Oh the wonders of the internet! When I was a young music student you either bought the book or you figured it out yourself. Now we have a glut of free music resources out there but don’t get too excited…

…like anything else on the Web it takes a lot of savvy to discern good sources from bad. Case in point: Free Tabs (tablatures, that is, or guitar specific shorthand notation for documenting music).

Free Tabs are free, and as always, you get what you pay for. One must then question: does this person know more than I do about this song/music in general/playing the guitar? I have found that the answer is frequently NO. The Tab author really has no idea how to play the song, or the guitar (correctly).

What I see frequently with less-than-perfect Tabs is that the author has some ability on the guitar and also has some fairly good ears: they can match the notes and phrases they hear to their instrument. But transcribing a song properly is much more than this. Next comes the understanding of the guitar’s interface. How the player interacts properly with the instrument in the conventional and most effective way.

Lately people have taken this a few steps further and posted how-to videos on youtube. In general the quality of these posts tends to be better. People must really be confident about their ability to put an actual lesson up but you still need to treat this with a healthy skepticism. If it looks too hard for how it sounds then they may be playing it wrong. Here’s how the guitar is usually played…

The guitar is typically played and understood using a system of positions. Position playing allows an understanding of the neck of the instrument in increments that are hand-friendly and small enough to allow memorization. Combine this with knowledge of scale theory and you have the CAGED system, a method for understanding the guitar that relates all scales and patterns to 5 simple open chords: C,A,G,E, and D. In my opinion, this is the most effective way to learn the guitar. It is certainly the most prevalent approach amongst the players and songs that you will likely encounter in your study by far, although I’ve found that many people adhere partially to this system without being aware of all the patterns or the use of the name ‘CAGED,’ or the full extent of the system and its all-encompassing nature.

The Tab author may be able to match some notes and phrases and notate this with Tab. It may sound the same, or close enough that no one notices the difference. But this is exactly when you’ve reached into the danger zone of learning the guitar the wrong way.

Here’s an example. If I took a person with good ears but no knowledge of the guitar and asked them to figure out Jingle Bells, it probably would not take them long to do it. However, 9 times out of 10 they will get it all on one string. Is the melody right? Sure. But this is not how a guitar player would do it. Try it and you’ll see what I mean. It shoots way up and down the neck in an unruly way that no guitar player would use unless they wanted that string sliding sound for some reason. I see this all the time in bad Tabs. I also see mislabeled chords and all kinds of other mistakes, but this one manifests in the most pervasive and also subtle ways.

Guitarists play in position to take advantage of all 6 strings. Large jumps in register are accomplished by string skips, not position shifts. This is far more effective. When a student brings me a Tab from the internet, I’m always skeptical because this problem is plaguing internet Tabs. Ninety percent of them by my rough estimate. It takes an experienced player to not only match the notes, but get the position correct. There is a reason why it was played the way it was!

Surfers beware! You are reinforcing bad habits every time you play something that doesn’t conform to a system for the interface of your instrument, whether it be the CAGED system or the 7-position modal system, or 3 notes per string, or some other way of understanding the instrument. It is likely that you will need an instructor to help sort this out for you, especially if you have already developed a way of playing that does not rely on positions.

The fact that there are so many ways to play the same thing on the guitar necessitates this approach. If you were playing a wind instrument or the piano, or to some extent even a stringed instrument with fewer strings, this topic would never come up. There’s only one way to play a given set of notes (maybe some alternate fingerings for certain things but generally speaking, most instruments don’t suffer from the mysterious layout that the guitar presents).

The guitar is a puzzle that you piece together slowly over many years of living with its quirks. It’s a beautiful thing if you can wrap your mind around it.

For further study, see my article about the CAGED system.