Guitar Tabs: When You Should Stop Using Them

07/02/2020
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When you first start playing guitar…

And your buddy 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 resemblingan actual song you know…

You feel like it’s 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.

However…

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.

Sure, you might even be able to play a semi-decent version of some Jimi Hendrix solo…

But without guitar tabs…you wouldn’t even be able to figure out something as simple as the “Happy Birthday” song.

Pretty embarrassing, huh?

And yet, you keep going back to those tabs, day after day, because you’re not quite sure what else to do.

And so…for today’s post, my goal is to show you 3 things:

  1. WHEN you should be using tabs, and when you shouldn’t.
  2. WHY you must eventually ditch tabs in order to grow as a musician
  3. HOW to get started, if and when you’re ready.

So first up…

When You SHOULD Be Using 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!  Right?

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 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 bad news for you…

The Myth of “Outgrowing” Tabs

It’s a popular belief among guitar beginners…that if you just keep playing, and learn more songs, and develop faster and smoother hands…

That all these skills will come together at some point, and one day, you’ll magically be able to learn new songs on your own.

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…

For the vast majority of us…it simply never happens.

Want proof…???

Some Guys Still Use Tabs After Many Decades!

I’ve always found it amazing how some players…many of them highly-skilled by all outward appearances…

Who have been playing for 1-2 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.  Right?

And yet you do.  So what’s the reason, exactly?

Well here’s what I think…

Guitar Tabs Are Like Drugs

Another popular addiction among both musicians and the rest of the world alike…

Drugs are appealing, at least at first, 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, because the resulting problems aren’t nearly as obvious.

So up next, I’ll explain…

Why Tabs are Holding You Back

Oddly enough, it’s only AFTER you finally break free of your dependance…

That you finally gain some perspective on exactly how guitar tabs have been holding you back all this time.

Specifically, you will see immediate and vast improvements in these 3 skills:

  1. Pitch Perception
  2. Memory
  3. Improvisation/Arrangement

Now let’s take a closer look at each one.  Starting with…

1. Better Pitch Perception

As arguably the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT skill in all of music…

Good pitch perception is something you 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?  Right?

However…

When you sit there, hour after hour, trying to figure out a single riff, or a single chord, or even just a single note…

Eventually, your brain wakes up, and realizes it’s time to start paying attention.

And the exact same concept applies to the next 2 skills we’re about to cover as well.

2. Better 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.

However, 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. Better Improvisation/Arrangements

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?  Pretty terrible right?

And this holds true for more than just strumming patterns.  Depending on the differences between the original arrangement of the song, and your realistic interpretation of it…

You may need to figure out certain necessary changes, such as:

  • 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 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 I 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 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, why shouldn’t you 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?

It’s a fair assumption, don’t you think?  Well assuming you agree…

Here’s How to Get Started

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 tabs, just remember this one mantra:

If you can’t figure out the song yourself…you don’t deserve to play it yet.