Staff and Tablature

A comparison between staff and tablature notation. The advantages of tablature for the guitarist. Lessons on this site are notated in tablature only.

Tablature is a notation for guitar. It is an easy way to learn the note-order of a guitar part. Most people use tablature to learn the order of the notes, and then sound out the rhythm by listening to (or playing with) a recording. Here is an example of a blank tablature line:

Tablature shows the specific strings and frets used in a guitar part. You can play some notes (pitches) in 3 or 4 different locations on the neck. Tab tells you which location to use. Tablature will prevent you from playing the right note, but at the wrong place on the guitar neck. Tabs can show you how to play a guitar part the same way that the artist played it on the recording.

Many Tabs use markings borrowed from staff notation to show rhythm. The fact is that most people who use tabs don’t know how to read the ryhthmic notation. They use tab to learn the locations and the order of the notes. Then they listen to the recording and apply the rhythmic phrasing to the notes shown in the tab. This approach works for most people.

For many people trying to learn a guitar part, tablature is more useful than staff notation. Tab is easier and faster to learn. Also, tabs for new songs will be available much more quickly than staff notation versions. It is easier to produce and publish tabs (especially online) since they can be written with a word processor. Reproducing staff notation requires specialized music fonts. Tablature is also better at describing the exact guitar techniques used.

Unfortunately, many people who write and publish tablature don’t figure out the parts accurately. The original artist usually has nothing to do with writing the tabs or sheet music. There is a lot of wildly inaccurate tablature published, even by large and respected publishers. So when you find a tab that doesn’t sound right, it may be because the tab is wrong.

( When you write to these companies and point out all the inaccuracies, they just reassure you about what a great team of crack transcriptionists they have. I’m happy to say the situation has gotten better. Some, but not all, of the offending books have been taken off the market, and replaced with better, more accurate transcriptions since I originally complained about it on this site ten years ago. )

Staff Notation and The Guitar

Staff notation also called ‘standard notation,’ uses lines and spaces with ‘sharp’ and ‘flat’ symbols to represent note-names. Once you figure out what the note name is, you have to find it on the guitar neck. And that note may be found in several different places on the guitar. Staff notation uses a number next to some of the notes to indicate the fret.

Staff notation uses a complex system of hollow and filled-in notes, along with stems, flags, ties, dots and other symbols to describe rhythms. You can learn this system over time, but it takes a lot of practice. Because of this, it isn’t practical for everyone. Below is an example of staff notation.

Reading staff notation requires a lot of mental calculation. First, you have to know the names of the notes on the fretboard, then you have to know how to read the notes on the staff, then you have to understand how key signatures work, and then you have to understand the rhythmic notation.

As music has evolved, it’s more difficult for any notation system to convey all of the nuances that give 20th century music its character. Staff notation cannot really describe a blues guitar, for example.

Blues guitar is characterized by its free timing, distinctive articulations and micro-tonality. The only way to understand this kind of music is to hear it. The only way to reproduce the sound of blues guitar is to imitate what you hear.

Some sheet music uses chord boxes drawn above the staff. This usually works fine. However, there are times where the chord shown in a box is the ‘right chord’ but a completely wrong voicing. In music where the guitar is tuned down to another key, this can be a real problem.

The best way to understand a piece of music is to listen to it. There is only so much information that can be conveyed about music on paper. Diagrams cannot really represent sound.

Staff notation describes sound in terms of pitch, length of time and intensity. It doesn’t necessarily tell you how to get these sounds on the guitar.

Learning to read staff notation is a must for anyone who wants to make a career in music. It isn’t hard to learn if you take it a little at a time. Start with beginning reading exercises and work up from there.

One thing that may help is to make enlarged photostat copies of the pieces you’re reading. To save on printing costs, many publishers make their printed music very small. It’s much easier to read large notes than small notes, especially when you are first learning.

I haven’t addressed staff notation in the lessons since the goal here is to make complex guitar parts accessible to beginning and intermediate players, and tablature is better suited to that goal.

We will offer Staff Notation Reading lessons later this year. Check back.

Tablature and Staff Notation

Copyright 2001 by Greg Varhaug. All Rights Reserved.