Q: How do you get a guitar player to stop playing?
A: Put sheet music in front of them!

It’s an old joke that nods to a common misconception about guitar players – that we can’t read music. Not only that, I pride myself on the fact that you don’t have to read music in order to work through my lessons and courses.

I actually can read music, though I’m not a “sightreader” by any means.

The reality is, in the modern era guitar tablature, or TAB, has all but taken over written music for the guitar.

But… there are 2 really important reasons:

First, it’s much easier to read a number than a dot… (TAB is numbers, music is dots)

Second, with TAB there is no possibility of error. You are given a fret and a string, and that can only

In the modern era, guitar tablature, or TAB, has all but taken over written music for the guitar. And, to be honest, there are 2 really important reasons:

First, it’s much easier to read a number than a dot…

Second, there is no possibility of error. You are given a fret and a string, and that can only be played in one way.

With most notes on a standard music staff, there are anywhere between 1 and 4 or 5 ways to play them, depending on which position and which string you choose.

However, there are a couple of disadvantages to TAB as well:

For one, rhythmic notation is usually not included. If you want it, you have to use the standard notation in the staff above. Sometimes it is approximated in the TAB, but without noteheads, it can be a challenge.

Secondly, note names are never considered. While that may not seem like any big deal, at some point note names and being aware of what note you are playing at all times becomes an important thing. So, for beginners not so much, but for more advanced players it becomes more of an issue.

Regardless, most of us realize that at least a basic, working knowledge of standard musical notation makes us better musicians. Or, at least, more well-rounded musicians that are better able to communicate with other musicians who don’t use TAB and must rely on standard notation.

So, do you need to learn to read music? 

A basic proficiency will help you in all areas of music, not the least of which being better at your counting and timing, and understanding how something will sound just from the page without having to hear it.

If you’re a beginning guitarist, don’t worry about it right now, there are other issues to handle. But if you’re getting more intermediate/advanced, you would probably be well advised to get a working knowledge of how to read music.

And, to that end, I’ve created a course called How To Read Music On Guitar – you might want to check that out 🙂


    19 replies to "Do You Need Real Music?"

    • ChrisGSP

      There are disadvantages to both – one is that traditional music doesn’t tell you where to put your fingers, while TAB ONLY tells you where to put your fingers.
      But I think the big disadvantage of Guitar TAB is that you can’t share it with your friends who play other instruments. I’ve spent so many happy hours standing and playing guitar next to my piano-playing friend reading and playing the music up on the piano’s music “stand”. Nothing can beat that kind of conversation; it doesn’t matter what your spoken language is, you can share the language of music with everyone. I think it’s the world’s only universal language, and I cannot think of a way to say “war”, “fight”, “hurt”, or “kill” in that language.
      Chris G in Sunny Oz.

      • PAUL


    • Clifton Jones

      When I started learning, songbooks didn’t have tab. I certainly never got close to sight reading. I’ve been playing guitar for over forty years, and I added a bit of piano about five years ago. Obviously my guitar playing is far better than my piano BUT I can read music better for the piano (on the piano, one dot can only mean one key, whereas, as you point out, one dot can mean up to five positions – six is the note is open high E and I play it on the bass E string with a whole tone bend). That said, I’m glad I can read (even if not well) and I like song books which have both, the tab to tell me where to put my fingers/which string to use and the traditional notation to tell me what is going on musically. I don’t think I’ll need your course, but I wish you the best with it and I hope you have a good uptake on it as it does make a player a more rounded musician.

    • Alan

      I play more bass than guitar but for anything other than simple eighth note rhythms tabs are hopeless. I often find that I have to rewrite tabs in standard music notation to get the rhythm right. Maybe I don’t have good internal rhythm but actually seeing where 1/16th notes sit in the measure makes it feel so much more solid to count. Definitely worth the effort of learning

    • Ry

      Personally, I think if you’re going to want to know note names on demand, learn to read sheet music. Tab is useless for this. I get students who know everything from “Stairway” to Tommy Emmanual, yet when they ask me how something new is played, I might tell them to play C on the fifth string and they have no idea where it is. I have to describe it to them. This is also something I can’t assist with during the week, nor should I have to. But they don’t want to read music.

