Reasons Guitarists Shouldn’t Use Tab!

I once found out that my predecessor at a school where I was teaching guitar, had been encouraging all the children to use tablature. Not only did the tutor miss a chance to introduce traditional music notation at an early age, they tacitly discouraged the children from getting to grips with its fundamentals. The result was such that when I began teaching them, the children had already developed a preference for tablature and a distrust of musical notation. This situation prompted a few thoughts on the demerits of a form of guitar notation which is now almost ubiquitous.

The first problem with tablature, or tab, as it must be referred to in this age of abbreviation, is the simple fact that it is completely redundant. Tab is the revival and appropriation of a primitive form of 16th century lute notation which was made obsolete centuries ago when musical notation increased in sophistication. If we compare a passage of music displayed in classical notation with the same passage shown in tab, it’s pretty clear that the tab version adds nothing to our understanding of the music. It doesn’t tell you what the notes are, it contains no rhythmic indication, and if you were to present it to any instrumentalist other than a guitarist, they’d find it about as useful as a comb is to John Scofield.

There are certain apologists for tab who would make claims for it being a handy tool for quickly figuring out where to put the fingers. Any suggestion that it therefore provides information which cannot be represented in standard notation is of course nonsense. Classical guitar notation can explain which strings to play, and at which frets to press, in what position on the fingerboard, and with which fingers. All of that information can be displayed on a single stave, and even more importantly, the player can elect to discard those editorial suggestions and choose their own alternatives. Players of other instruments, and indeed their teachers, don’t have the problem of a dumbed-down, illiterate, sub-standard notation, posing seductively as an easy alternative to the traditional variety. They know, or at least they should, that in order to improve they had better start at the beginning and gradually learn what the notes are, where to play them, and how to read and write them. Tablature encourages would-be guitarists in their delusional and unacknowledged belief that competence can be reached as effortlessly and mindlessly as possible. Trying to master the guitar using tablature is like trying to pilot a plane using only youtube tutorials and wikipedia articles.

Because of the shortcomings of tablature, it is usually published beneath and as an adjunct to the traditional stave. This leads to two problems. Firstly, the space that is taken up by two staves means that a piece of music which would have fit comfortably onto two or three sides of paper, now sprawls tediously and unhelpfully across page after page, creating the nuisance and hindrance of multiple page turns (This also hampers understanding of the form of the music). Secondly, because of the presence of the tablature, editors see little need to attend to the presentational quality of the musical notation, nor to add any suggestions of the sort found in classical scores. Because publishers see the inclusion of tablature in their books as a way of increasing the potential number of buyers, fewer new guitar books are published without it. This creates an absurd situation whereby a large number of books which are unsuitable for guitarists unable to read music, are published with tablature so that they will buy them anyway. Its presence then has to be tolerated and ignored by those who have taken the trouble to learn how to read music, and would much prefer the book to contain no tablature at all. The end product is therefore of very little use to anyone. Any guitarist who wants to get beyond a certain point has to make the conscious decision to spurn tablature. Not just to relegate it, but to completely cut it out. Better to do so sooner rather than later.

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