Should I learn playing by Tab or Sheet Music?

There are two different forms of printed music – tab music and sheet music. But what is the difference between these two? Here are some examples:


Sheet music looks like:

Music tabs look like:

Mostly, you can find both together, as in the example below:

You will immediately notice that tab and sheet music are written very differently. Sheet music is what most musicians, regardless of the instrument they play, will recognize. Notes are written on a clef (five horizontal lines). Tabs are written in correspondence to the fretboard of the guitar, so there are six lines that correspond to the six strings.


Sheet music shows which notes should be played and which rhythm these notes have (for a quarter note, for a whole note, etc.). In tab music, you see on which strings and frets the notes should be played.



Why should I use sheet music?

Sheet music has its advantages. For starters, once you learn how to read music, you can apply it to any other instrument. In addition, you can find a lot of information, such as harmony, rhythm and meter.



It takes a loooong time to master that. / It’s more difficult to find free notation online. / Some guitar techniques (e.g. strumming) aren’t easy to show. A strumming pattern might be easy to play, but can have a complex rhythm that is difficult to read written out in music format. As an example, string bends are one of these things that are not really obvious in sheet music.



Why should I use tab music?

 Tab music also has its advantages, especially when you are a beginner. Tab music shows you exactly where your fingers should be on the fretboard. Tab notation is also be very easy to understand, as the graphics correspond to the instrument in a visual way. Sheet music doesn’t have that advantage.



No timing information is given. When it’s given, the tab is no longer self-explained. / It’s easy to be created by anyone, so many tabs are very poor in quality.



So, when you are a beginner, you’d like to play your first song or lick as soon as possible. As such, you choose to play that by tab. There you can see on which fret and on which string you can find the note. That’s the fastest way to play some songs or licks really early in the game.

BUT, it’s very important to know both forms of music and to be able to use them accordingly. Both have features that are important to a musician. When you know how to read both tab and sheet music, you will be more competitive in the field.


About the author

Roger Walder is a student of Music&Co., a guitar music school based in Zurich, Switzerland that offers tuition for acoustic and electric guitar. Check out his website at Gitarrenunterricht Zurich.