Tab vs. Music and Sight Reading for Guitarists

By Adam Bauer, Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Adam Bauer

Adam Bauer

How do you make an electric guitarist turn his volume down? … You put sheet music in front of them.  Ha! I remember hearing this joke a while back and wondering why guitarists are notorious for being bad sight readers.  Most instrumentalists are expected to be proficient readers of the standard system of music notation.  Why would the expectation be different for guitarist?  Is it our attachment to reading tab?  Is it the mechanics of the instrument?  Is it our training?  Our ability to read rhythms?  Or are we spending too much time in front of the mirror practicing our bend-the-high-notes facial expressions?  In my opinion, it is all of the above.

Some guitarist do begin their studies by reading music and this can be very advantages.  They establish a sense of precise rhythm and the confidence of playing a song exactly like it’s written on the page.  The songs they begin learning are very simple.  Great sight readers can play the the correct fingerings, pitches, rhythms, and style instantly.  Because some notes (ex. our middle C) can be found in as many as 5 to 6 places on the neck we can find ourselves with too many options to choose from. With sight reading you need to make quick decisions.  Fortunately, most notation for guitar contains left hand finger markings which tell you exactly which fingers to use and where.

On the other, tab ONLY tells you where to place your fingers and never which fingers to use.  Tab is easy to learn and a great way to learn the pitches contained in songs.  However, rhythm and style must be learned by listening to a recording of the song.  Proper fingering will also need to be decided from the tab.  This can be very difficult for students without guitar teachers.  Furthermore, for some people working on correct fingerings, pitches, rhythms, and style through tab could take just as long as learning to read music when all is said and done.  Guitarists and guitar-like instruments have read tab for centuries and there have always been a lot of successful beginning level players who use it.  For more serious musicians, I believe having some notation reading skills is essential.

Reading music in an ensemble or band is a great way to improve sight reading abilities.  Unfortunately, guitarist don’t always have this opportunity.  Besides, we can play a lot of fun things as solo guitarists.  One thing that has helped me greatly is reading by myself from methods, anthologies, fake books, and real books with a metronome. It’s fun!  Seriously.  Find something that you can read easily, at a slow and steady tempo, with the metronome. Your instructor can help you find things to look for in the music before you attempt to play it.  Play it 2 or 3 times without stopping until you reach the end.  This is sight reading.  If it is still too difficult, start with a beginning guitar method (without any tab!).  The many great method books used by the lesson studio guitar teachers are listed with the instructor bios.

Guitarists who can read are in demand for school jazz bands, chamber music groups, Musical pit orchestras, jam sessions, and solo guitar gigs.  Learning to read music on guitar is hard work, but is certainly worth the effort.  Get some sheet music, get a metronome and turn up your volume!


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