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I have played guitar for almost 30 years, but regrettably have never played standard notation. I have exclusively played tablature. This has not been a problem until I took up classical guitar several years ago. I have played piano and trumpet, so I understand the notation, but I just can't sight read without the tab.

I enjoy classical music and have played through most of what I like that is published in tab. I have discovered that there is a treasure trove of classical music for guitar, just not all in tab.

I'm wondering if anyone knows of any software or just a plain shortcut that could help me add a tab line to standard notation classical guitar music. Or is it just necessary to use brute force to map each note to a fret position and string?

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    I'd respectfully suggest you combine two skills - being able to play guitar, and being able to read dots. You can do both, separately, why not put them together? That way, you'll be able to read any music - not just for guitar, but also specifically, as you say, the treasure trove - all written in those dots! – Tim Apr 10 at 7:31
  • Do you mean that a machine would read the music and automatically produce tabs? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Apr 10 at 8:23
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    @Tim I think your comment is the best long-term solution to this problem. I'm planning to get a book to start that process. However, until I can put in the time to learn those skills, I am reliant on TABS for the time being. Thanks! – Steve Apr 10 at 13:39
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica If that is possible, sure. – Steve Apr 10 at 13:42
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    I'm with Tim on this... if you can already read music enough to play piano, and you know where all the notes are on the guitar, what else is there to learn? The only missing piece is practice. Start playing the music, and it will all come together automatically. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Apr 10 at 13:55
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The open-source notation program LilyPond is really helpful in this respect.

You can input music in normal notation:

\new Staff \relative {
  a,8 a' <c e> a
  d,8 a' <d f> a
}

enter image description here

And by changing \new Staff to \new TabStaff, LilyPond automatically compiles it in tablature notation:

\new TabStaff \relative {
  a,8 a' <c e> a
  d,8 a' <d f> a
}

enter image description here

It also includes options for rhythm, fingerings, you name it. Several examples of its capabilities are given in the LilyPond documentation.

enter image description here

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    The input doesn't appear to be 'normal notation' for guitar. As you're aware, guitar music sounds an octave lower than it's written (although often with that little 8), so does it mean one would have to re-write published guitar music an octave lower, so it appeared at the correct octave for playing on guitar? Maybe there's a hack for that too? Can the program also provide stems to indicate timing - which is absent but important in so many tabs? – Tim Apr 10 at 7:26
  • @Tim Perhaps I misunderstood what OP meant by "standard notation"; I assumed they just meant standard musical notation. And yes, LilyPond handles everything else you mentioned; see my edit. – Richard Apr 10 at 13:39
  • That's weird grouping for common time! – Tim Apr 10 at 15:20
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    As noted by @Tim, guitar is a transposing instrument. It sounds one octave lower than notated. In Lilypond, \clef "treble_8" does the trick. – Matt L. Apr 10 at 16:02
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    Lilybin.com is a great site where you can edit your lilypond scripts without having to install software. Using this type of software is the best answer to my question although the word shortcut may be debatable. It does make the monumental task of adding tab to sheet music a somewhat less monumental task. There's a fairly steep learning curve, but once you get past that, it works quite well actually...just tedious! – Steve Apr 12 at 2:52
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My first thought was the same as the other answers: input into a notation program then add a tab staff. But, that's not much of a shortcut, because the input is time consuming if done manually. Personally, I've only added tab staff in MelodyAssistant. It was good, but sometimes chose frets that I didn't like. You might face the same issue in another program.

Maybe you can add to what tab you have. IMSLP doesn't seem to have search tags distinguishing old tab and modern tab (which are very different.) However, I find that when I like a computer typeset score from a particular IMSLP user, I can browse all of their contributions to find lots more. This page has a lot of modern guitar tab: https://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Marieh,_Marieh. And upon quick perusal it seems they put a lot of care into making good editions. Be sure to click the "as arranger" and "as editor" tabs to get their tabs.


Side note. It might be worth spending some time to learn standard notation and fingering. With scores that provide fingering the idea is the string/fret choice will be obvious given the finger numbers and in cases where it isn't obvious there are ways to indicate strings...

enter image description here

The fingerings are above the strings in that example, and 0 means open which really helps make clear the position on the neck.

Personally, I have not put in the time to practice reading those fingerings. Piano is my main study. But it seems to me that with some time spent studying how to play in classical positions reading the fingerings would not be too hard.

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    That's always been the tab problem. Students were always asking 'why play it there, here is much better?', and there's the added problem of no timing on a lot of tab - and for classical, it's paramount. – Tim Apr 10 at 15:18
  • Personally, I can't read guitar staff, but don't the fingerings on most editions refer to fairly consistent hand positions/frets? In other words, isn't guitar staff clear about what strings and frets are to be played. Sort of like violin. If you know standard positions, won't the string/neck position should be obvious in most cases? – Michael Curtis Apr 10 at 15:25
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    That's where the problem is - there are usually several different places to play the same note/s on guitar, and software maybe doesn't take this into account. Therefore it (or anyone writing tab) can and will write the numbers/strings out in a place that probably will work, but that's not the only option and often not the best option. – Tim Apr 10 at 15:29
  • Right, but I'm trying to pivot this question to reading standard notation. Don't the fingering and position marks on standard notation make clear the string/fret fingering? In other words tab isn't totally necessary to know string/fret if you learn classical guitar positions? I don't mean in every single case, but most of the time. – Michael Curtis Apr 10 at 15:39
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    Certainly not, and that's the rub. Take the note shown on top space - an E. That could be played on top string, open; second string 5th fret, third string 9th fret, fourth string 14th fret for starters. O.k., a beginner would most likely play it top string open, but that's most likely where an experienced player wouldn't play it, depending on what else was around it. Tab tells exactly where the tabber decides it'll be,good or bad, and it could then be up to the player to re-translate. Which is not in OP's remit, I'd have thought! – Tim Apr 10 at 15:52
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I cannot critique lilypond but will say that the answer to your question is probably no. The problem is that there are multiple ways to play something on the guitar and smn with no markings could be interpreted a dozen ways each producing a different tab. In classical guitar notation there are position marks, string marks, fret finger marks and right hand finger marks. That's a lot of extra stuff and no room for ambiguity. Also, if you really want to play something on guitar that wasn't written for guitar there may be notes out of range. That requires some arrangement. The path to sight reading is fairly systematic and getting your hands on a series of books might be a good idea. In the meantime software might give something to work with but it wont be perfect.

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All the advanced music notation programs offer both staff and tab notation. Paste notes into a tab stave, you'll get a literal transcription. Sometimes it will be useful, other times not so much!

Here's what Sibelius did when the notation from the top stave was copy/pasted into a newly-created Tab stave below.

Having said that - why don't you just learn notation? Much better. There's more information in notation. And the transfer won't always be that successful.

enter image description here

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  • Gotta say, it looks good - and all reachable too. – Tim Apr 10 at 15:23
  • I wholeheartedly agree with your advice to learn notation, but surely nobody "just" learns notation. It takes a considerable amount of time. I have a mental "swear box" for when I find myself unthinkingly using the word "just" in any explanation. – Brian THOMAS Apr 11 at 11:45
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    It's a lot quicker when, having recognised the need to learn notation, you don't waste time looking for an 'easy' alternative! – Laurence Payne Apr 11 at 14:09

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