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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