TAB: Yes or No?
Updated: Jan 31
From John Scofield's book, Jazz/Funk Guitar:
"Although this book includes TAB, I've never used this system and have never known any guitarists that did. TAB would never be used in any professional musical situation; using it to learn music is a crutch. Standard musical notation is the only method of communicating music other than using your own ear.
I think that reading music is essential, not only for understanding music, but for playing guitar professionally as well."
John Scofield, Jazz/Funk Guitar, Volume 2
I agree, but would qualify a few things.
Firstly, Scofield says, "...in any professional musical situation..."
Don't use "professional" as a copout. Even if you're an amateur or hobbyist, reliance on TAB sabotages your understanding of music and knowledge of the guitar neck. You wind up learning by rote, with no understanding of what you're doing. I've written at length on this; see, Tab Reliance Sabotages Knowledge!
Secondly, "...using it to learn music is a crutch."
TAB is actually less than a crutch; you can't use it to learn music. The only thing you learn by using TAB is a specific song or lick - by rote. It doesn't give you any codified or organized musical information (note names, scales, keys etc), nor does it answer any "why?"-type questions.
Thirdly, there is no reason to not learn to read, but in my opinion, the "essential-ness" of reading music notation is arguable. It depends on a host of factors.
I've worked with many world class musicians who couldn't read. In some of those cases, not being able to read was definitely a detriment, and in some cases it didn't matter.
However, in every case, they were musically knowledgeable; they knew note names, chord types, keys, transpositions and so on. They also knew their instrument, whatever it was.
There are plenty of examples of ground-breaking, influential musicians who couldn't read. That doesn't mean they weren't musically knowledgeable, it just means they couldn't read.
In terms of jazz guitar, Wes Montgomery is held up as an example of a non-reading, unschooled groundbreaking guitarist. However, he was not musically ignorant.
Check out this clip of Wes teaching his arrangement of The End of a Love Affair to a local rhythm section in Holland; it's obvious he knows theory, as well as his instrument. He communicates chord names, keys, II-V sequences and much more:
Now if Wes had been a literate musician, he could have avoided the time it took to explain things; just put a chart in front of those guys and that would cover most of what he talks about.
Trust me, I'm a proponent of being able to read music. I've worked more than I would otherwise because I can. And yet, I play hundreds of gigs where there is no reading for every one where there is.
My point is,
You don't have to commit to learning to read music as a necessary consequence of rejecting TAB!
Like Scofield, I am categorically against using TAB. Unlike Scofield, I walked away from a major publishing deal when I found out that tabbing my book was required. No major publisher would publish my book if it didn't include TAB. Tabbing out my method would sabotage the whole point of it, which is understanding music and knowing the instrument.
Sorry, no bueno!
My teaching philosophy is that the number one priority is musical knowledge (music theory) as applied to the guitar. Know music; know your instrument.
Learning to read is not a big deal if those two things are in place. But whether you ever learn to read or not, quit wasting your time with TAB. It inhibits progress.
Would you like to get started on breaking your TAB habit? The 5-Lesson Foundational Series gives you a method to find any note, anywhere, without memorizing note names on every string. That is a beautiful thing! Aaand...you don't have to read music!
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