As a well seasoned online guitar teacher, Guest-blogger, Michel Penterman often gets asked the question: “Do I have to learn to read music to start playing the guitar, or can I use guitar tablature, or just learn all the chords?” In this blog, Michel sums up the pros and cons of each approach and offers a nice, simple conclusion!

Learning to Play Guitar: Sheet Music, Chords, or Tab?

Learning to Play Guitar with Sheet Music

Sheet music is the comprehensive notation of a specific piece of music. Using symbols, sheet music indicates which notes need to be played when; how an individual note is to be played; the volume at which it needs to be played, and how long the note should last. Music notation also lets you know how many times a measure needs to be repeated and what key the music is played in (for guitar, this is almost always in the key of G). If you dream of playing classical pieces, then learning to read music is going to help you out a lot. If you prefer to play a different style of music or want to play in a band, then it’s understandable that you might skip learning to read music and instead, learn all your riffs and licks by heart.

Learning to Play Guitar: Sheet Music, Chords, or Tab?

The Benefits of Sheet Music

Once you understand all the notes and symbols of sheet music, you can quickly play a piece while reading it from sheet music – even pieces you’ve never heard before. With this skill under your belt, you could also play as part of ensembles where you all read a piece from the same transcript as you play. Taking things even further, if you start writing and put together your own ensemble to perform your compositions, being able to write notation and provide your own sheet music for the musicians to read is going to come in pretty handy.

The Down-Side of Sheet Music

The down-side of all of this is that, at first, it’s actually difficult to fully grasp reading music. First of all, you have five horizontal lines that make up the stave on which the notes are placed, while you’re playing six guitar strings. This is initially confusing, since the stave has nothing to do with a guitar at all, but you can add a helpful extra line above or below the stave to make things feel a little more familiar. But it’s worth noting that it can take half a year to a whole year to get to the point where you’re able to play a piece flawlessly while reading the notes from sheet music. And even then, you might still be playing simple pieces. Of course, some guitarists will pick it all up faster than others and this is fine, but another down-side of reading music is that you have to stick with what’s written on the page, and while it’s useful to have sheet music as a reference for the piece you’re playing, you might find at some point that you can’t play without it and can play nothing from memory. Whether or not you’d see this as a problem is down to how you like to learn and what kind of guitarist you want to be.

Learning to Play Guitar: Sheet Music, Chords, or Tab?

Learning to Play Guitar with Guitar Tab

Guitar tablature – often referred to as guitar tab – is a kind of diagram of the neck of your guitar. Six horizontal lines are drawn to represent the six strings and fret numbers have been written on the strings to indicate which string needs to played and at which fret. To read tablature, there’s no need to know the name of each note. All you do need to learn is the various symbols and directions that indicate a ‘slide’, ‘bend’, or a ‘hammer-on’, and ‘hammer-off’. For more information about this, check out the blog that’s dedicated entirely to reading guitar tab.

Learning to Play Guitar: Sheet Music, Chords, or Tab?

The Benefits of Guitar Tab

As a beginner guitarist, using the clear notation of guitar tablature to play a song or piece of music is actually easy. Masses of music has been translated into guitar tablature and can be found printed in books or in useful online libraries like Ultimate Guitar Tabs – where you’ll have no problem finding all of your favourite tracks and riffs. Also, using a good tab, you’re able to learn to play your best-loved guitar solo exactly as your hero plays it. Also, in contrast to reading from sheet music, the nature of tab means that you’re likely to memorise a piece you’re playing with more ease.

The Down-Side of Guitar Tab

Much like when using sheet music, the first down-side of using guitar tab, is that it’s helpful to already know the piece of music you’re playing. Since you know the music, you already have a good idea of how long particular notes need to be held for – which is not always clearly indicated by tablature (especially in the more simple tabs you can find on the internet). Some tablature is written including the musical notation above or below the tab, giving you the best of both worlds. But, when it comes to more mainstream playing styles like Pop or Rock, this is not going to be a problem since you can always find the original song on YouTube or Spotify. However, another possible down-side of tab is that it tends to focus on melodies and riffs, rather than on chords. So, having a quick jam along to the entire Beatles back catalogue is not exactly possible using full tablature.

Learning to Play Guitar: Sheet Music, Chords, or Tab?

Learning to Play Guitar with Chords

There are countless guitar chords to be learned. But if you know a mere 20% of what there is to learn, then you can already play maybe 80% of all the popular music you know. Guitar chords can be roughly divided into open chords: simple chords that, in principle, need a minimum of one and a maximum of three fingers to play. Then we have the more challenging barre chords, which, if you’re still at the very beginning of your guitar career, you should maybe stay away from for now while your fingers build up some strength.

