Teaching with Tablature vs. Standard Notation
Balancing the use of tablature and grid diagrams
with learning to read standard music notation
by Steve Eckels
Recently I was contacted by a friend who is doing a study on the potentially "adverse effects" of using tablature and grid diagrams in regards to learning to read music. Since I have been teaching classroom guitar for the school district in Kalispell, Montana for six years, I have had the opportunity to observe and reflect on some important considerations for those who teach guitar.
Merits of Tablature and Grid Diagrams
Let me begin with a personal story describing the benefits of tablature and guitar grids. When I first began playing guitar in 1965 at the age of ten, my instructor (Johnny Westbrook from Danville, Virginia) used miniature fretboard grids to teach me beautiful guitar solos. He would write them by hand and demonstrate the fingerings. By the time he had written the tune in tab and grids [about an hour], I had the chance to practice the phrases and practically have it memorized. I loved the system because it enabled me to play music right away. About that same time, Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" was published in Guitar Player magazine in tablature and I was able to learn it immediately. Again, I was thrilled. I thought tablature was fantastic. My "learning goal" at the time was to enjoy making music for recreation, and of course to do it as quickly as possible.
Tablature Problem #1
The main problem with tablature is that it misleads beginning students to think the top line of the traditional five-line staff represents the high E string as it does in tablature.
The solution lies in not attempting to teach tablature and standard notation at the same time. Here are the some of the most common scenarios and how to address them:
The band, choir or orchestra student who already knows the staff may use tablature with no problem while learning guitar. [Ok to use both tab and standard/staff notation]
A student who has already played tablature exclusively for a period of time and then becomes motivated to learn to read standard notation should pick up on staff notation easily. [Tab & staff ok]
A beginning student who is unfamiliar with either tab or standard notation is at risk of being confused when presented with both notation systems, so-
1.) In the classroom, wait a bit before introducing tab.
2.) In private lessons, start with either tab or standard, depending on the student's motivation.
Special learners who have problems reading English for example, or for whom there is a mental block to reading music may use any technique that works.
For classroom guitar -
I recommend getting classes up and running on the traditional staff for approximately four to six weeks. Then explain the tablature system but use notation every chance you get.
I satisfy their desire for immediate success by teaching some original rock riffs using verbal instructions.
For special learners, don't force it. Allow them to focus on strumming and special riffs.
Custom ensemble music enables group playing from the start. [Mel Bay Publications offers a generous selection of easy ensemble music in The Donald Miller Guitar Ensemble Series.]
For private study - most students want to have fun as soon as possible, and I recommend doing whatever it takes, including use of tablature and grid diagrams.
Tablature Problem #2
Students wonder, "Why should I learn to read music when I can already play from tablature?"
Some student may think that they don't need to learn to read music.
Here are some concepts that could motivate guitarists to learn to read standard notation:
1. Promotes lifelong, independent learning from books and sheet music, participation in a 500-year tradition.
2. Facilitates performance with other musicians, especially musicians of high caliber.
3. Gives a visual representation of how form and harmony work, and provides the ability to construct chords through an understanding of music theory.
4. Improves the ear by sharpening musical perception.
5. Facilitates the ability to write music.
6. Makes you smarter.
7. Improves rhythm through visual representation.
8. Provides the gratification of personal accomplishment.
9. It's fun, like reading a book.
10. Enables you to transcribe music from records.
11. Facilitates memorization.
12. Forms a part of the national standards for music education.
In summary, in order to know the appropriate course to take, you should answer these three questions:
1. What are the student's goals in taking class or private instruction?
[Recreation only, or a well-rounded musical education.]
2. What is the student's prior experience?
[Does the student already know tab or staff notation, or is he/she a complete beginner?]
3. What is the student's aptitude for reading music?
[Do they have a mental condition that prohibits learning to read?]
There is a wealth of teaching materials in the Mel Bay catalog that address the issue of note reading, especially Modern Guitar Method, Grade One/Expanded Edition and/or First Lessons Guitar/Learning Notes. If you would like to learn more about my personal experience and approach, I invite you to attend my "Teaching Classroom Guitar" summer workshop held in June here at in northwest Montana at the Gateway to Glacier National Park. For more information please visit: www.guitarmusicman.com.
Steve Eckels is the founder of "Teaching Classroom Guitar" summer workshops in northwest Montana. He is the author of numerous books for Mel Bay Publications and is a fulltime high school guitar instructor in Kalispell, Montana. He earned a bachelor's degree from Berklee College of Music, a master's degree from The New England Conservatory, and a music education certification from Northland College. In addition, he is a concert and recording artist. For more information on Steve's workshops and recordings please visit www.guitarmusicman.com.