Between the Lines: All About Guitar Notation

Here you’ll learn how guitar notation evolved into the sophisticated tool it is today, how it’s prepared for publications like AG, and most important, how you can use it to learn new music, whatever your style.

The fretboard is quite a tricky place, with a labyrinth of possibilities. On an instrument like the piano or flute, there’s only one middle C, but on a standard-tuned six-string guitar, you can choose to play that same pitch at any of five different locations, each with a distinct timbral color and performance opportunity. (See “Find Your Cs” below.)

Get into an alternating tuning like open D (D A D F# A D), which shares only two of the open strings of standard tuning, and the fretboard is disrupted. That middle C is in the same place as in standard tuning on strings 4 and 5, but on strings 2 and 3, it’s been relocated (to frets 3 and 6, respectively), and on string 6 it falls past the fretboard on most acoustic guitars. The situation amplifies when using a capo, and especially a partial capo.

These peculiarities of the guitar have created the need for specialized notation, such as chord diagrams and tablature, that offer us visual representations of exactly where to place our fingers on the fretboard. Here you’ll learn how guitar notation evolved into the sophisticated tool it is today, how it’s prepared for publications like AG, and most important, how you can use it to learn new music, whatever your style, more quickly and efficiently. 


A Brief History of Guitar Notation

Notation and tablature—in which fret numbers are indicated on horizontal lines that represent strings—are synonymous to some guitarists, but this is not quite accurate. Standard (staff) notation is global and can be read by any trained musician; tablature, while indeed a form of notation, is instrument-specific.   


Tablature may seem like a relatively new notational practice, but its use predates the modern guitar. It’s as old as music notation itself, and has been used for centuries as the main notational form of East Asian music, used, for instance, for the guqin, a zither-like seven-string instrument played since ancient times.

Guitar notation is rooted in the tablature that was used extensively for lute music, as well as other picked and bowed instruments, from roughly the late 1400s through the 1700s. Just as modern guitar tablature is especially useful for nonstandard tunings, lute tablature took into account the range of tunings and number of courses (string pairs) used for the instrument.

And there were separate lute tablature systems—Italian, French, Neapolitan, and German—with different sets of conventions. For instance, Italian tablature differed from other forms in that the highest-pitched string was indicated on the lowest line, rather than the other way around. At the same time, an assortment of tablatures, including German, Italian, French, and English, was used for keyboard instruments.

Some of the earliest guitar music, dating back to the late 1500s, was notated with a simple system called alfabeto, in which letters represented chords to be strummed—not unlike those chord charts you scribble down when learning a new song. Tablature was also commonly used for early guitar music, until about the mid 1700s, when it was phased out in favor of conventional staff notation.

Standard guitar notation has remained largely unchanged for centuries, but specialized guitar notation began evolving around the 1920s, when fretted instruments like the guitar and ukulele spiked in popularity. By this time, chord frames or diagrams—with vertical lines representing strings and dots and 0s showing which frets and open strings to include in a chord—were used to make learning easily accessible to a mass audience.

By the 1980s, guitar notation for popular music had become quite sophisticated—especially for the electric guitar—with specialized symbols conveying the whammy-bar and two-handed-fretting antics of the era’s pyrotechnical players. Though contemporary notational practices might vary somewhat from publisher to publisher, acoustic and electric guitar notation for popular music is most commonly indicated with a pair of staves (lines)—the higher one on the standard musical staff, in treble clef, with the guitar sounding an octave lower than written; the lower with the tablature that corresponds to the standard notation. Chord symbols (and sometimes chord frames, if not redundant to the notation and tablature) above the standard stave let you know what’s going on harmonically.

Glance through any of the music in this issue—save for Gretchen Menn’s Basics lesson (p. 42), which is in standard notation only—to get a good sense of how this common hybrid approach to guitar notation looks.

‘Tablature is a double-edged sword: On one hand, it can greatly simplify the process of learning new music on your guitar, but on the other, a reliance on tab can hinder your ability to read standard notation . . .’

Tools of the Trade


The German inventor Johannes Gutenberg introduced mechanical movable type printing to Europe in the mid 1400s, allowing the mass production of books and the rapid spread of knowledge throughout the continent. Technological advances would have the same ramifications on printed music.

By the late 1500s, plate engraving was used to create high-quality printed scores. In this method, the mirror image of a page of music was engraved on a metal plate, which would then be inked and imprinted on paper to produce a score. Plate engraving was widely used for music publication until relatively recently, as were newer methods, like the use of a music typewriter (similar to a conventional typewriter, but having music-symbol keys), which was developed in the 19th century.

Beginning in the 1980s, software innovations made it much easier to create music notation. Engraving programs like Finale were to notation what word processing was to text, at least in terms of ease of use and flexibility. (Yes, it’s still called engraving, though plates and ink are no longer part of the process.) The latest versions of Finale and other professional programs, like Sibelius, are highly sophisticated tools for notating, editing, and even listening to and recording music. All of the notation you see in Acoustic Guitar is produced with Finale (See the sidebar at the end of this article to find out how it’s done).

Making Good Use of Tablature

Tablature is a double-edged sword: On one hand, it can greatly simplify the process of learning new music on your guitar, but on the other, a reliance on tab can hinder your ability to read standard notation and be a well-rounded musician. It can be a whole lot more effective, for example, to notate a long melody on the staff for a violin player to read than it is to share it without the help of notation.

There are good strategies you can adopt to avoid the tablature trap. Some publications, especially those on the internet, use tablature-only notation. As an exercise, try writing out these examples in standard notation, even if it’s slow and tedious at first. (Download a free PDF of staff paper here.) Supplement your tab use with sight-reading work, ideally at every practice session, whether by using a good method book, like those published by Berklee Press or Hal Leonard, or through learning a fiddle tune or J.S. Bach etude in standard notation. (You can also find a handy sight-reading primer in the Weekly Workout lesson from AG’s April 2017 issue.)

When reading the notation in this magazine, try playing the notes in different locations than those indicated in the tablature. This has obvious benefits when it comes to learning the staff, but you might find it more natural—and better sounding—to articulate a phrase in a different location on the fretboard. Also, try concealing the tab staves in a lesson or song and focus on the standard notation. More advanced players might write out certain examples in different keys and learn to play them without tablature.   


The notation software itself can also help with the learning process. If you don’t intend to produce the most complex scores, try one of the free programs like Finale’s Notepad or Sibelius First, which are streamlined versions of the professional editions. It should be fairly intuitive for you to get up to speed on entering music onscreen manually, or, if you’re so inclined, with a MIDI controller (using a MIDI keyboard or guitar to play the notes that will then appear on the staff, a process some musicians find preferable to using the mouse and QWERTY keyboard). When you input music, you can hear the notes played back, both in real time as you enter them or after you’ve completed a piece. This is an obvious a boon to learning how the notes on the staff sound.

Once you’ve inputted a portion of music, with a few mouse clicks you can see and hear it in a different key or write it for another instrument. It’s a cinch to copy the music on a standard staff and paste it onto a tablature staff, so that you can immediately see where it will fall on the fretboard; you can drag a fret number to a different string for alternate positions. Using a notation program’s built-in library of sounds, you can get a good sense of how a guitar part will sound when played with other instruments.

In working with notation like this—understanding the connection between how it appears on the staff and how it sounds, and visualizing different ways of approaching it on the fretboard, or even hearing it played on another instrument—you’re doing yourself a big favor as far as the big picture is concerned. 



This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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