Teaching TAB

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Matt-Gerry_webPhilosophy in teaching guitar. If you want to divide a room of guitar teachers fast…just bring up TAB. Strong feelings abound!

Here’s my take….
1. TAB is important.
2. Teaching students to be literate musicians (who can read sheet music on a staff) is important.
3. Teaching students to be able to continue to play once they leave your class is important.

So with those three things in mind…YES…I believe we must teach TAB, but at the correct time. I think students need to have a firm foundation in notation FIRST. Once that is established, yes bring out the tab. It really will be important for them to know once they have left your classroom (especially if they are only with you for a short time like my students are).

I’ve found that telling students that TAB is just a map of your guitar turned sideways works well.

I always use Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” to introduce it. Great lick that you can walk them through just a few notes at a time. You can totally tell if they’re picking it up by when the riff changes. The change is shifting what you’ve already learned up a set of strings. If they understand tab, they’ll get it without a problem, if not….better go back and explain some more.


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Teaching TAB

16 Responses

  1. Well said Matt. I find most kids that are interested in playing guitar know about tab thanks to the internet. My feeling is the important thing is telling them the individuals posting tabs are rarely the artists themselves but someone’s interpretation.

    Glen McCarthy October 9, 2013 at 10:31 AM #
    • Good point! Do you have any songs Glen that you use when you’re first introdocing tab in a classroom setting?

      Matt Gerry October 9, 2013 at 11:16 AM #
  2. Hello Matt,

    I’ve been playing guitar for a little over 30 years and teaching for about 25. I used to be one of those who shunned TAB thinking
    it was a non-musical approach to teaching and playing. It wasn’t until my
    music history course in college that I realized tab had been used since the
    early 1600s by John Dowland and Thomas Campion, the 2 leading lute composers and performers of their time. I thought, “If
    they were teaching with it way back then, maybe I should look into it”.

    I’ve since discovered it is an in-valuable teaching tool. I‘m a get the student’s
    fingers moving first, then read kind of guy. I will use tab to get my beginner
    students able to play, then after a couple of weeks and a few easy songs, use a
    process to switch over to standard notation. It is a method that has yet
    to fail with any of my students.

    As guitarteachers, we need to choose the tools that will inspire, motivate, and educate our students. Starting with TAB, then moving to standard notation is 1 out of the many successful approaches we can use.

    Thanks for all
    your tips!

    Paul Desmarais

    Paul Desmarais October 10, 2013 at 6:57 AM #
    • I had no clue that Dowland and other lute composers used tab! How cool.
      I like what you said about getting fingers moving first. That’s good stuff. I didn’t really think about it this way, but I guess I kind of do the same thing. I get my students motivated when they first start by teaching them to play smoke on the water on the low E string. 3,6,8…3,6,9,8….3,6,8,6,3. I didn’t really think of that as tab, but I guess it totally is. I have been using the FJH book with my 6th graders and they start off with fret numbers too which does work really well.
      My more advanced students don’t move to “six string” tab until we’ve learned all the notation in first position. Otherwise I find…they aren’t motivated to learn the notes and they just want the tab instead. Do you have any problems with your students with that kind of situation?

      Matt Gerry October 10, 2013 at 10:13 AM #
      • In a way, we all use a form of TAB, whether it be the standard
        6 lines, the number system you mentioned or even chord diagrams. Any device used to show finger placement other than standard notation I consider TAB.

        That being said, I use TAB when introducing new concepts or
        positions. Usually, it is in tandem with standard notation. Once the material is introduced, TAB becomes a reference tool only.
        The students will need to refer back to it if they have not committed the notation to memory.

        My goal is to have students know how to use TAB but not rely
        on it. I get them away from TAB as soon as I can.
        When teaching 1st position, I use TAB on the 1st 3 strings, introducing notation as soon as the students demonstrate accurate hand a finger placement. Once I see they are comfortable and can produce sound with good technique (usually after a couple of lessons) I re-introduce
        the strings using standard notation.
        Once passed the 3rd string, the students have had plenty of
        practice moving fingers 1,2 and 3, so I generally don’t use TAB passed the 3rd string when introducing new pitches.