Learning to Play Guitar: Sheet Music, Chords, or Tab?

The Notation of Guitar Chords

Some chord diagrams show you exactly which notes need to played for each chord. These come in the useful form of a chord box (six vertical lines to represent the strings, three or four horizontal lines to represent the frets and dots to represent where your fingers needs to go). Sometimes, you’ll find that only the chord names have been included. In these cases, you need to be able to recognise the name and already have got the specific chord memorised. Of course, there are plenty of very convenient chord books available that can help you out with this – or you could just do a quick Google search. Also, every chord can be played in one of a few ways. But as a beginner, it’s best to give yourself a break and just start with the simple versions, since you’re going to need to know them anyway.

Where Can You Find the Chords for Well-Known Songs?

The right chords for a particular song are made incredibly easy to find using websites like Chordify. Simply search for your favourite song, learn all the chords needed to play it, and then, once you have them all memorised, the tool will show you when you need to play each chord. At some point, you can play along with the original song and even play it alone. Now, how cool is that? Other great sites for finding chords include Ultimate Guitar, Songsterr, and AZ Chords. And, if you want to do things differently, or want to see how certain chords work, why not search for a video of the original guitarist actually playing their song and watch what they’re doing with their hands, or of course, trawl through the countless made-for-purpose tutorials available.

Learning to Play Guitar: Sheet Music, Chords, or Tab?

The Benefits of Chords

Guitar chords are maybe the ideal start for any beginner guitarist who wants fast results. With just eight simple chords, and an awareness of two different timings and strumming patterns (4/4: the 4-count beat of virtually any pop song. 6/8: the one-two-three count of many ballads – better known as a waltz), you can already start building yourself a big repertoire of songs you know and you could even start writing your own. Also, you can start learning the basic techniques of playing with a plectrum, then, once your fingers feel strong enough and you’re up for a challenge, you can start learning how to play barre chords, or even satisfying finger-picking techniques. If you’ve already got those eight easy chords under your fingers and can play a steady 4/4 strumming pattern, then get online and start learning some songs, or dive right in and start writing!

The Down-Side of Chords

The down-side of starting with chords is that they are usually only played by the rhythm guitarist of a band, and anyone who just wants to play along with their favourite songs. So, by learning just the chords, you’re not learning to play melodies and riffs – which is a big part of what playing the guitar is all about. By sticking to chords alone, you’re only learning to play something that sounds nice as you play along to the original. And while it is important to know chords, at some point, you might realise that you still only know how to play the simplest version of something like the C-chord. While the original guitarist is playing a slightly different version of a C – in fact – one that not only looks completely different but also sounds slightly different, you’re playing something that might sound fine but actually gets a completely different sound out of your guitar to the sound you want to emulate.


So, as a fresh-faced beginner guitarist, should you start playing using sheet music, tablature, or just start learning chords? To get the right answer, it’s worth asking yourself the following two questions:

1) What do I want to be able to do?
2) What is my learning style?

  • Are you gifted with infinite patience? Do you love to sit for hours on end with your nose in a book and prefer to figure things out yourself? If you’re interested in classical music and have a lot of perserverence, or simply have a natural feel for it, then learning to read music and using sheet music is going to be the best choice for you.
  • Do you want to learn to pound riffs, play intricate melodies and solos, and maybe play the finger-picking patterns of your favourite songs with precision? Then guitar tablature is going to feel more natural for you.
  • If you want fast results and a simple starting point to build your playing on; or maybe you just want the pleasure of playing along with your favourite playlist; or you want to help form the backbone of the band as the rhythm guitarist, then starting your playing career with chords is going to work for you.
  • Tip: Whatever your starting point is, a good challenge a little further down the line is to start trying to play guitar parts by ear. This could be simply figuring out which chords are being played by just listening to a song, or you could even try to figure out how the riffs and solos are played. The chord progressions, tabs, and even the sheet music you find on the internet or in books are not always flawless, so playing by ear helps here too. It’s also a really useful skill to have when you start playing with other musicians.

See Also …

» How Do I Become a Guitarist?
» Learning to Play Guitar Chords for Beginners
» How Can I Connect a Guitar to a Computer?
» Five Misconceptions About Playing Guitar
» Learn How to Play with a Plectrum
» How to Tune Your Guitar or Bass

» Acoustic or Electric Guitar: Where’s the Best Place to Start?
» Which Acoustic Guitar Do You Need? Classical or Steel-String?
» How to Choose the Right Steel-String Guitar
» How to Choose the Right Classical Guitar
» How to Choose the Right Electric Guitar

» All Guitars & Accessories

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