To Read or Not to Read? Part 1 – The Tyranny of Tablature


There is, it seems, an eternal debate among guitar players about whether or not it is a good idea to go to the trouble of learning to read standard notation.

Indeed, you don’t have to talk to too many guitarists before you’ll hear the view expressed that there is actually something pretty uncool about being able to read music – almost as if gaining this particular skill will somehow strip you of your ability to play spontaneously or with feeling.

Yet, if you ask anyone who has taken up guitar after having cut their teeth on a different instrument; one that is usually taught using standard notation; then I guarantee you will never hear them complain that understanding standard notation is any kind of disadvantage when it comes to learning to play guitar.

There are of course several notable examples of truly great musicians who never learnt to read – the incomparable Django Reinhardt being, to my mind, the best of these. But there are also many great rock guitarists who were classically trained and most definitely can read music: Brian May of Queen being the first one who comes to mind.

What we may never know is: – could Django Reinhardt have been somehow even greater if he had learnt to read and write music? Or, would Brian May have played even better had he never learnt to read music?

Let’s get away from these imponderable questions a moment and also away from the sphere of the immortals and concentrate on the more familiar world of your average guitar player trying to improve their playing skills and their understanding of music.

In this world, I believe there is a better question to ask: When does it make sense to invest the necessary effort to learn to read and understand standard notation?

From my experience as a guitar teacher I would immediately say that the answer is different for each individual, depending on a variety of factors that I think are worth outlining. For beginners, I have to say there are only two circumstances where I have found it useful to introduce the reading of standard notation from day one:

  • For some very young students (age 6 – 8) who have a leaning towards playing melody as opposed to strumming chords
  • Anyone wanting to learn classical guitar

I have to say that, for all other students (those with a preference for Blues, Rock, Country and even Jazz guitar) I have found only a disadvantage in introducing the learning of standard notation in the first year or so of their learning. However, it should be noted that other guitar teachers may have very differing views on this, largely depending, I think, on how they themselves learnt to play guitar.

For more advanced students the early introduction of standard notation is I think, definitely appropriate if they come for lessons with one or more of the following specific goals in mind:

  • To play guitar in a big band or orchestra
  • To pursue a career in mainstream music, particularly as a session musician
  • To help with passing music exams
  • To gain entry to a mainstream music course
  • To be able to write parts for other instruments (saxophone, trumpet, keyboards, for example) in their band

But for most guitarists, I personally believe in a more gradual approach to coming to terms with the various ways of understanding music. I believe that to progress through the various stages of learning guitar in a way that is in itself, both rewarding and genuinely educational, I suggest the following path.

First, by being shown that there is nothing better than being able to physically see another, more experienced guitarist, hold down a chord shape or play a simple melodic or lead guitar phrase.

Next, by learning to understand grid-type chord diagrams. Most of us (but, I should stress, not all of us) think of chords as shapes, and grid diagrams are a great way to represent chords in this way. For those that don’t think in shapes, the various methods of showing chord grips numerically are well worth exploring. “˜X02220′ for an A major chord for example.

Then, I advocate learning to read basic guitar tab. By basic, I mean the style of guitar tab that doesn’t give you time values for notes – just fret numbers on strings. With the rapid rise in popularity of tab sites on the Internet, gaining confidence in reading tab is an essential step towards being able to access music in written form.

If you find yourself mystified by tab then don’t panic, you are not alone! Here is a short video lesson designed just for you:

How to Read Guitar Tab:

I think it is fair to say that, for a great many guitar players, this is as far as they feel they need to take the process of learning to read music. After all, what more is required? There are hundreds of publications, web sites and iphone apps that will produce grid diagrams for every chord under the sun. There are tabs available, both online and in book form, for practically every guitar solo or rhythm part ever recorded.

So what, if anything, is wrong with playing guitar from tabs and rhythm charts alone? The answer is that by restricting yourself to reading music in this way, you are limiting the growth of your understanding of music. You are literally just following instructions. This may still result in your playing perfect sounding copies of other people’s music and if that is what you enjoy about playing guitar then personally, I think it’s fine to stop right there.

My teaching experience tells me though that it doesn’t matter whether you learn one piece of music from tab, or two hundred – because you are relying on someone else’s instructions you will never scratch below the surface and gain any real insight into what notes you are playing, nor why those notes work over those particular chords.

But now we come to the crunch. I think the heart of the issue lies in how you answer the following question:

What kind of guitarist do you want to be?

We’ll go on to explore some of the answers to this question in “Part Two” and then look at how your own answer might determine when, if ever, you may best be advised to bite the bullet and expand your ability to read music to include standard notation.

Happy Playing!

Nick Minnion

Lots more lessons, articles and videos by Nick available at his main websites:

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More from The Tyranny of Tablature

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Nick Minnion runs, a website designed to support guitar players who want to make a living teaching guitar. Visit for loads of free resources to help you get into teaching guitar and also probably the biggest global forum for active guitar teachers.

Comments [9]

  1. I’m 54; I’ve never learned to read music, and I’m thinking I may have left it too late…the more I learn about guitar theory, the more lyrics I forget. The more I concentrate on playing guitar, the more I forget about actually playing songs….there’s only so much information the brain can retain. I’ve concentrated so hard on playing guitar over the last 6-7 years, I’ve forgotten lyrics to songs I’ve been singing along to for 40-50 years…

    Over the last few years, I’ve had complete mental blocks when I’ve been playing songs….forgotten the lyrics to songs like “Bad Moon Rising,” She Loves You,” “Substitute,” and “Satisfaction.” I’ve spent so much time learning the chords to those songs, I’ve actually forgotten the damn songs….

