The first instrument I learned was the piano, where having sheet music in staff notation is sufficient to know exactly what you need to play. Lately, I started to learn the guitar and the harmonica, where things are -- to me -- less obvious and where I can certainly understand the usefulness of tablatures.

I started tabbing a few songs for which I already had the sheet music, because I find it hard at my level to simultaneously worry about reading, actually playing the note(s), and keeping track of my breathing (on the harmonica) so I don't choke before I'm done playing.

However, I'm wondering whether such an approach is advised, because I'm worried that it will slow me down in learning how to sight-read on the harmonica. Should I keep going this way, or should I start early on to try and get rid of the habit of relying on tablatures?

3 Answers 3


On example of my students i can say that reading tabs on guitar can be harmful to sight-reading. Below reasons why:

  1. In notation it's easy to spot and feel and play rhythmic structures (like pick-up notes, anticipation and so on). Playing from tabs (even with notated rhythms - no to so common) often impairs rhythm of the piece in negative way. You can deal with this listening or playing along to actual recordings. (i don't recommend playing along tab software - as this is the road to playing rhythmically like machine)
  2. Playing from tabs You - play only this one particular position which is notated there. It's hard to break out of this box (with notation it will be natural) and try different position and fingerings (which one of the beautiful thing about playing guitar). And all of that will affect Your articulation greatly (and fretboard knowledge too)
  3. Voice leading is another point. In notation You clearly see that G note in high voice lasts for entire bar on top of other notes. And with tabs this is obscured. You might end without voice leading at all - and that would be musically fatal.

Those are only first and most important thoughts.

I would advice You to get rid out of tabs. When You spend more time on sight reading sooner you will be keen on that. And You won't need tabs.

I my self often transcribe tabs to notation, mainly because of may remark in 2nd point.

  • For advanced stuff, having notation + tab is very helpful. For example, last year I played a very fast song that had been transcribed by a pianist, and as the part was written it was almost unplayable on guitar (very idiomatic to piano). I rearranged the part somewhat so it was playable. To remember how I rearranged it, I added tabs to the notation.
    – Johan
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 13:06

Well, practising sight-reading with standard sheet music less will not give you the same results as practising it more. The question is, is it important to you? If you can convert everything to tabs, is there a need to read sheet music?

I personally use only tabs for guitar, because it's a more efficient format. It conveys hand position as well as the notes to be played, whereas sheet music only does the latter. Of course, the piano only has one way (key) to play each note, so sheet music does do both in that case.

So I would say, use tabs if they work better for you and allow you to accomplish the same thing. If your goal is to be able to pick up and play sheet music, then perhaps you should stick with sheet music.

  • The importance of tab vs. sheet music will be affected by the contexts in which he'll be playing. Anthony, do you expect to play in jam sessions or other groups where one or the other form of notation will be in use? Commented May 22, 2011 at 23:54
  • @Monica Yes, exactly.
    – user28
    Commented May 23, 2011 at 0:03
  • @Monica Cellio: Right now I'm tabbing (parts of) The Real Book, but later on I intend to play with people who will just throw a bunch of chords at me and expect me to play based on that. And I wonder whether getting used to "play by numbers" will prevent me from knowing what I'm actually doing -- or should be doing (I'm probably exaggerating, but you hopefully get the idea). Commented May 24, 2011 at 6:48
  • 1
    Matthew, tab often conveys hand position, but that position is where the tab writer decides to make it. Any number of my pupils used to say "Look at this tab ! I've played it there, but when I use this position instead, it's so much better." If one knows the various positions, one can play it where one wants,from the dots.Also, thousands of great tunes are not tabbed, but normally written. Tab readers are denied these.
    – Tim
    Commented May 3, 2013 at 15:36
  • @Tim Absolutely, good points.
    – user28
    Commented May 3, 2013 at 16:09

Let me post another question. What is the purpose of tabs, or sheet musics? The answer is, they are just a media, so that you can play. That's all. Let's not forget that there are still players all over the world who has learned to play, just by hearing what their masters were playing. In those cases, we can consider wave sounds and transfer media.

Therefore, I personally believe that what matters is that you get what you want. How? It doesn't matter. (Pluralism here)

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