      This is all fundamental. Having to describe every note’s location while trying to teach a piece is a rip off to both of us, for someone who is too lazy to just get the basics but expects to be able to understand advanced material. How efficient is this?

      Another thing I say to students who want to learn classical: If you can’t find a piece with tab, you’re SOL. There might be 1200 notes in the piece you want to learn. You’re going to spend 10 seconds figuring out where each note is or five seconds for me to explain each note during our 30 or 60 minute lesson time. Meanwhile, I’m looking at the piece and see it’s in the key of D, the melody has stepwise motion, and I run up the scale and know there’s F# and C# at a glance but don’t need to be slowed down by thinking about it because I’m using the same useless finger pattern you play in other pieces that you can’t connect to this piece because of the fact you can’t see how it applies. In your 10 seconds of figuring out where a note is I’ve played two bars.

      Teachers who say you don’t need to learn how to read music would do you a bigger service by saying, you know what, learn it, I will help you, and your future learning will be more expedient. No one should be a teacher who can’t read or write the language of music. It’s as ridiculous as hiring a French teacher who can only speak English. Music deserves more respect than that. 1200 notes × 10 seconds figuring out each damn note = lots of money for your teacher’s interim income because he’s not teaching you how to fish. In the long run, you’ll quit. Who wants to spend a year learning a piece while proper musicians can learn it in an afternoon or two?

      Practice wise, spend $10 bucks and get a guitar method book. You waste that money on Starbucks or McDonald’s but think learning something new is a waste of money. When did this society turn into being allergic to knowledge? Probably since YouTube made everyone think they know everything already. This and other technologies and the invention of tablature gets you to the point you can play well, but you still aren’t independent. Why do you want to be dependent on your hack teacher or YouTube videos when you can develop skills to learn in ways that help you understand music better? A real teacher makes you as independent as you can be, and they know things you don’t know. Or they should, why else go to them? And a real teacher knows that his reputation as a good teacher is a bigger profit than milking one student for months with very little progress and growth in musicianship. Just like If you put the real work in as a student, right in the beginning, you well get a bigger reward in the long run and go much farther.

      Here àre a few tips:

      Say you’re learning E, F, and G on the E string. A standard guitar method book breaks it down to a few notes per string, typically. They give you numerous exercises and songs with these notes so that with each new song you haven’t just memorized a pattern. You have to think of where these notes are again. With each exercise, you become quicker, because your brain has gone through the process of repeat problem solving and is creating new neural pathways for your memory. You need variation for this to become fluid or again, you will just memorize patterns from a single exercise.

      Yes, it may be true that Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix couldn’t read music. But you’re not them. They had a certain gift. You have your own unique gifts. If you had these same gifts, you wouldn’t be asking the teacher then, would you?

      Just to name a few other advantages to reading:

      – Notes tell you both time and pitch, whereas a lot of tab doesn’t indicate rhythm

      – Reading music helps you with rhythm and larger musical concepts that you can only understand if you’ve done this

      – You can learn a piece faster than someone showing you, if your reading is on par

      – You’ll train your eye to see full patterns or intervals at a glance, and see just how ubiquitous they are across many pieces, again, quicker than it takes for someone to explain it to you

      – You don’t necessarily need to hear anything to start learning to play something

      – You don’t learn note names from tab

      – Knowing note names means knowing the fretboard WITHOUT relational knowledge IE: Counting up a string to find a note

      – You can take music from any other instrument and learn it on guitar

      – You won’t be the one who slows everyone else down while you try to find a C note

      – You can learn key signatures and then know which finger patterns to apply and why

      – You’ll be far more independent

      YouTube can be a wonderful tool for learning, but gives the people the idea that they’ve won some sort of race because they’ve been dropped off at the finish line. So you can play Zep and Tommy Emmanuel. Good for you. I can get a paint by numbers kit and it still won’t make me da Vinci. Nowadays everything is about instant gratification. But this never lasts.

