I am preparing a score for guitar, piano, and cello. I have completed the piano and cello parts, but am a bit confused regarding several issues in the guitar part. Specifically,

  1. Are there any practical limits on which notes I can use when forming a chord? For example, on a piano, it is often unreasonable to expect players hands to span more than an octave, so therefore all chords must be 8 notes or less.
  2. Do I need to also include tablature additionally or is the usual staffs sufficient? I noticed some guitar sheet music has tablature included and I wasn't sure if I needed to do that.
  3. If I need to include tablature, where do I learn how to notate that? I've never played the guitar, so I don't know the rules. For example, I gather there is an upstroke downstroke symbol.
  • 1
    Good guitar notation will have the position and fingering indicated.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jan 1, 2016 at 12:42
  • No, guitar has no such limitations. Chords with more than 8 notes are completely fine, no problem at all... Jan 1, 2016 at 17:47
  • 1
    @leftaroundabout Chords with more than 8 notes would need a guitar with at least 9 strings. :-) The limit for the span of a chord on a guitar is approximately 2 octaves, but there are many other limits to the digitation of a chord, which makes it quite hard to determine if a particular written chord can be physically played on a guitar or not. Jan 1, 2016 at 17:59
  • @steveverrill do you know of a list of these limitations? It would just be helpful to have them all in a list so I can refer to it when composing Jan 1, 2016 at 20:13
  • Unfortunately I can't do any better than Old John's answer. The best way is to talk to a guitarist. Failing that you could buy a chord book. It also depends on the style. For example a rock or folk player can finger a D chord as 200242 (F#ADADF#) by reaching round with the thumb to fret the low E at the 2nd fret, but most classical players would never do this as the neck is too wide. Chord fingerings are complicated. The good news is that (provided you're not using open strings!) transposition is ridiculously easy on the guitar - to transpose up x semitones, just move up x frets. Jan 1, 2016 at 20:45

3 Answers 3


There certainly are some limits on the chords you can expect a guitarist to be able to play. Apart from the trivial observation that you can't have more notes in the chord than the number of strings, you also have limitations caused by hand size and reach.

For example, if you have a very low note on the lowest string in your chord (but not an open string), then you can't include high notes on the highest string (or any other string) since one hand is unable to stretch that far.

Also, you cannot sensibly have a five or six note chord with the notes all being stopped at different frets, as the guitarist only has 4 fingers (and maybe a thumb) available for stopping the strings.

Slightly less obvious, if you have 2 notes in a chord close together (with neither being playable as open strings), say a second or third apart, then that will that will place some severe limitations on which other notes can be included in the chord, since they have to be reachable by the other fingers.

As far as I know, there is no simple way to state exactly which chords will or won't be playable, and really, the guitar is such an idiosyncratic instrument that you REALLY need to get some help and advice from someone who plays the guitar at a sufficiently high standard.

If you do not intend to learn to actually play the guitar (which would be the best solution, in my opinion) it would help if you learned the basics of guitar tab, as that would help with working out which chords you can expect to be playable: when you draw out the tab for a chord, you can then ask yourself the question "which fingers could possibly reach these notes?".

A great deal of classical guitar music is published without TAB notation being included, so it is certainly not necessary, but you might reach a wider audience if you do include it.

I am not so sure about your final question, but I am pretty confident that if you do a search for "Learn guitar tab", you will find lots of resources which will help.


Get a copy of a guitar fretboard diagram and a chord chart (lots on the web but I don't want to link to anything in particular). The fretboard diagram will show you what notes are where (letters, not scored) and the chords will show you finger placement that guitarists are comfortable with and notes that can easily be played sequentially. That should get you started.

You might also want to watch some classical guitar beginners lessons (again freely available on the web) to get an idea of what's actually involved in playing whatever you write.

Classical guitarists don't tend to use TAB - it's much more of a rock guitar thing. However, the same notes can be played in several places so, without TAB, classical guitar scores often mark changes in hand positions or using a particular finger to indicate the easiest way to play something. You will almost certainly need an experienced classical guitarist to help with this.

  • 1
    Seeing tab solely as a way to "get around" reading 5 line staff notation sounds a bit dismissive - it has some strengths that 5 line staff doesn't. There are lots of music notation systems - people tend to (or at least should) learn the ones that are useful for them! Jan 1, 2016 at 12:53
  • true, i will reword
    – JenB
    Jan 1, 2016 at 13:23
  • Oh and welcome to the site BTW! Jan 1, 2016 at 13:26
  1. Are there any practical limits on which notes I can use when forming a chord?

There are specific limitations for the pick-hand and the fret-hand:

Normally if you pick a chord four fingers and hence four of the strings is used (but it is possible to use all five fingers). If you strum the chord all six strings can be used.

The limitations for the fret-hand is more complex and it's difficult to come up with simple rules. I think you should grab a guitar and explore it yourself. And you should take a look at the most used chord positions.

  1. Do I need to also include tablature additionally or is the usual staffs sufficient?

I would say that this depends on who your intended readers/players are. Classical trained guitarists are not that used to tabs in my experience. They are great at reading normal staff notation and figure out the fingerings themselves or read that from notations in the score. Others prefer to play from tablature.

  1. If I need to include tablature, where do I learn how to notate that?

In most notation softwares there are ways to automatically create tabstaffs. But if you don't really know how to play the music there's a risk the tab becomes totally useless. You probably need to edit it before it becomes useful.

The basic principle of tablature notations is that each string and where to fret the strings is marked in various combinations of common notations for time, tempo etc.

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