by Jamey Mann, Catoctin School of Music
A highly debated topic amongst guitar players and teachers is guitar tablature (TAB). Tablature is a system of reading for guitar where numbers are placed on a series of lines. The lines represent the 6 strings of the guitar (bottom line low E, top line high E) while the numbers indicate the fret to be played. This is a type of musical shorthand that simply tells the player where to place their fingers.
The controversy over tablature comes from the fact the tablature is not reading music. It generally does not indicate rhythm, key, notes, and much more. Therefore, trying to learn or teach anyone using tablature exclusively is very detrimental to the learning process. Students who are taught or learn this way often find it difficult to communicate with other musicians. It will also make it more difficult to branch out and learn more once the student realizes that tab has not taught them very much (only where to place their fingers).
I personally do not believe tab is something that should be completely avoided. Instead, I feel that teachers should utilize tablature in responsible ways to aid learning and teach the students the advantages and dangers of using tablature.
- Why Tablature? – Tablature has existed for guitar like instruments for centuries and is older than the standardized notation that we are all familiar with today. The Renaissance lute, Baroque lute, Baroque guitar, and many other instruments used forms of tablature to translate music into written form. For this reason and its ease of understanding and use, tab is not going anywhere. Therefore, students should be taught to use it in a responsible way.
- Tab Good- It many ways tab can be a useful tool. My first lessons with a new student are always about making the student comfortable with the instrument. Because of this I delay learning to read music for some time depending on the student. Before jumping into reading standard notation, I give the students a series of studies designed to develop proper sitting position and basic right/left hand technique. I believe introducing traditional music reading before these issues are covered can be counterproductive. Using tablature at this early stage allows me to show the student fun studies and song to help with their technical development without having to go through the process learning to read. This helps to have fun with students and keeps them engaged. There are many basic fun rock songs teachers can utilize this way to help with their student’s technical development.
- Tab Bad – The real detriment in reading tab is using it exclusively. Tab provides a student with instant gratification of playing a song they recognize at the cost learning real musicianship. Far too many young guitarists learn this way. It causes them to have difficulty working with other disciplines because they never learn the language of music. Many can play this way for years (and become quite accomplished, although it is rare) however they eventually find themselves missing something. I get a handful of students like this every year and the answer is always going back the basics.
- Teaching tab – The best thing to do is teach students how to use tab responsibly. Tablature is out there, and your students are going to use it no matter what. I teach them the good and bad while emphasizing that learning to read proper music notation is absolutely the most important thing.