rcd I will agree that it would be very helpful to know the notes on the fretboard if I wanted to transfer/collaborate. But I feel zero need to learn the notes on the fretboard to compose melodies for my original songs, perform originals or covers, or just play for my own enjoyment. I record my arrangements and the recording software captures the notes (whatever they happen to be) which allows me to share my melodies with others. But I still don't know or feel a need to know - the names of the notes. Been playing guitar quite a long time and will continue without ultimately knowing notes. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 7 '15 at 21:42
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To answer your question: yes, of course. The point is tablatures are simpler at the beginning of your friendship with guitar, because it doesn't force you to learn traditional notation for many hours. Usually, guitarists are not patient enough to spend many hours first on learning theoretical stuff. So if you've just began playing guitar, use tablatures, and as you improve your technical and musical skills, you can check if standard notation is something you really need.

In fact, the main question is always whether you want to know notes names because you need them, or it is just ars gratia artis. Some musicians can say, that you won't be a musician if you can't name note you play. Personally I believe the most important thing is that you're aware what are you playing in the musical and not necessarily in mathematical sense.

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In my experience both tabs and notation are useful. I can sight read notation faster and yet tab is more enjoyable and my brain is drawn to it. Tab wont prevent you from learning the tougher skill of reading notation. Also you can learn to sight read tablature. I have seen some people do it really fast.

On the other hand, there is also extra knowledge hidden in notation for experienced players to gain an advantage not just in speed but in range or possibilities, musical learning and growth.

I say learn both, but don't be afraid of learning either, or in any particular order.

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