        Paul Desmarais October 11, 2013 at 7:27 AM #
    • After teaching guitar for four or five years and never touching tab (due to beleiving the teachers on that side of the argument too easily), I found I had kids unsuccessful and losing interest way too quickly. This year, I’ve switched to the curriculum on cmilearn.org (Mike Christiansen). This includes rhythmic tab. Essentially, then, kids are learning every aspect of notation except the staff (which will be introduced later.) As outlined in Matt’s post on “chunking”, kids do so much better when new skills are added one at a time.

      BTW, I couldn’t be happier with the results. My kids are far and away more successful this year than ever before.

      David Jackman November 30, 2013 at 8:23 AM #
  3. Good article! I have had much success teaching tab before standard notation. I use it as a bridge between sound technique & comfort on the guitar playing tunes and learning to read. Hal Leonard has a Tab Method which I have used for the last two years as part of instruction and it works really well for my students and me. When I create resources for my students, I usually chart out both tab and notation as well as any boxes or visual cues needed.

    Erik Herndon October 10, 2013 at 3:07 PM #
  4. TAB lis a lot like the old dance mats with the foot prints on them from the 50s and 60s, or painting by numbers. It is just a visual representation of what you are supposed to do physically. My younger students use the FJH book that starts with one finger and fret numbers, which is simplified tab. I have no problems using standard notation and tab from the beginning. How is tab different from a chord chart/ diagram? Both just show you where to put your fingers, and chord diagrams are great teaching tools. It is extremely hard to play from tab if you have never heard the song before, so any student who is interested in learning new music will get frustrated by the limitations of tab. I keep my students READING every day. Always at least one new piece of music or exercise in standard notation. Teaching new fingerpicking patterns can also be easier using tab, or standard notation in combination with tab.

    James October 11, 2013 at 11:12 PM #
    • Sounds like a lot of us agree with the use of TAB as a tool to get students familiar with new material but get them reading as quick a possible! Nice!

      Paul Desmarais October 12, 2013 at 8:19 AM #
      • TAB is a great tool. I like how you put that! It is a tool…and a great one, but like James said…it does have it’s limitations.

        I can’t build a house with just a hammer…and teaching guitar with just that one tool isn’t as effective as it could be.

        I never really thought of tab including things like chord diagrams and such…but all you guys are all correct…they 100% are. A visual representation – thanks for pointing that out.

        Matt Gerry October 12, 2013 at 4:36 PM #
  5. I don’t think teaching tab after music notation is a very smart way to go about it unless you are talking strictly teaching them the notes on the lines and spaces as opposed to learning how to read music in general which includes being able to read the notes on the staff, the notes on the guitar and the rhythms involved.

    I’m a rock guitar teacher and most students that come to me are looking to learn their favorite songs. Many actually specifically say they have no interest in learning to read music but that’s aside from the point. So back on point.

    When you learn to read music it takes some time. You begin with simple melodies using quarter notes and eighth notes and slowly build from there. Back to the student that comes to you to learn their favorite tunes. What do you think the students reaction will be when you tell them ok but we need to work on these old fold tunes first and then we’ll get to that Metallica song you want to learn.

    By the time you get the reading to the level they need to work on the actual music they want to learn it’s a good chance you have lost them. So what you are suggesting is that THIS is the time that you would finally introduce tabs? How does this make any sense at all?

    A more logical way to do it is show them how to read tab first. This takes a matter of about 2 minutes, if that. Then you can begin working on the music they actually WANT to learn resulting in keeping their motivation up, which should always be the #1 goal when teaching a beginning student. Then you can begin working on teaching them how to read using the other songs they may not be as interested in.

    To me the approach the is suggested is equal to first teaching someone all the pentatonic scales, full diatonic scales, arpeggios etc…first before having a student actually try improvising when teaching this subject. Doesn’t make much sense really. It’s a bit backwards!

    Most likely many of these students are going to learn how to read tab on their own anyways because many of their friends will be using it so doesn’t it make sense to embrace that so you can work on the music THEY want to learn WHILE you’re teaching them how to read music? Like it or not we are a business and the students are our customers. If they don’t receive what they expect to receive then they will go elsewhere! More then half of my students come from teachers that put their agenda before the students!

    It’s just make more sense to get the student hooked and excited about playing the guitar first and then start introducing subjects like reading music, music theory, ear-training etc… instead of the other way around!

    Don April 12, 2015 at 10:41 PM #
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