When you start playing guitar, and your buddy first shows you those amazing “cheat codes” known as guitar tabs…
And you see how quick and easy it can be to kinda-sorta play something resembling an actual song you know…
It feels like the answer you’ve been searching for.
And for quite a while…it actually is.
- You learn a bunch of new songs that you could have never figured out on your own.
- You can almost play them from beginning to end.
- And all your friends think you’re super cool.
And when a stranger asks if you play guitar…you almost feel comfortable…to simply answer YES, and leave it at that.
But somewhere deep down, there’s still that nagging voice in your head…that keeps reminding you: You still don’t really know what you’re doing…not yet.
Because while you might even be able to play a semi-decent version of some Jimi Hendrix solo…without guitar tabs…you wouldn’t even be able to figure out something as simple as the “Happy Birthday” song.
Pretty embarrassing, huh?
Yet, you keep going back to those tabs, day after day, because you’re not quite sure what else to do.
So for today’s post, here’s what we’ll cover:
When You SHOULD Be Using Guitar Tabs
Don’t get me wrong…guitar tabs DO in fact have value. Lots of it actually.
When you first start playing, and you spend month after month practicing nothing but chords and scales…it’s boring as hell. And it’s perhaps THE biggest reason why people quit playing altogether.
However…with a simple internet search, it’s not hard to find plenty of tabs for songs you already know and love…that use the exact same chords and scales you happen to be playing anyway. Which makes your practice time 1000x more fun.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Up to a point at least. But once you’re at a level where you can play a bunch of songs well…from beginning to end…
It’s time to throw away the guitar tabs, and start listening…using your own ears, and figuring songs out…using your own brain.
And if you’re hoping you’ll magically acquire this ability by doing exactly what you’ve always done, I have some disappointing news for you…
The Myth of Outgrowing Guitar Tabs
It’s a popular belief among guitar beginners that if you just keep playing and improving your skills…
You’ll eventually reach a point when you can somehow finally learn new songs on your own, without the tabs.
But as we all find out eventually…that’s mostly a MYTH. While it can happen on extremely rare occasions for some unusually talented players…it simply never happens for the vast majority.
I’ve always found it amazing how some players…many of them highly-skilled by all outward appearances…
Who have been playing for 2-3 decades or more…somehow still rely entirely on guitar tabs to learn new songs.
My sincere apologies to any of you who fall in this category. And no offense intended, of course.
But honestly ask yourself…when you first started playing as a teenager, did you really think you would still need tabs after all this time? Of course not.
Yet you do. But why, exactly? Well here’s what I think…
Why Guitar Tabs Are a Lot Like Taking Drugs
Another popular addiction among both musicians and the rest of the world alike…
Drugs are appealing, at least initially, because they offer INSTANT VALUE, with zero effort.
They give and they give and they give, and for a long time they trick you into thinking there’s no downside.
Then one day you wake up and realize that they’ve taken much more from you than they ever gave.
And guitar tabs work in much the same manner…except most players NEVER even realize it, since the resulting problems aren’t nearly as obvious.
So at this point you’re probably wondering…
What Are The Benefits of NOT Using Guitar Tabs?
Oddly enough, it’s only AFTER you finally break free of guitar tabs, that you finally gain some perspective on exactly how you’ve been holding yourself back all this time.
Specifically, you will see immediate and vast improvements in:
- Pitch Perception
And here’s how
1. How Your Pitch Perception Improves
As arguably the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT skill in all of music…good pitch perception is something you can never really develop if you rely too heavily on guitar tabs.
And it’s pretty obvious why when you think about it. The human brain has a remarkable ability to absorb new information. Partly because it’s equally as good at selectively rejecting information it deems irrelevant or unnecessary.
So if it knows you can already learn new songs simply by reading tabs…why should it go through all that extra effort for nothing?
On the other hand, when you sit there, hour after hour, trying to figure out a single riff, or a single chord, or even just a single note…your brain eventually wakes up, and realizes it’s time to start paying attention.
And this exact same concept applies to the next 2 skills we’re about to cover as well.
2. How NOT Using Guitar Tabs Improves Your Memory
While you might have a decent or even great memory with most things in life…
If you spend ALL YOUR PRACTICE TIME staring at chord charts and notation, I’m willing to bet that if someone takes that paper away from you in the middle of the song…you won’t last 10 seconds before you stop playing entirely, because you can’t remember what’s next.
And if you don’t believe me then try it.
But once you commit yourself to learning songs entirely by memory, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your brain adapts.
Before you know it, all those songs you used to know only by “following along,” will become tattooed permanently into your brain.
3. How Your Improvisation and Arrangement Skills Will Improve
One inherent problem with any type of music notation is…it simply can’t account for all the unavoidable differences between:
- how things should sound, according to the recording, and…
- how things actually can sound, according to the tools you have available in real life.
For example: If on the recording, you hear a mix of sustained electric guitar chords and drums…but in real life, all you have is an acoustic guitar…
And you follow that “official” songbook you bought…strum for strum…what do you imagine that might sound like? Probably pretty bad.
And this holds true for more than just strumming patterns. You might need to make changes based on any number of factors including:
- using different effects
- changing the tempo
- combining certain rhythm and lead parts
- cutting out certain parts of the song entirely
Which you won’t be able to do, if you always blindly follow someone else’s instructions on how the song should be played.
But once you commit to ditching those guitar tabs…you’ll develop these instincts much quicker, because all you’ll have to rely on is your own ears, and your own brain.
And if this is all starting to make sense to you, but you still find the whole idea quite intimidating…
Just remember this:
If Tab Writers Can Do It…So Can YOU
Have you ever stopped and wondered…where do all these tabs come from anyway?
They don’t just appear out of thin air. Obviously someone must be writing them.
So that means there are people in this world who sit down, listen to a song, frustratingly try to duplicate they hear…and finally, write down their findings to share with the rest of us.
Now ask yourself this: What do these guys have that you don’t?
And the answer of course, is NOTHING. Tab writers aren’t musical geniuses by any means. Most aren’t even good.
Because as anyone who has used guitar tabs for a while can confirm…
- Many tabs are poorly written…
- And some are just plain wrong
And if YOU as the reader can see that for yourself, you should have faith that with a little time and effort invested…you could do a much better job of learning these songs entirely on your own.
So up next…
How to Get Started With Ditching the Tabs
So let’s say you’re at the point in your guitar-playing career when you’re ready to ditch the tabs and learn to play by ear.
You know it’s time. And you’re ready. But you’re not exactly sure what to do next.
Well here’s what I suggest: Pick one song, any song…ideally a simple one. Then sit there and listen for as long as it takes until you figure out the chords.
If you can’t figure out the chords, figure out the simplest melody you can identify. The vocal line perhaps. And if you can’t figure that out, just figure out ONE NOTE.
And don’t be discouraged if several hours pass and you’re still unsure if that one note is even right.
Keep working on it, and eventually that one note will turn into 2, then 3, then 4, and eventually an entire song. It’s not an easy process by any means…but in theory at least…it is that simple.
And if you ever get tempted to give up and go back to using guitar tabs, just remember this one mantra:
If you can’t figure out the song yourself…you don’t deserve to play it yet.