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Guitar Tab (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)

I am writing this article in hopes of educating guitarists about guitar tab.There has been an on going debate amongst music educators (Guitar instructors in particular) about the validity of guitar tab as a form of instruction for students.When I first started playing guitar, Tablature didn’t even exist, (I guess I am dating myself here).

I didn’t read sheet music either. I had a couple of choices when learning new songs Have a friend who new how to play show me the things he knew. This worked fine as long as they were playing it correctly. Sit with my recordings and pick off by ear the things I wanted to learn. This was great practice for developing my ear, but it could definitely be time consuming but very worthwhile.

Both of these methods had pros and cons in that you might be learning something the wrong way, but you were developing your playing skills and your ear. Even if it wasn’t completely correct.Today we have guitar tablature that enables us to look at a sheet and tell us which fret or frets to put our fingers on. There are even programs like Power tab that will play the song. Now this is great if you have heard the tune before and you might be fortunate enough to play it reasonably well if you have a good sense of time.

More often than not the new students that start with me who have been using tab have poor rhythmic skills and the things they have learned through tab sound mediocre at best. A lot of times they use incorrect fingerings as well.I do use tablature when teaching students, but I do so in a very limited manner when students first start.

It can be helpful in creating dexterity and gives them something interesting to play, as I have yet to find a sight-reading instruction book that doesn’t bore them to death.

My students are taught to sight-read so they can understand the theoretical concepts behind good time and rhythm. As well they learn the note names and the guitar neck on every fret. Sight-reading in and of itself does not promote good time, if it does not include proper rhythm exercises to accompany it.

Part of this is working with the metronome. Sight-reading as well does not replace good ear training. Students are always amazed when I can listen to a new song and just figure it out. I tell them when I first learned guitar that is how I did things, and I had a lot of practice at it. I also let them know that the ear training and theory I learned help me to figure things out by just listening to them.

All of these tools help me to understand how things should work in music.The area where I do feel tab is very helpful is in songs that are in different tunings.

Finger-style guitar has various tunings and it would be like learning to sight-read for a completely new instrument for each new tuning. I do tell them it is important to understand how to read rhythmic notation that way song can be played in proper time.Proper sight-reading teaches you that skill.

I do think tab when used improperly creates lazy students without proper music skills. On the other hand teaching sight-reading without good ear training does no better.

Remember some of the best musicians never sight-read, Wes Montgomery the great jazz guitarist to name one. But he developed his ear beyond belief. Developing your ear is by far the most important skill.

Well I hope you find this article helpful and see the purpose of developing all of your music skills.

Alan Darby

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