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Why Tablature?

A debated topic amongst guitar students and teachers is the use of tablature. Modern guitar tablature (tab) is a system of lines representing strings and numbers signaling which fret to push down. This is a system in which many self-taught guitar students use to start teaching themselves basic chords and riffs.

I am in the middle when it comes to the use of tab. Being self-taught for the first year of my guitar playing, I found it very useful, and it kept me engaged and playing in that first crucial year. Like many young students I was head strong and wanted to learn my songs quickly and tab provided an easy way to do so. It was later that I realized that relying on tab was leaving me with some big gaps in my understanding of the instrument.

Now that I know how to read and prefer reading music, I still find a use for tablature and incorporate it into my lessons along with standard notation. I try to do this responsibly, making sure students understand that reading music is always more important. The following is a list of ways I use tab responsibly with students.

1. Understanding the History – Tablature is far from new. It has been a way of writing music for guitar like instrument (lute, vihuela, guitar, banjo, etc) for hundreds of years. Before the use of standardized musical notation tab was how composers wrote music for these instruments. Although slightly different from today the idea is still basically the same with a system of lines representing strings and number or letters representing frets. Rhythmic values where also notated above the lines.

2. Should not be used exclusively- For a student to be a well-rounded musician they should ultimately be able to read standard notation. The use of modern tablature is filled with pitfalls. Often tabs found on the internet will be riddled with mistakes. While using tab, students are not learning the notes on their instrument and other basic principles that teach them to communicate with other musicians.

3. Uses for students and teachers- Although tablature is not to be fully relied on, it can be useful. For teachers tab is fun way to teach students fun exercises and riffs before they are reading standard notation. It is also useful in writing out basic exercises during quickly during lessons.

Using tab can be a good starting point for students trying to sound out a new song, while keeping them interested and exploring. I like it when a student brings in a tab as we can use it as a learning opportunity. If the tab is inaccurate, we can talk about what is wrong with it and fix it. We can take what is on the tab and discuss options to play it better or with more accuracy. This also provides me with an example that shows the student why they need to focus on reading music and listening to what they are working towards.

4. Students should learn it- For better or worse we are not getting away from tablature. Even when your students know how to read, they will still come across tabs in many different forms. For example, I have worked with fine musicians who used chord charts and tabs. Also students that study music in school may have to learn lute tablature as part of their curriculum.


Jamey Mann Guitar Instructor Suzuki Guitar Instructor Facilities and Admin. Staff The Catoctin School of Music


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