Guitar music comes most often in two forms on paper: tablature and traditional sheet music. While each system has its merits and its detriments, it can be hard for a beginning guitarist to figure out which system should take priority when first learning the instrument. Whether you want to be able to play any Paganini piece or if you just want to learn to play Wonderwall for your girlfriend every once in a while, here are some tips on parsing out whether you should learn tabs or sheet music first on your musical journey.
Tablature, or simply "tabs" for many guitarists, is set up very simply on the page, with just a basic tuning scheme on the left side of a series of bars meant to represent the strings on your guitar. Then, the numbers on each line represent the fret to finger on the instrument to play the given note. The most obvious advantage of this system is that it is very simple to read and learn, meaning learning how to play tabs first might be a good choice for those who haven't been exposed to playing music before. Another bonus is that there are more guitarists who are transcribing music via tabs online and in songbooks these days, so you'll almost always be able to find the tablature to a new song before the sheet music comes out. Rock, metal, and blues are commonly written for learning in tablature, so if these genres interest you, then you should probably start with learning tabs to jump start your guitar playing.
Sheet music is written on a traditional musical score with a clef and time signature, immediately making it a bit more complicated to read than tablature. If you want to learn sheet music, then you're in it for the long haul, and might not be playing music until you can get some training in reading this more sophisticated transcription system. However, the benefits of learning sheet music first make it worth the wait for many musicians. For starters, you'll be able to more easily play with other musicians since you'll have a better sense of keys and tonal minutiae that doesn't come with tablature. Also, sheet music makes it easy to get a sense of how a song goes just by looking at the song on the page, whereas tablature makes this a bit more difficult. If you're looking to play with other instruments or want to get a solid footing in music overall rather than just guitar, then learning sheet music first will pay dividends.
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