Guitar/Tablature and Standard Notation

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Tablature and standard notation are two ways that musical information is shared. Sight-reading of standard notation is a requisite skill for teaching careers, session work, and the theater orchestra. Reading music increases your knowledge of music and allows you to notate your musical ideas. Each notation system has its advantages and disadvantages. Tablature does not convey timing and pitch information as well as standard notation does though it is more useful for showing bends and to what degree (1/4, 1/2 or full) they should be executed and other worded instructions such as pick scrapes and whammy bar effects. For these reasons many guitar transcriptions for rock, jazz and blues, use both standard notation and tablature.



You do not need to know how to read music to use tablature. Each string is represented by a line and on those lines numbers are used to indicate which fret to press down.

Below is a simple melody in tablature.


Lower Section


In the lower section of the example above, the top line represents the thinnest string of the guitar (high e) and the lowest line represents the thickest string of the guitar (low E). Each number on a line represents a fretted note on that string. The number zero is an open string, the number one is the first fret, and so on.

The tab is divided into measures using bar-lines but the duration of the notes is not indicated. You can figure out the duration of the notes using the standard notation in the upper section. You can also work out the note values using the time signature; which in this example is four-four time. This means that there are four quarter-notes in each measure. The tempo or style, which is given at the top of a piece of sheet music, is also an indicator of how a song should be played.

The key signature is not shown in the example. Key signatures show which sharps , naturals, and flats are to be used; represented by #'s and b's. Each sharp or flat is shown on their respective line and space after the time signature.

Upper Section


The upper section of the example above is in standard notation and shows that the first bar has eight notes. Each note is represented by an oval note-head which indicates which note pitch is to be played. A stem with tails is used to indicate notes duration (how long the note is to be held). In standard notation only the whole-note is written without a stem. Because the notes in the first bar are all eighth notes with one tail they are connected with a single beam as shown in the example. The beaming of the same notes in a bar allows for easier reading. In a bar of music with mixed note values a single eighth note would be shown with a single tail. Sixteenth notes have two tails so a double beam is used when grouping.

The vertical bar-line after the last eighth note marks the end of one complete count of the time-signature. Bar-lines are used to show the pulse of the music and taken overall allows us to describe the form of a piece of music. The usefulness of using bar-lines to describe form is self-evident in the twelve bar blues whose title states that a cyclic group of twelve bars is to be performed. It is common to find musicians describing one complete thirty-two bar cycle of a jazz standard as a chorus. The term chorus is used to indicate how many times a song is to be repeated. A vamp on the thirty-two bar Jazz standard "Misty", written by the pianist Erroll Garner, would by convention start with all the musicians stating the melody with the following choruses dedicated to solo improvisation. The last chorus usually has the musicians stating the melody again without improvisation. The convenience of using the term chorus can be illustrated by imagining a four piece Jazz quartet with piano, saxophone, double bass and drums. If each musician is given a chorus to improvise over and the convention of all the musicians stating the melody on the first and last chorus is utilized then the song will have six choruses. The original hit recording of "Misty" as sung by Sarah Vaughan consisted of only one chorus with a four bar intro. Be aware that four and eight bar codas and intros are very common in Jazz and Blues and need to be taken into account when working out how many bars a chorus contains.

In some forms of music there is a strong emphasis placed on the first beat of each bar. This is easily demonstrated by the Waltz time signature where the first beat of a count of three is emphasized for the dancers benefit in accord with the dance steps to be performed. If a note is tied over the bar-line with a curved tie-line then the note duration is held over to the next bar. Bars never have more notes in them than is indicated by the time signature. In the next bar there is a whole note which is a white oval with no stem. The two vertical black lines at the end are called a double bar-line indicating that the piece of music has ended.

ASCII Tablature


There is a very informal and loose standard of "Internet Tablature" using only ASCII characters. The above example would be written like this:


It has the same disadvantages of tab and contains much less information than the standard notation of the upper section. Rhythm can only be suggested by spacing or by adding symbols above each note (such as Q for quarter note). Much Internet tablature does not even contain bar lines. The timing must be discerned by listening to the original piece. This is the major flaw of online tabs and this style of tab in general.

However, online tabs are often much more convenient than standard notation for precisely conveying a specific finger positioning. Especially with alternate tunings this is a clear advantage.

Common Tab symbols:

Symbol Meaning
h or ^ hammer on
p or ^ pull off
b bend string up
r release bend
/ slide up
\ slide down
v or ~ vibrato
t right hand tap
x play 'note' with heavy damping

Chords are often written in the form:

   xx0232  x32010  320003

Standard Notation


Notes On The Staff


Here are the notes as they appear in standard notation. The set of lines and spaces that run horizontally across the page is called the staff (plural - staves). Notes can be written on the lines and in the spaces. A common mnenomic for remembering the notes of the Treble Clef is:

"Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge" and the word "FACE


The musical alphabet starts at the letter A and ends on the letter G. There are twelve sounds in music and seven letters to represent them. The other five sounds are the sharps or flats of these seven notes. Each step up the staff is the next letter, so it goes A, B, C, etc. The first symbol on the staff is always the clef; which in this case is the treble clef. The word clef is French for key and gives you the position of the first note. The treble clef shown here is also called the G clef. It is drawn so that the note G is indicated as being on the second line.


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