One of my online students just wrote me a letter, asking whether he needs to learn to read standard music notation, or is tablature enough.

...a few guys locally who are in the local music biz and they all tell me that guitar, or any other instrument for that matter, should only be taught with the standard music notation...

This is an interesting question that will probably be asked by most guitar students at one time or another, so I thought it would be worth sharing my answer here:

Why guitar tabs rock

Let me start by saying that all of my guitar lessons use guitar tablature, no standard music notation.

This is because I think tablature suits the guitar better during the initial learning process, and learning guitar tabs is easy. My reason for this is that unlike other non-fretted instruments (eg. piano, trumpet, saxophone, etc.), with the guitar, you can play any given note in a multitude of places. Where you should actually play the note, really depends on what's most convenient with regards to the cluster of notes you're playing for a riff for example.

There is always just 1 position, where it's most comfortable to play a given riff, and this is where tabs come in handy. It tells you where that position is. Standard music notation can't do that, so this makes things a whole lot easier for beginner guitarists. Learning guitar is hard as it is, why complicate it more?

The problem with tablature

The biggest problem with most tablature is that it doesn't convey the rhythm. This is a pretty big issue, since if you don't know what a song sounds like rhythmically, you won't be able to play it off tablature alone. You need to already be familiar with how the song sounds.

Higher quality tablature will have some sort of reference to the rhythm, but most don't.

tabs vs standard music notation
An example of tablature with rhythm marks, vs standard music notation.

If you pick up a book on guitar theory, it will always teach standard notation as well, since that is the common written language of music. For example, if a pianist looks at guitar tabs, he won't know what to make of it. There is no rhythm, there is no key signature, no notes, etc. It would actually be funny to look at a pianists face, trying to make something out of guitar tabs 😀

The same is true vice versa as well. If a guitarist, who doesn't know how to read standard notation, looks at someone else's music sheet, he'll be stuck and look silly. This can be very uncomfortable in a band situation, even at the amateur band level.

My experience

I've been involved with music since I was 8. I can read standard notation because of having learned the trumpet when I was young.

It's easier to "visualize" a melody in your head looking at standard notation, that is for certain. But if you wanted me to play a song on the guitar just by looking at standard notation, I definitely couldn't do it right away. Sight-reading standard music notation and playing it on guitar is hard. You can do it easily on non-fretted instruments, but not the guitar. This is due to what I mentioned before, you need to know all of the notes on the fretboard, and find the optimal hand position for the riff, solo, phrase, etc. Definitely not for beginners.

So, is it important to learn to read standard notation?

All in all, it really depends on what your practical goals are:

  • If you want to pursue professional music in one way or another, you should learn standard notation.
  • But if you just want to play for fun on the porch, than you don't need to.

Now with that being said, if you don't know how to read standard music notation already from having played another instrument, I don't recommend you start learning it as a beginner guitarist just yet. You have your hands full with learning the guitar already, don't complicate things more.

I would recommend learning standard notation and guitar theory once you reach an intermediate level. The good news is that I've found that once students get to an intermediate level and they want to start improvising or writing music, they will take on a natural interest in theory.

How can you start learning theory and standard music notation if you are ready

Homepage Video Lesson

Unfortunately, I can't really give you any recommendations on guitar books. I only teach beginner-intermediate students, and I never recommend learning from a book at that stage, since I firmly believe that you can't learn music from a book. You need to hear the music, not read about it. This is why video guitar lessons are great.

I sprinkle in some theory in my lessons, but not much since they are made mainly for beginner-intermediate students. I do have a section on guitar specific music theory here though:

Now if you want to get immersed in theory, I would recommend signing up with GuitarTricks or Jamplay, they have more detailed video courses on guitar theory.

And once you are at a near advanced level, you can go for books like the Big Serious Guitar Book.

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  1. I play piano and guitar and can read both. Every thing you say is correct. Make learning as easy as possible. You sound to me like you know exactly what you are doing.

  2. Thank you so much for this article. I am a pianist trying to learn the guitar and well…. looking at the tablature was quite a different approach. So my gratitude to you for showing tablature vs standard. God bless!

  3. thank you for the article. I tried the standard notation but since I am a beginner it just confued me even more.. I will revisit this task once I am proficient with tabs..

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