In my last blog, I talked briefly about the importance of learning proper music fundamentals and addressed some of the problems with relying only on guitar tablature or youtube videos for guitar education. Now we talk about learning to read and understand standard notation and music theory. Why is it important? What practical use will it have for you as a guitarist?


Ok. I'll admit it. There is definitely a learning curve when starting to learn standard notation. It will take some practice and dedication, but everything good in life takes perseverance and hard work. That being said, it's not as bad as people make it out to be. I'm not going to teach you how to read standard notation here (that's for another day), but I will convince you of the greatness of it. 

If you've never seen Standard Notation or aren't sure what I'm talking about it looks like this (with guitar tab pictured below):
So, you're a tab reader and you see the above example. The bottom half looks easy. The top part looks crazy. Why would I want you to learn to read music when the bottom part is so much easier to understand? 

      1. Because it will potentially make you a great musician. 
               Only you can make you a great musician. But being able to read music will open many doors for you.
       2. Learning to read music lays the foundation for being able to understand music.       
              If you don't have a basic understanding of how music is written you won't be able to understand the more  
              advanced concepts that come later. Imagine if you had only learned how to read picture books as a child. 
              Without the ability to read words and phrases you are severely hindered in what you can accomplish when 
              you are on your own. Sure, you can have people read to you or show you what you are supposed to do  
              but even the most simple tasks (making sure you use the men's restroom instead of the women's    
              restroom, for example) can be frustratingly difficult because you never learned the language of the world 
              around you
       3. You will be able to communicate with other (read: non-guitarist) musicians.               
              Let me be very clear here. The times are few and far between (read: almost never) that you will be handed 
              tablature in a band or studio situation. If you're in a band or group setting and a new song comes up there 
              won't be tab available. If you're in a basic garage band, one of the other musicians may quickly teach you 
              your part by rote (monkey see-money do). But in most cases (or if you're the only guitarist) you'll be 
              handed a chord chart or lead sheet with basic chords and changes on it and be expected to play. 

              I can vividly remember one of my first gigs as a guitarist when I was a teenager. I had a cool lead part to 
              play, but the keyboardist also needed to play the part with me. I handed her my guitar tab and was ready 
              to go. Of course, she has no idea what tab is or how it corresponds to the keyboard. So, I took the time 
              to explain how tab works and then expected her to figure out what to do from there! After quite some time 
              we managed to use the relatively small amount of music theory that we shared to figure out what notes I 
              was actually playing so that she could play it on the keys. Had I known then what I know now, the whole 
              problem could have been averted or solved within minutes. 

        4. Learning to move notes to other locations on the guitar.               
             Quick Quiz: Play your first string (E string) open. Name at least four other places on the guitar where you 
              could play the exact same note *answer below*. Sure, if you have a good ear you could sound out the 
              note on different strings and find it that way. But if you don't know what note you're playing, it's really hard 
              to locate that note efficiently on another string and location on the fretboard. I cannot tell you the number 

              of times that I've pulled up a guitar tab for a student online and found that a few of the notes (if not the 
              whole riff) was in a really awkward playing position. With a little knowledge of music theory, I was quickly 
              able to locate 2-3 other places to play the riff and found one that was much easier for my student to play.
              Without this knowledge you are simply stuck at the whim of whatever tab you currently possess. What if 
              you needed to play the above music example at a different location on the fretboard? Could you do it?

        5. Instant Gratification. 
              Here is what it really comes down to. If you want to play the above example and you only read tab, then it 
              may in fact be easier to simply read the tab. But what happens when we get to more complex pieces of 
              music? What happens when you need to transpose it to a different key? What if you need to explain the 
              part to a keyboardist so that he can play the part with you? If you simply want to learn whatever song is in 
              front of you, tab may be an easier solution. But, if you want to understand what you are playing and pick 
              up songs/riffs quicker in the future it is beneficial to understand reading music and music theory. 

So, there you go. That's my take on why you should be learning to read music and music theory. Feel free to leave a comment or question. Stay tuned for part three: Can't I learn music theory without learning to read music?

***Answer to Quick Quiz: B string 5th fret, G string 9th fret, D string 14th fret, A string 19th fret, E string 24th fret***
We are in a new day and age when it comes to music education. With the advent of tablature and youtube, music education is changing rapidly (especially guitar and drum education). I have always believed strongly in the value or learning the fundamentals of music and how to read standard notation and all of my students begin there. More on that later. 

When I first started teaching guitar almost 10 years ago my intermediate lessons focussed on one thing: learning songs. Normally the focus was on whatever song the particular student wanted to learn. I worked my way through everything from Garth Brooks to Green Day and everything in between. Today, there is a growing resource of online music education. Anyone can access almost any song from anywhere. It's staggering to think that I used to have to learn songs the old fashioned way: listen to the song over and over until I figured out what the guy was playing!

