Learning to Read Tab and Notation

A very common question among players is whether they really need to learn to read music. Some will just dive right into reading tab and standard notation, and figure it out, while for others, it seems too much like work, time taken away from actually playing. It is mostly that latter group that asks if knowing how to read music is necessary.

And the answer is both yes and no, which can be frustrating for most people. Which is it, yes or no? As with many things, it depends. Look, if you just want to learn a few songs, a couple of pentatonic boxes, keep it real and play completely by ear, you can definitely do that. There are countless musicians who have had legendary careers, who cannot read music and do not know theory. If you can navigate your way around to where your ear can hear what you like, and you know the patterns to create those sounds, you can write plenty of songs in that style.

When talking about “reading,” especially for guitar, it helps to make a distinction between standard notation and tablature. Unless you’re learning jazz or classical guitar, learning standard notation is not as critical a skill. (But it certainly doesn’t hurt.) Tab, on the other hand, is essential to getting anywhere beyond the absolute basics. Almost any song or exercise that will further your development is going to at least be in tab.

The best analogy I can think of as to why it’s worthwhile to at minimum learn to read tab has to do with reading in general. You want to be able to read any book or magazine or publication you might pick up, so you learn what sounds letters make, separately and in combination, how to put words and phrases together, etc. It’s the same with music — you can figure out by ear how to play this or that song, but to grab a tab book or a piece of sheet music and make it sound like something, that takes an understanding of the basics of reading tab.

And reading tab really isn’t that difficult, for the most part. Aside from seeing the fret/string combination and being able to play it as you read it, the other major feature that needs some study and attention is note values and rhythm. This means understanding the difference between a quarter note and a 16th note, or a triplet or odd grouping, which is mostly being able to tap your foot to a beat and count it out.

Learning to read notation is somewhat trickier, because the guitar is considered a transposing instrument, and so is written in standard notation one octave lower than it actually sounds. This can be confusing at first.

Also, unlike other instruments, the guitar has more than one location to play most notes. Take a middle C note for example — there’s only one place to play that note on a piano, but five locations on guitar (1st fret, 2nd string; 5th fret, 3rd string; 10th fret, 4th string; 15th fret, 5th string; 20th fret, 6th string). The context of the music and the practicality of the location (most people are not going to play that note on the 20th fret of the low E string) will help determine where to play the note. But it still can be difficult to properly sight-read (that is, read the music while playing it, in real time) standard notation, where with a little bit of practice, sight-reading tab is fairly simple and straightforward.

Some players have a fear that learning to read music, or learning theory, will affect the way in which they approach and play their music. This is not entirely unfounded — since there are only so many hours in the day or week available to practice and study, it’s reasonable to believe that excessive amounts of time spent on learning theoretical concepts will take away from learning the practical applications — that is, songs — of those concepts.

But with practice time that is properly segmented and prioritized, you can do both — learn useful concepts that will advance your understanding of music in general and guitar in particular, and more importantly, how to apply those ideas. It doesn’t take that much time, either — a 15-minute segment of your practice routine, over the course of several weeks or months, should be sufficient to internalize your ability to read tab, and use it to apply your own musical ideas.

Learning to sight-read standard notation is a worthwhile effort, because it will make a wider variety of music (again, primarily jazz and classical) available to learn. But it should be noted that it will take substantially more time and effort than learning to read tab. If you’re “starting from scratch” and don’t know how to read tab or notation, but would like to learn both, I would suggest starting with tab and progressing to notation once tab has been mastered (in other words, you can sight-read and play an unfamiliar page of tab in real time).

In the next few weeks, we’ll do a “quick and dirty” rundown on the basics of reading tab, and put that into a 1-2 page cheat sheet for the Resources page.