      Do yourself a favor and learn the language of music. Save yourself time and make learning music more enjoyable by learning it faster. Dont be the student that wants to speak French but not understand it, or even read or write it.

      • tom lang

        Exactly right. Learn to read, and count – there are too many guitarists (sic) who do nothing but follow (in their mind) the bouncing karaoke ball when they play. They have no idea how to follow a leader if they never heard the song.

    • Ken

      When I first started taking guitar lessons when I was a kid in the mid 60’s there wasn’t tab. I wish there would have been, my teacher played many instruments and had me try banjo and piano as well as guitar. Reading music enabled me to play those although I was only interested in the guitar. That aside, tab is much easier for a beginner to learn guitar like my son and daughter. Keep the posts and lessons coming Griff.

    • Brian Brooker

      Hi Griff, I have tried putting time flags for eighth, sixteenth, triplets etc on tab numbers. Quarter notes have nothing, half notes H, whole notes W.
      Works pretty well.
      Thanks for all your help.

    • Brian

      To be able to read music notation really is a must if you want to be a versatile musician. Bit like music theory – you can play well without it, but knowing it opens up a whole ranger of other possibilities!

      Guess TABS have their place but I have always had problems getting to grips with them, they only give you half the story. Find myself scribbling down the actual notes or chords alongside to make life easier.

      Plus the bonus is being able to read music is a skill that transfers to other instruments in the future – a freebie!

      • Gary Hylton


        Old School…a.k.a. Woodstock

    • Chris

      Hi, I found the solution to only being a basic sight reader, was to learn basic keyboard for 9 months. I set myself a challenge on getting a much better grasp on music theory, something you have to do, to be able to play anything with right and left hand score.(Bass and Treble Clefs).
      My Tutor would amaze me by playing unfamiliar score to her, that I placed in front of her. This reinforces Griffs point that the Rhthym, Tempo, Timing and Expression are all contained within the written musical score. It is very hard to learn basic music reading, but man, it is a revalation! Even helps with the Bass guitar playing.

      • Brian

        Spot on – The best way of learning about chords is on a keyboard – its just so visual!

        The amazing thing is that even a little keyboard knowledge cements together the things you learn on the guitar.

    • Don Hall

      I shoot for a basic proficiency with standard notation. I want to be able to count the rhythm for a piece of music, name any note I play, and find that note on the staff. I’m not there yet, but I think that should get me able to communicate with my fellow, non-guitar, players. TAB is the standard for fretted string instruments, which is why it’s been around for centuries, back to the heyday of the lute.

    • topaz tschinnery

      Hi Griff – whilst not being heavily into blues (I’m a jazzer at heart) the thing that I really like about your postings is there is always something to learn – the “how do you stop a guitarist from playing” joke takes me back 50+++ years – and of course, you are right, as there are, (and have been) many fine and famous guitar players who can’t (or couldn’t) sight read – however, if you have designs on becoming a working session musician or backing player, then the ability to sight read is (unfortunately), a must, as studio time costs money, and you really do need to be able to “nail it” first time around! Carry on the good work.

    • John

      I read music like a first grader reads the “See Spot Run” books. I play guitar because I want to hear the music, not see it. When TABs came on the scene I already had about 20 years of experience playing. Using TABS is more efficient than learning to read music but for me, just listening to the guitar parts in a song and figuring out how to play the parts based on experience is easier than using tabs. Old habits are hard to break ( do I have to give Hank Williams Jr credit for that line? ). So if I was teaching or just learning to play guitar, I would choose TABS over learning to read music. However, I still have a secret desire to learn how to read music, I just haven’t found the need to do it yet.

    • Darryl Manire

      I like the(talk)soon you do after text. Helps me feel like a real person

      • Griff

        You are a real person!

        • Chaplain Ed

          I agree with Darryl, your teaching is very personal. I feel as if I know you as a friend. Thanks Griff.

          • Griff

            Thanks, that really does mean a lot to me.

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