Should I Learn Chords Or Tabs? Is the Answer Neither?


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I love this question because it’s a such a good one. If you’re just getting started with guitar one of the first questions you may ask yourself: What is the best way to learn this instrument? And part of that is figuring out if you should focus on chords or tabs. Which is better to learn?

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When starting to learn the guitar, it is easier and less frustrating to focus on learning songs via chords rather than through tabs. Guitar tabs are generally more difficult and time-consuming and difficult to learn but are necessary if you want to learn the exact notes of a riff or solo.

The answer to this question is that whatever you want to focus on is ultimately up to you--but there are definitely some reasons why focusing on learning songs through their chords is an easier and more enjoyable path for a beginner. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t touch guitar tabs--if you want to know where to start and why, read on.

Why Learning Songs Through Chords Is Better At First

I’ve totally been there--you have this beautiful guitar (or an old dusty one… doesn’t matter) in your hands and you want to learn one of your favorite songs. You pull it up on Ultimate Guitar and see that there are two types of results: chords, or tabs.

What is this talking about? Well, there are two main types of guitar tabs. A guitar tab that focuses on the chords, or a guitar tab that focuses on the individual notes being played.

These two types of guitar tabs have two different purposes:

Guitar Chord Tabs Are For Singing

An example of a guitar chord tab

If you are gathered around the campfire with your buddies and you try to sing a song, you don’t pull up a guitar tab, you pull up guitar chords because chords are much easier to sing along to.

For example, the melody might go through several notes for a few beats but they all fit within a C chord. So in the guitar chord tab you see the chord C above the lyrics, which means the guitarist plays the C chord while those lyrics are sung.

It’s worth mentioning that chords by themselves aren’t very interesting, it’s the lyrics and the melody that goes along with the chord that makes the song what it is.

Guitar Tabs Are For Riffs and Hooks

An example of a guitar tab

Riffs and hooks? What’s a Riff?

Well you can think of a riff as a bunch of notes strung together in a recognizable fashion. Some riffs are called hooks because they are what draw you into the music and make you want to listen to the rest of the song. Riffs are powerful parts of the song that make the song what it is.

If you’ve ever heard Stairway to Heaven by Led Zepplin, then that opening riff that starts the song is the hook for the song. It’s an unforgettable pattern of notes that will survive forever.

Guitar “tabs” are for just that, they show you the individual notes to be played so you can play these riffs or even guitar solos that are featured in a recording. Guitar tabs even describe guitar techniques that are essential in playing the riff, such as hammer-ons, pull offs, glissandos, etc.

So out of these two what’s better to learn?

Easier To Learn Chords Than Tabs

Playing guitar isn’t easy (at least for most honest people)--whether you learn through chord charts or tabs be prepared for a bumpy road!

Out of the two, learning to play a song with chords is much easier than learning guitar tabs.

This is important! Because guitar is a difficult instrument already, it can be very disheartening to try and learn a tricky guitar tab and spend hours and hours memorizing the patterns for just one song--which in comparison to a guitar chord tab where (if you’ve had some practice), you can pick up and play without ever having practiced it.

The reason why this is important is that it’s crucial to minimize barriers for your playing. If you aren’t to the point where you can practice an hour every day, you need to focus on small wins and keep the guitar as fun as possible. Eventually, you’ll get to tabs and be able to more fully enjoy the instrument, but there is no reason to climb the mountain first when you can climb the hill first.

Does this mean that guitar chords are wimpier than guitar tabs? Well, the answer is not so simple as that. Just because guitar tabs are more difficult doesn’t mean they are better to learn. And it also doesn’t mean that guitar chords are like elementary school and guitar tabs are like college. Let’s find out why.

Chords Are More Important than Tabs

Chords, even if they aren’t super interesting by themselves, are the energy of the song. The melodies of the song dance around the chords--going up and down and around the fundamental notes of that chord.

If you start to get a better feel for chords, you’ll find that guitar tabs often are just derivatives of the chords themselves.

What I mean by that is that if you were to put a guitar tab in a blender, and then set it to puree for a couple minutes, you’d see that the leftover notes that the riffs are built around are fundamental chords.

Learning the fundamental energy of the song is the most important part. After that, you can add the sugar and the ranch dressing that are guitar tabs. But focusing on learning the sugar and ranch dressing first (guitar tabs) first or even solely is probably not a good use of your time.

