Guitar Notation
D. L. Stieg

Notation is music in written form. The purpose of notation is to provide a written account of how music is played or sung, and to allow for the performance or re-creation of that music. The music of the guitar is traditionally written either in staff notation or in tablature notation. Staff notation was developed in the 11th century, is used for most musical instruments, and is therefore commonly called standard notation. The staff system is based on a set of five parallel lines (a staff), by means of which the pitches of notes are indicated by assigning specific pitches to the various lines and spaces of the staff. Two basic types of guitar tablatures were developed during the Renaissance, one for strumming styles of play, and the other for plucking styles of play. The modern day guitar TAB system evolved from the plucking style tablature, and is based on a set of six parallel lines that represent the six strings of the guitar. In contemporary practice, classical guitar music and jazz guitar music are normally notated in staff, and most other styles of guitar music are normally notated in TAB.

The most basic music that can be played on the guitar, or on any other instrument for that matter, is a simple melody. Given that most people have an intuitive sense of melody, and given that the guitar is one of the easiest instruments to learn to play, any complete beginner can pick up the guitar and figure out the notes of simple melodies in relatively short order. This is in fact how many people start out learning to play the guitar, but they soon discover that without some way to write down the notes they have figured out, they are forced to rely on memory in playing a melody from start to finish. Staff notation is unfortunately of little help in this regard, because even the simplest music is relatively difficult to decipher for a complete beginner. For example, the notes of a simple melody can only be determined in staff notation by taking into account the key and key signature. Most people have an intuitive sense of what a key is, but the abstract representation of this understanding in staff notation is a difficult concept for many people, and especially for beginners.

In TAB notation, notes are represented by fret numbers that are placed on the corresponding lines of the tablature to show where the notes are formed on the fretboard of the guitar. As compared to staff notation, this is a simpler and more direct way to represent how to play the notes of a melody on the guitar. But notes played on the guitar can be represented even more simply numerically by means of string and fret notation, which consists of a string number followed by a parenthesized fret number. For example, 3(2), pronounced string three fret two, is the note formed at the second fret of the third string, and 5(0), pronounced string five open, is the note sounded by the open (unfretted) fifth string. Any note that can be played on the guitar can be represented in this fashion. String and fret notation eliminates the need for interpreting and translating staff or TAB notation into the actual information required (where the notes are formed on the fretboard), and is therefore an inherently simpler form of notation.

In playing a melody, it is of course not enough to know what the notes are, since the rhythm of the notes must also be considered. In staff notation, the representation of rhythm is a fairly complicated process in which the time signature must be taken into account, and in which the time values of the various notes, as well as the time values of rests, must also be considered in reckoning rhythms. Rhythm is notated in tablature in various ways, and some forms of guitar tablature do not include rhythmic notation of any kind, so the player must learn the rhythm of the notes by listening to recordings. Guitar TAB notation is often combined with the staff notation for exactly the same notes, so the rhythm of the notes in the TAB notation can be determined by referring to the staff notation. In some TAB scores, rhythm is indicated not by duplicating the music in staff notation, but rather by incorporating elements of rhythmic notation in staff (for example, note stems, flags, and rests) into TAB notation. In any case, the representation of rhythm in staff or TAB notation is at best fairly complicated and somewhat abstract.

The staff and TAB notational systems are both based on a framework for the representation of pitch. A much simpler notation for simple guitar melodies is made possible by the use of string and fret notation, and by basing the notation on rhythm rather than on pitch. The evenly timed beats of meter can be represented by evenly spaced marks along a single line of tablature. The string and fret notation for the various notes can be placed along the line so as to show the rhythmic timing of the notes visually, and without recourse to rhythmic symbols of any kind. For example, notes that are sounded on beats (concurrently with beats) can be notated directly above those beats, and notes that are sounded halfway between two beats can be notated halfway between those two beats, and so on. This simple single line tablature can be used to write, read, and learn to play simple melodies without having to learn the more complicated staff or TAB notational systems. More importantly, the use of this simplified single line notation, which can be learned quickly and easily, allows for a concentration on the more immediate task of mastering the required movements of the fretting hand and the playing hand.

The guitar is obviously capable of many styles of music that are far more complicated than simple melodies, and the notation of this music in the staff or TAB systems is likewise considerably more complicated. The simplified single line tablature notation of melodies is made possible by the representation of notes with string and fret notation, and by the visual representation of rhythm. The same single line system can be used to produce a far more manageable notation for virtually any guitar music than is possible with either the staff or TAB systems, with the same visual representation of rhythm, provided an all-important shift in perspective is made.

Although the guitar can be used to play melodies, it is first and foremost an instrument of chords. Simple rhythmic guitar music is based on a progression of chords, and consists of either strumming or individually plucking the notes of the chords. But in a larger sense, all guitar music is based on the frame of reference provided by specific chord fingerings, even when that frame of reference is the open chord (no chord at all) or a full barre at a particular fret. By basing the single line notation of guitar music on this frame of reference, a much simpler representation of complicated guitar music can be produced.

If the single line tablature is governed by chord symbols that represent specific chord fingerings, and the chord fingerings are diagrammed, a context is created for the notation of playing techniques. Strums can be represented by simple strumming symbols rather than by cumbersome vertical groupings of notes, as in staff or TAB notation. For notes played in plucking styles (fingerstyles), or for flatpicked notes, chord notes can be represented by string numbers. Non-chord notes, which are the result of adding notes to or removing fretted notes from specific chord fingerings, can be represented with string and fret notation. String and fret notation can also be used for multi-note techniques like the hammer-on, the pull-off, and the slide. In the context of a single line tablature governed by specific chord fingerings, notational symbols can readily be devised for any technique or any style of play that is possible on the guitar. As compared to the staff and TAB notational systems, the obvious benefit of the single line system is that it greatly simplifies the task of translating a written account of guitar music into a performance of that music.