TABs to Notation: How To Bridge the Gap

Musical notation is the written language of music. And like any language, it comes with a learning curve.

TABs (tabulature) is easier to learn. It tells us where to put our fingers on the guitar. But it also omits many of the most interesting aspects of music (such as rhythm, expression, volume, etc.).

So how do we go from knowing how to play TABs, to using musical notation?

It’s NOT All or Nothing

Many players avoid learning musical notation because the task feels so daunting. It just seems like too big of a chore.

But luckily, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

IMPORTANT: Learning musical notation, we can still use TABs. We don’t have to go “cold turkey” off TABs.

We can use the guitar TABs for the finger positions. Then we can add information from the notation in stages. So we work with BOTH the TABs and notation at the same time.

Note: If You’re Just Starting on Both, Focus on Music Notation

Before we delve deeper into bridging the gap between TABs and notations, first this:

If you don’t know how to use either TABs or musical notation, start with notation.

TABs is easy, and you can always add it later. But if you’re just starting anyway, focus on the skills that will give you the most benefit in the long-term. Begin with notation.

How to Mine Musical Notation and TABs for Information

As said above, TABs tells us where to put our left-hand fingers. It does not tell us much else. If we don’t know the song already, we can’t figure out how it should sound.

This is where we can use musical notation to glean more from the music.


Notation gives us the rhythms of the music. If we can clap and count the rhythms, based on the notation, we can add this to our knowledge of the TABs.

We can learn to play written rhythms, apart from the notes. Then we can combine this with what we already know and learn music faster.


Classical guitar sheet music often tells us which finger to use for each note. This can be helpful for both left and right hands.

We can consult the notation for the fingerings, and the TABs for the notes.

Expressive Markings

Expressive markings tell us when to play loud or soft, and when to swell or fade the volume. They tell us which notes we should accent, and make louder than the others.

Music notation has special words and symbols for different forms of musical expression.

When we learn some of these words and symbols, we can breath more life into our music.

Musical Parts (Voices)

In TABs, it’s often not possible to tell which notes are melody and which are not. And classical guitar music often has a melody, a bass, and other accompanimental notes. (These are sometimes called “musical voices” or parts.)

We can discover how to identify these different parts of music. Then, we can highlight the melody in our TABs. We can play it louder than the other notes, and make it sound better.

Aim to Recognize All the Symbols

When we can recognize the common musical symbols, we can start to use notation along with TABs.

We can begin to look for new information in the notation lines. Then, we can play with the the right rhythms, or volume levels, or fingerings. Our music becomes more compelling and fun to practice. And it sounds more musical.

At first, we may only remember one or two symbols or words. But over time, we may find we’re reading music notation comfortably and effortlessly.

To learn musical symbols, we can google “musical symbols”, get a book, or take a course.

Work on Sight-Reading Notes Separately

To fully bridge the gap between notation and TABs, we must learn the notes. We have to see the notes (dots) in the notation, and play them on guitar. This is the part with which most guitarists struggle.

If we work on this skill separately, away from our pieces of music, it won’t slow us down. We can still learn the songs we want, while also building longer-term skills.

We can learn our pieces from TABs, and add any of the information from the notation. Then, at a different time, practice seeing notes and playing them.

Think in Years, Not Weeks

Many of us find it difficult to think long-term about guitar. But most of us do want a life of music. There is no plan to stop.

So just a few minutes of practice playing notes from musical notation does add up over time. Likewise, learning the words and symbols of notation can be an incremental process.

The first couple pieces of music may go more slowly. Then we become more accustomed to working with both notation and TABs. Then we become more comfortable learning the notes from notation as well.

And this process may well takes years. And that’s fine. The time will pass anyway.

The important thing is that we’re constantly learning new things. We’re challenging ourselves. And we’re making better music than we did last year.

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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