Why Learning Guitar Tabs is a Waste Of Time

Guitar tabs help you to learn specific riffs and guitar patterns that make up a song. You may think, initially, that this makes sense, because if the goal is to play the song as accurately as the recording as possible, then a guitar tab is perfect for the job.

But does accuracy have to be the goal?

The problem with learning guitar tabs is that you are simply memorizing patterns of notes. You aren’t learning the fundamental chords of the song, and you are perhaps too far zoomed in to the music to understand how the composer of the song got to that riff in the first place.

So am I saying that you should abandon guitar tabs and just learn chords? Not at all.

Learn Scales Instead

A better use of your time is to learn the scales and a little bit of theory instead.

What if, instead of learning a specific pattern of notes that worked for one song, and instead learned how that pattern of notes came to be?

It’s a bit like looking behind the curtain in the famous movie the Wizard of Oz.

In the movie, the great wizard seems like this semi-deity, but once you looked behind the curtain you found a conniving man trying to keep up the appearance of imperiousness with technology and tricks.

If you learn scales, you may find yourself feeling like you’re looking behind the curtain and understanding how some of these songs are built and put together.

It’s overwhelming to start learning scales, I understand, but a great place to start is learning the pentatonic scales.

I’ll show you an amazing video that shows the power of the pentatonic scale:

How to use the CAGED system to play a SOLO
Watch this video on YouTube.

It takes practice, but with this knowledge you can not only play the songs of great artists that you love, but you can even start creating music yourself.

Learn Picking Patterns Instead

So, I actually learned how to Travis Pick from a guitar tab, but I didn’t know it at the time. I memorized the note pattern and could play it without thinking too hard about it.

At the time, though, it felt like the most difficult guitar tab I’d ever learned. In reality though, the song was using an extremely common picking pattern called Travis Picking.

In other words, instead of memorizing a seemingly disjointed bunch of notes, I could have just learned to Travis pick, and then I could have picked up the song and played it just knowing the chords!

This is especially true of many folk songs – many of them use Travis picking.

Here’s an example of what Travis Picking sounds like:

The LEGENDARY picking pattern - 'Travis Picking'
Watch this video on YouTube.

In summary, rather than memorizing a tab, you might try to learn picking patterns that work well for the song and go with that instead. You’ll be able to play more music more quickly with this approach.

Are Guitar Tabs Bad?

So, hopefully by this point the tomatoes have fallen to the stage, and we’ve reached an understanding. Guitar tabs are not bad. By no means are they bad.

In fact, there’s no getting around them! Like Stairway to Heaven by Led Zepplin. There is just nothing you can do other than learning the guitar tab for that riff. It’s an essential riff that doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. You can’t play the song fully without it.

Often times, though, accuracy isn’t nearly valued as much as we think, especially to a group of non-guitarists. So rather than focusing on memorizing a few specific tabs, it’s probably better for you in the long run to learn skills that help you to play many songs and be able to adapt to each song situation.

Is It Better To Learn Chords Or Scales First?

I’m torn on this one, but I think it’s more important to learn how to play chords first. Chords are easier to learn at first and you’ll definitely have an easier time playing songs you enjoy by figuring out chords, first.

However, I can’t stress enough that there is no reason why you can’t learn both. I was intimidated by learning guitar scales because they seemed so dry and boring and above my head as far as when to use them. However, you can do a lot with scales that chords won’t teach you (although they are two married topics and are indispensable to each other).

If you’d like to know some more reasons why you should learn guitar chords first, check out our article here so you don’t spin your wheels unnecessarily.

Which Is Better, Guitar Notes Or Guitar Tabs?

Many, many, many guitarists don’t know how to read music. Which, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other, but I will say that learning to read traditional sheet music translates much better to learning other instruments.

Guitar tabs have the advantage of being exactly explicit in how to play the note. h for hammer on, p/o for pull off, for example--these are all part of a guitar tab. Traditional sheet music doesn’t have this self-explanatory style, and relies on manual symbols or using traditional notation with a legend explaining how each notation translates to guitar technique.

In other words, guitar tabs are easier for many people to use for playing the guitar for many reasons--but learning sheet music will help you understand music better as well as prepare you for other instruments.

Peter Mitchell

Founder of this website. Lover of sound, music, hot sauce, and technology.

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