Sheet music vs. tabulature

Well, I’m finally gonna get a bass this month. Woo-Hoo! I’m getting a Rickenbacker 4001 (except it’ll have the Jetglow finish). I have a friend who’s a Rick collector and he’s going to check them out for me, so I don’t know the exact model year.
Now the fun part, learning how to play! Which is better, learning how to read sheet music, or using tabulature?
Pros & cons of each?

When learning how to play guitar I also learned how to read music. At the time I didn’t know there was another way to learn songs. As my playing progressed and I wanted to learn more poplular songs I started to use tab. I would look at the music for a popular song and for some reason would not be able to learn it. Tab made it so much easier. It got to the point where I could only remember very basic notes by looking at the sheet music.

In hindsight I wish I had not used tab. While tab helped me learn the songs faster I feel it hurt me in the long run. I recently started piano lessons and it has taken me a long time to re-learn how to read sheet music. If I had not fallen back on tab I feel my piano playing abilities would be more advanced than they are now.

It all depends on what you want to do in the future. If playing for fun is all you’re out for tab should be fine. If you want to be a studio musician then you need to know how to read sheet music.

Pretty much gonna play to entertain myself and possibly “jam” (and I use that term very lightly) with a friend who plays guitar.

I would say that learning to read music is “better”.
Learning to read guitar tablature is “easier”.

If you’re playing in an orchestra use sheet music.

You’re a (bass) guitarist. Tab is written and perfectly suited for your instrument.

Using sheet music to learn how to play bass guitar is like practicing in a boat to learn how to drive a car.

Congrats on the Rick. Here is the Rickenbacker that I play .
As for tab versus sheet music, I have been reading music for years, but as it relates to playing the guitar, tab is perfect. It is better for learning. Standard Musical Notation is very difficult to relate to the guitar, in my opinion, because the same note can appear three or four places on the fretboard, and who needs that confusion.

Good luck. Always nice to see someone picking up a Rick

I agree with the folks that say if you’re just learning to play for fun, use TAB. However, I would also suggest getting grounded in what the tab means, in other words, making sure you understand key signatures and which notes you’re playing. If you want to play later with friends (which you will want to do, because it’s so much more fun than playing with yourself ;)), you’ll need to know what key everyone is playing in and be able to play figures and basslines in that key.

Tab is definitely easier for your purposes. If you ever plan on playing anything that doesn’t have strings, however, sheet is the way to go.

Also, what Morgain said. Learning the basics is always good.

Tab is much easier to play with. However, you do yourself a disservice by only learning how to read tablature. Most tablature for modern guitars/basses does not dictate rhythm. Lute tablature does but that doesn’t look like modern tablature either. Only learning tab will also put a big damper on you learning the notes on the neck of your instrument which will make it harder for you to jam with friends who don’t have music with them, ie, they tell you what the chord progressions are and you have to play off of them.

As a former guitar teacher and current classical guitarist, I would only suggest learning to read tablature in conjunction with learning where all the notes on your instrument are. Also learning to read easily up to around the seventh position in sheet music will make you that much more versatile a player.

The problem with tab is that it does not give any time values, so if you don’t have a recording of the song (or if you’ve never heard it) tab doesn’t help all that much. It is easier,but it is also limiting. I would suggest learning some basics of standard notation as a back up. A lot of published tab will include the standard notation, so if you at least learn time values amd meters you can work out a song without having to listen to it.

Pssst, Diogenes, read the second sentance in my post above. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Yup, I’ll chime in and say that learning to read standard notation is for the most part better. There are some things that tab has over standard notation though. Joni Mitchell is a good example for this. Tab will (or at least should) show specific tunings and capo positions. A song like “Big Yellow Taxi” in standard notation isn’t going to be able to show how to replicate the chord voices and specific intonations that it will when you change the guitar tuning to DADF#AD and slap a capo on the second fret (or play in EBEG#BE tuning w/o a capo) as would be indicated by tab. I’ve also found a lot of books that note that some tunes need to be tuned down a step for example (so your guitar is moved from EADGBE to EbAbDbGbBbEb) but in the standard notation, it’s written one step up. That’s a bit frustrating.
There’s also a 3rd option that really hasn’t been mentioned here yet. (I’m assumin’ it’s because you bought a Rick which means you’re probably not just gonna fart around on the guitar). But…for sake of putting the info out there…the third option is learning just chord shapes. A Bm C#7 etc. This is if you’re more of a week-end campfire kind of person that just wants some quick gratification and finding a song off of or when that is the majority that’s provided.

I’d recommend learning them all as it’s going to open you up to more experiences. On a learning curve though, expect to spend most of your time on the standard notation, tab in the middle, and chords as the easiest.

When I started to play, I had no musical training whatsoever. I bought an Echo and the Bunnymen songbook and learned from that. (Not the best way to go…) I learned basic chords, then guitar tablature after that, now I’m still working on standard notation. I’ve jammed with friends and before I started learning to read notation, I knew basic music theory. What chords go in what keys, what scales to play etc… So it is possible. It’s all about time investment and what’s important to you (as has been said in the thread before).

My final thought (oh, crap, that sounds too Springer-esque), is when you’re learning on whatever notation you decide, learn songs you like and that aren’t going to annoy your neighbors, spouse, friends, and passers-by. No one wants to hear “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” over and over even if it were to played beautifully. My first song I learned to play was Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Says”. Two chords and not too irritating.

I didn’t mention chord shapes because it wasn’t mentioned by the OP. Learning chord shapes and some basic major/minor scales would go the farthest on actually being able to play the instrument in the most versatile manner. If you can do that and play from reading tablature, you wouldn’t really need much else unless you wanted to expand your horizons and play more precision oriented pieces.

Everything you are looking to do can be self taught. A teacher would help you make progress a lot faster though. Learning to read notation will make you incredibly versatile but it is fairly time consuming, especially on stringed instruments where you can play identical notes in multiple places.

Good Luck.

Tab is OK and quick (instant!) to learn but I feel it’s a crutch. If you learn to read standard music you can communicate with any musician. If you learn to read bass tab you can communicate with----other bass players. I know of no other instrument besides guitar and bass where players read charts of the instrument layout instead of music. The other benefit of learning standard notation is that you actually learn more about music along the way–key signatures, for example.

True that there are more ways than one to fret a note but standard music notation also has conventions to indicate non-obvious fingerings.

Also, just because you get a tab that shows how to fret a certain note doesn’t mean that’s the best way. You need to find your own fingerings that work best for you and give the best phrasing that you are looking for.

Use tab for a quick start but work on reading music in the background.

Cooking with Gas, there are plenty of other instruments that use charts to learn the music. Most of these are fretted strings. The Lute, Viola da Gamba, Theorbo, Mandolin, etc all use a form of tablature.

Wind instruments sometimes use charts to show the “best” fingering for certain passages. Many percussion instruments use charts for layouts of the instruments. In beginning percussion pedagogy one can make a box chart with numbers in it 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, ,7 , 8 and put x’s when they are supposed to strike.

When I was going through some pedagogy classes with piano, they even used basic charts for the youngest children. However, with the piano, standard notation is more like a chart anyway because there is only one place to play each individual note.

However, the purpose is not to overly rely on the charts but to get a small amount of working knowledge and then apply it to the staff to see how it actually works in real notation. Real notation can show everything that one needs to play a piece. Tricky parts can be explained with fingerings or side notes.


Both drum music and tab are based on the instrument layout itself.