    I honestly think if I tried to learn to read music now, I’d forget the actual songs. “Satisfaction – ummm, I vaguely remember that – who did it?” “No, not the Who, the Stones!” “Who?” NOOOOOO – The Stones!!!!!

    • You never know, though. I have two students, both over 65 who just took up guitar early in 2011. Both decided to learn to read and now both are playing early-intermediate classical pieces and Spanish pieces in addition to all the Beatles’ songs and Dylan songs and other 1960’s songs they play (they do those with just strumming chords or fingerpicking).

      Just depends on the brain and what you let it talk you into, I guess.


  2. I am exactly the same age as you Vic so empathise perfectly about the sense of running out of memory space!

    However, I think that the answer is to find or adopt a strategy in learning music theory (including reading standard notation) that helps save memory space – not use up more of it. A bit like those utilities that clear up all the loose ends on your hard disc and make more space for new files.

    Ultimately, learning to understand music should simplify your view of it.

    For example, I never bother to memorise chord sequences these days – it’s a lost cause! But, because I understand the theory behind most chord sequences – I don’t have to resort to memorising them.

    Now if only I could figure out a way to do that with song lyrics…..

  3. The only issue I have is your statement that reading tab is some how limiting your growth understanding music,because someone is just following instructions.

    Is sitting there reading standard notation just following instructions? Aren’t both forms of the written language of music.

    I won’t argue there is no value in reading standard notation but I really beleive only in the situations you mentioned in your article session player, orchestra etc.

    To me a much more important skill would be your ears and really understanding the fretboard and how the guitar is laid out.

    Anyway just my two cents I’m just an old trying to play a little music.

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comments.

      I certainly agree with you about the importance of developing a good ear and fretboard orientation skills.

      My thoughts about tab-reading limiting a player’s growth in understanding are based on the fact that tab just tells you where to fret a note. It steers round the need to know the name of the note or see it as higher or lower in pitch than other notes. In that sense, it just tells you what to do.

      Standard notation also tells you what to do, but not in quite such a convenient way as tab. So you are forced to learn note names. The pay-off is that you can then perceive relationships between notes in terms of keys, chords and scales, which are hidden in tab and even to some degree on the fretboard, unless your fretboard orientation is very well developed.

  4. Nick,

    Thanks for the response. Lieke I said I have nothing against learning to read standard notation I don’t think it can ever be a bad thing, but I think your observation of Django and Brian May kind of gets to the heart ot it.

    Guitar playing and the ability to read music are not necessarily intertwined. One CAN play the guitar extremely well without ever needing to know how to read music.

    It seems that most instructors want to make some correlation bewteen the two that really doesn’t exist. I am a scientist by nature and without empirical proof (which I’ve never seen) it’s all kind of hear se.

    To me the only reason to learn to read standard notation for probably 99% of people picking up a guitar other than the ones listed is for someone doing it for a purely acedemic reason.

    To play guitar in a big band or orchestra
    To pursue a career in mainstream music, particularly as a session musician
    To help with passing music exams
    To gain entry to a mainstream music course
    To be able to write parts for other instruments (saxophone, trumpet, keyboards, for example) in their band

    Other than these very particular requirements the argument gets a little weak and is just a matter of personal choice.

    Of course as a non reader my thinking may be slightly scewed.

    • Chris, many thanks for the feedback. I don’t think you and I see things too differently on this subject. I’ll be interested to know your response to the second part of this article however (when it comes out) so watch this space!

      • I think that you both hit on some excellent points. One thing I’d like to add to the discussion (and I know that it’s not always the case) is that many people who learn via tab don’t always make a point of knowing how the notes they learn correspond to other notes on the fretboard. For instance, “9” on the G string being the same note as the open high E string. Many people will struggle to play a tab as it’s written out without even realizing that there may be a simpler way to fret a note which may make a whole passage easier. When you’re reading tablature and you don’t have the knowledge of where notes are, you are constantly at the mercy of whomever transcribed the tab and you are forced to follow in his fingerprints, if you will. That’s not always easy, especially if your transcriber has huge hands and can make stretches that you can’t even dream of.

        Likewise, and again I know that it’s a generalization but it seems to be so because for many people fall into this category, it seems that people who learn to read notes also gain the ability to see music more in phrases, whether they are reading in standard notation or tablature. Reading in phrases usually helps a player to determine the best fingering position for the enitre phrase. Many folks who read tablature tend to go from number to number and don’t always see that the tab does give you good hints as to how best position your fingers to play a phrase.

        Finally, and this certainly doesn’t matter to everyone, but knowing how to read music means that you can transcribe other instrument parts in order to create your own arrangements of songs. There are a lot of lessons that I’ve written for Guitar Noise that are supposedly “piano songs” that don’t have tabbed out guitar parts, or if they do, they are simply strummed chords. For example, being able to read music made it a lot easier for me to create a single guitar arrangement for “Whiter Shade of Pale.”
        You can also read and adapt bass lines to your arrangements or incorporate a sax solo or just about anything. You obviously can do this by ear, too, but reading notation can help those whose ear skills are still in development.


  5. How do you get a guitar player to stop playing? Put sheet music in front of him!

    Ha I kill me!

    But seriously, I’m one of the major offenders, I don’t read, but I’ve been trying to recently. Mostly out of necessity. There is a bass line to a certain song that I cannot figure out for the life of me how to do it, but now that I have sheet music in front of me, I can’t go wrong because I know 4 quarter notes go 1, 2, 3, 4. 8 eighth notes go 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. So either you instinctively know the rhythm, or you get the sheet music and count 1 and 2 and…….

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