This blog will be part of a series. I am very passionate about the art of music education and I think if I drop all of my thoughts on the subject now it may be a bit overwhelming. This series will focus mainly on guitar education, but many of the same principles apply to other instruments. So, I shall break this series into a few parts. Part One is titled Guitar Tablature Vs. Standard Notation OR What kind of musician will you be?

Guitar tablature is a simplified way to write out music for guitarists. If you've never seen guitar tab before here is an example of Crazy Train written out as guitar tab. It is amazingly beneficial for complicated lead parts, scale patterns, and riffs. Standard notation refers to the treble clef staff that is common to musicians of all instrumentation. Here is an example of Crazy Train written in standard notation. These are often presented as though they are in opposition to each other. As though, as a guitarist, you must choose one or the other. Each side looks down on the other side. I'm not here for sides. I want to look at the benefits and faults of each system, in a concise manner. 

Guitar tablature is great if you are familiar with a song. If you have never heard the song before, guitar tablature is utterly worthless. This was common during my first few years of teaching (before youtube on the iPhone!). A student would bring in guitar tab for a song I had never heard and want me to teach him how to play it. Impossible. Guitar tab is simply a series of notes with no rhythm attached. Which leads me to the first of two main problems with guitar tablature: There is no rhythm given to the note. In standard notation every note tells you two things: the pitch of the note (E, G, F#, High or Low, etc) and the duration of the note (long note, short note, quarter note, dotted eighth note, etc). 

The other fault with guitar tablature as a system of learning is that the fundamentals of music are never taught or addressed. If you never learn the notes on the guitar (my assumption if you focus solely on tablature and disregard standard notation and music theory) then you won't know how to move guitar riffs or chords to different locations on the guitar or understand what you are playing outside of what you have been spoonfed through tab or youtube. Since it seems like most guitar tabs online are tabbed by 17 year old kids (another huge fault with guitar tab: no standards for publication online), I often find mistakes. Technically the notes will often be correct, but there are usually much easier ways to play particularly passages in a song. Without some basic knowledge of music theory (or a decent teacher) you are simply stuck with whatever tab you have in front of you and have to assume that this is the only way to play the song.  Knowing what notes you are playing and where to find other similar notes on the guitar is a huge benefit for guitarists. More on this later. 

I'll close with this thought. Ultimately it comes down to what type of musician you want to be. If you are content to sit in your bedroom and just want to play a few of your favorite songs then guitar tablature and youtube are an invaluable resource to you! I don't want to make light of the previous statement. Not everyone desires to be a great guitarist and many are happy to simply pick up the guitar every now and then and play a few familiar tunes. This is great! But, most guitarists want more. You have rock star dreams. If you want to be able to play with other musicians, and understand what and why you play what you play then you need to learn the fundamentals of music theory and standard notation. The fundamentals of music theory can be learned in an afternoon and built upon with a small amount of dedication. You simply have to be realistic with your goals (what kind of musician are you?) and make sure that your learning style matches it. 

Part 2 will focus on the benefits that come with reading standard notation and understanding the basic fundamentals of music. 
So, I stumbled across this new tab site a few months ago and forgot about it until recently. Guitar Tab suffers from the same greatness and tragedy as Wikipedia: it is user submitted. So, you may get a completely accurate assessment of the original song. You may get complete garbage. It can be a pain to sift through the garbage to find the real gems. 

The other major complaint I have had with guitar tab is that it doesn't dictate rhythm. If students bring in Tab it is normally just a bunch of numbers across six lines. This version of tab is only helpful if you are very familiar with the song. With no rhythm indicated there is no way to know how long to hold each note. 

Enter Songsterr. It seems to be more accurate than many tabs I've come across and there is only one tab per song (unlike Ultimate Guitar and others that can have 20+ tabs per song!). This makes it easier to find what you are looking for. 

What I like about Songsterr:
-Mostly Accurate Guitar Tabs
-Guitar Tabs with Rhythm
-Multiple Guitar Parts for each song (electric 1, electric 2, acoustic, bass, etc..)
-Online Lessons available through Tab
-The ability to hear the tab as you read it 

The last one is worth its weight in gold, especially for beginner and intermediate students. If you can hear the tab as you read it (the curser moves through the tab as it is played) it makes it MUCH easier to play. 

Through the free program, you can read any tab and listen to it. If you pay for a subscription to Songsterr Plus ($9/month..cheaper if you buy multiple months) you open up a new world of possibilities including the ability to print, zoom, go full screen, slow down the track, focus mode, solo mode, and looping to work on specific parts. 

Do I recommend Songsterr Plus? There are worse places that you could spend money to help your student succeed. I recommend trying it for a month, and seeing how much it is used. Check it out and let me know what you think!