Chord TABs: Learn Classical Guitar Pieces Faster with this Secret Code

Much of learning guitar pieces is pattern recognition.  We can learn to see, for example, a C chord in the music or in our hand on the guitar neck.  The more of these patterns we can find, the easier it becomes to memorize and play guitar music.

But sometimes, we don’t know the chord.  And more, it may be unlike any other chord we know.  It may be high on the neck or use open strings in an unusual way.

For these confusing times, it helps to have a special trick you can use to remember the new patterns.  And this is just what you’ll find below.

Codifying Classical Guitar Music

In our music, it can be convenient to use a type of “shorthand” to jot down the left-hand pattern.

Often, the left hand is playing a combination of notes that resemble a chord. We may not know what chord it is, but each finger is on a different string. So we could think of it as a chord or chord “shape”.

On the page, the music may look like a sea of notes. Thousands of black dots fill the page. A shorthand can help us to simplify the left-hand shapes so we learn them more easily.

We can use numbers to notate the left-hand finger positions on the neck.

This is very easy and simple to use. Of course, we could use other devices (such as theoretical analysis) as well. But this “code” is a great tool that requires no other knowledge.

This chord could be written "XXO231".

This chord could be
written “XXO231”.

Your Secret Decoder Ring:

In the “code”, there are six characters. From left to right, they represent the strings (low E on the left to high E on the right).

  • An X means that you do not play that string it all.
  • An O means that you play the string open, with no left-hand fingers touching it.
  • Numbers represent which fret is to be played.

That’s it.

So…in a piece of music, this first measure

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 5.50.58 PM

becomes simply:  “32000X”.

You can jot 32000X under that bar in your music and lump all those notes into one easy shape.  You still have to learn the right-hand pattern, but the left hand is easy to remember.

The downsides to guitar TAB and shorthand chord notations

Guitar TABs have their downsides.  This shorthand, like other shortcuts to reading music (like TAB):

  • doesn’t tell you which finger to use, only where on the fretboard notes are be sounded.
  • doesn’t tell you the rhythm
  • doesn’t tell you the order in which to play the notes
  • doesn’t tell you anything about how loud or soft to play
  • doesn’t tell you anything about the mood or character of the music
  • doesn’t help your music reading skills

In short, TAB only tells you what notes are to be played and where.  Because of this, it is incomplete.  It is a tool to help you, not a complete package.  You still have to do the work.

How to use chord shorthand in your guitar practice

This could be written "6X564X"

This could be
written “6X564X”

There are many ways you can use this in your practice.

In arpeggio pieces, where the left hand is playing a chord shape that changes every measure or two, you can use this shorthand to quickly “map out” how your left hand will move. This is especially useful for the higher positions on the neck if you are not completely comfortable reading standard notation in the higher positions.

Just jot down the “code” above or below the measure it represents in your music.

This way, we can simplify a vast ocean of notes into a couple of simple symbols.

But what about learning to actually read music?

Learning classical guitar music, it helps to get comfortable reading notes all over the fretboard.  Using standard musical notation is an essential skill for advanced playing.

However, sometimes we just want to play the piece. If the standard notation is making it more difficult, then we have to balance improving our reading skills with getting the gratification from playing the piece.

“A professional is a person who has the right tools and knows how to use them.”

And after all, one definition of a professional is a person who has the right tools and knows how to use them. This simple chord notation is a tool to help us learn music faster.

Quick Review

As a quick review, here are the basic rules:

  • From left to right, the six characters represent notes on the six strings, from low to high.
  • X means you don’t play that string.
  • O means you play the string open, no notes fretted.
  • Numbers tell you which frets to play.

That’s it!

When you are learning a piece of music and come across a sea of notes, quickly jot down the chord shapes using this form.  Then notice how much faster you learn the piece.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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