An Argument For Classical Guitar Tabs Over Notation


In the world of classical guitar, a blog post on tabs (short for tablature) will spark at least a little controversy. However, after years of teaching I believe that I can make a case where tablature might be the preferred way to read music for the guitar.

Arguments Against Using Tablature

Traditionally classical guitarists have held a very staunch view that "true" musicians read notation and not tablature. In returning to the the first scores for lute and vihuela, we see that almost all music for these instruments was written in tablature. This is especially true before the solidification of music notation.

In the modern age, there are two basic reasons for not using tablature. The first is that it is difficult to explain many of the correct fingerings for a passage. Indicating right and left hand fingerings is rarely done and can be confusing considering the fact that numbers are used instead of note heads for the note indications. The second is that it fails to accurately indicate the length note duration. This is especially important when a note in one voice last longer than a note in another voice. I have yet to see an effective way of communicating this with pure tablature.

Arguments For Using Tablature

My argument for using tablature is specific to certain types of students. I do not argue that most people learning the classical guitar should use tablature instead of notation. If a student is just beginning, then learning to read notation should be the starting point. However, some students that use the guitar for the shear joy of playing or for therapeutic uses do not necessarily need to use pure notation.

In making the statement above, I want to clarify my definition of tablature. Tablature that is useful includes a standard staff above a tablature staff. This allows the student to clarify which notes to hold and to clarify the rhythms (you can see an example of this type for flatpick in my post Beginning Guitar Lesson1 (Pick Version)). Using this type of tablature, a student who has a higher technical ability than reading ability is able to learn music at an easier pace with greater understanding. It takes the work out of finding the notes on the fret board and focusing on the shear joy of playing the music in front of them. After all, that is why they are playing the guitar in the first place. For the student who has this goal in mind, I see no drawbacks.

If a student decides to improve their reading skills, then it is always available to them with thousands of pieces. The only drawback for this student is that many of the pieces they might want to play are not notated in this double manner. As time goes on, however, more and more pieces are available in this format. A good example for classical guitar tabs is the book Classical Guitar Pieces by Stephan Schmidt in both notation and tablature

What Do You Think?

Above are just a couple of arguments for using tablature for classical guitar. Do you think it is a "proper" or effective way of learning the music? If so, then where does it leave notation?