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The Skinny On Guitar Tab

Guitar Tab Or Standard Music Notation?

In spite of different opinions I find it useful to understand both guitar tablature and standard notation. They both have their pluses and minuses, but put together they can really help the guitarist. Guitar tablature is fairly easy to understand and really helps to find your fingering on the guitar neck. Unfortunately there’s a lot of information missing that makes it almost unusable unless you already know the song. Standard notation has a lot more information but takes longer to learn.

Why Guitar Tablature (Tab For Short)

Guitar tablature is basically six lines which represent the six strings on the guitar along with numbers to indicate where to put your finger on the guitar neck. The numbers are to indicate which threat to put your finger on. Because it’s such a close representation of the guitar neck it makes it easy to quickly find where to put your fingers.

Unfortunately it doesn’t actually tell you which finger to use or how long to hold the note. There are two ways that you can use this to learn the song in spite of these limitations.

The first is to listen to the song and learn the rhythm, or how long to hold the notes, by ear. This is actually fairly common. I learned many songs and guitar riffs by listening to the album and copying what I heard. A little guitar TAB would have helped me tremendously. In this case I think of it as giving me some hints instead of the complete picture of what the play.

Pretty much the fingering is by trial and error. If you practice guitar scales and exercises regularly it’s not too difficult to decide which is the best fingering to use for any particular set of notes.

Of course another solution would be to include standard notation right along with the guitar.

Learning Standard Notation (Notes)

Standard notation is a fairly complete system for documenting what notes the composer want you to play. It includes what note to play, the rhythm of the note and a lot of subtleties using accents and other symbols.

Because it is a complex system it takes a bit of learning. One way to deal with this is to just undertake a systematic practice starting with simple musical passages. If you’re fairly self-motivated you can use a book with progressive songs and exercises. One good book for beginners that I found is the Progressive Guitar Method – Book 1. For more advanced players I recommend the book Reading Studies for the Guitar by William Levitt. Though it may seem daunting it actually is a very rewarding experience and well worth the undertaking.

Putting It All Together

Both of these systems complement each other. In addition it’s helpful to have some indication of the fingering. This can be indicated with small numbers above the note. In most cases the only time this is done is when it’s not clear which is the best fingering to use.

Here is an example using the B minor scale on the guitar. This example includes guitar tablature, standard notation and the fingering above the notation.

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  1. Hi Tom,
    I have always used tablature the opposite way than you described. The top string is the 1st or smallest not the opposite. ??

    1. Hi Frederick,

      Thank your for expressing your thoughts. You are most welcome.
      Enjoy Tomas Michaud’s video lessons.


      Starland Guitar Customer Support

  2. I have been following your 7 day boot camp, 31 days course and now I am in module one of your “Awesomeness Course”. While reviewing your instruction notes on “Tablature” the strings do note match the notes above. You described the thickest string as the top string when I seems to be the thinnest one. Please clarify. Here is the link:

    1. Hello James,

      I hope you can wait for a while for Tomas Michaud’s answer to this.
      Some guitar players might have the same concern as yours.

      Thank you.

      Hazel Indico-Sarayno
      Starland Guitar Customer Support

      1. Hi again James,

        Tomas messed up and he’d like to apologize.
        He already fixed up everything including the video.
        Thank you for airing out your concern.

        Starland Guitar
        Customer Support

  3. Hi Tomas… bit confused… video calls out just the opposite of diagram for low vs high E. I was always under the understanding that high E , 1st string was listed at the top of the staff. Please clarify.


    1. Hello Wes,

      Thank you for keeping in touch.
      I will be informing Tomas Michaud about this since this is very technical
      I hope its okay for you to wait. He’d be glad to answer you.

      Thank you.

      Starland Guitar Customer Support

      1. Hi Wes,

        Tomas messed up but he was able to fix up everything.

        Thank you for the message, Wes.

        Starland Guitar Customer Support

  4. Hi Tomas, So, are you saying that tablature can be displayed both ways? You are teaching that the top string is the thickest, (low E) whereas any other tablature diagram I’ve seen is being taught that the top string is the thinest string. When you tip the guitar up to see the strings, the thickest string (by the players perspective) is on the bottom. Please, help with this? Frank

    1. Hi Frank,

      This is Hazel, Starland Guitar Customer Support.
      I will be informing Tomas Michaud about your concern.
      He would be happy to keep in touch with you about your queries.
      You will have the answer before the end of the day.

      Thank You.

      1. Hello Frank,

        Thank you for your comment. Tomas messed up and he was able to fix up everything.
        He cant thank you enough for your concern.

        Thank you so much.

        Starland Guitar
        Customer Support

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