All hail guitar tabs

When I was still in public school, my dad — a guitar player for as long as I can remember — offered to teach me guitar. I was years into my life-long love affair with drums, however, so I didn’t have much interest in learning something else. Drums were my calling, thought I.

Trying to make the idea more enticing, he mentioned that girls liked guitarists. Which is something that can’t be reasonably argued. Let’s face it: Guitarists draw way more attention than drummers. Guitarists are up front, in the spotlight, and are playing those cool, catchy riffs that stick in your head. They’re key to making all the band’s best songs all the band’s best songs. Meanwhile, drummers are… yes, important… but way more often hidden behind their kits. They’re not in the spotlight. The fact that you can perhaps think of two or three notable exceptions to that point just speaks to the vast portion who you can’t think of.

I mean, let’s face it: Slash has undoubtedly had way more sex with way more fans — probably by magnitudes — than whoever the drummer is for Guns N’ Roses. And the fact that I can’t even think of the latter’s name only underscores this whole point. My dad’s point.

But, appeal of being attractive to girls aside, I was steadfast in my determination to not learn how to play the guitar. And to my credit, it didn’t even take me more than… er… three and a half decades to meet the love of my life. So… yeah, okay, I should’ve listened to him.


Cut to years later, and it occurred to me that hey, it’d be cool if I could play the guitar part to these songs I like. Oh, hindsight…

This was around when I discovered there were these things called “guitar tabs”. They cut out the whole part of needing to know the music theory of how to play guitar — what note placement on the music staff meant what notes or chords were needed and how one made those sounds — and instead just showed you where to place your fingers on which strings to get what sound. So instead of looking at sheet music and knowing it’s a C chord being shown, it showed you an illustration of where to put your fingers to make what happened to be a C chord. And other chords. And then shows you where and how in the song those chords are played.

Suddenly, playing songs on the guitar was achievable.

The advent of the internet only helped popularize guitar tabs. Suddenly, there were entire websites dedicated to collecting and archiving guitar tabs that you could search through for specific songs. Hundreds of them. Thousands.

And while I don’t know what to chalk it up to, maybe another mid-life crisis thing (or at least a revisiting of what’s important to me and what I want to do with my time), I’ve been going heavy on guitar tabs in the last few years, some time before Covid hit. Though of course the lockdown months through the worst of Covid provided more downtime for more guitar tab playing.

Without exaggeration, guitar tabs have been a life changer.

Hey, how do I play that song from my childhood that I liked, the one my parents listen to a lot?
Guitar tabs.

Damn, that’s a great guitar part on that catchy song. How do I play it?
Guitar tabs.

I’d forgotten that nice riff from that big 90s band that I just heard again. Can I play it?
Guitar tabs.

Ooo, that new song on the radio is gorgeous. I wonder how hard the guitar part is.
Guitar tabs.

… and as you’ll notice, a nice offshoot of using guitar tabs is that while you’re shown the finger placement, you’re also shown what that chord is. Oh, so one finger here, another here, and another here is a G chord. So I’ve now gotten to the point that, while I never intended to learn how to play guitar chords, using tabs has taught me guitar chords. You can ask me to play an E-minor chord, or a C or a D or an A-minor chord… I can do that.

Wins all around.

Suffice to say, I’m a total devotee of guitar tabs. It sometimes takes some hunting around to find one with the right feel to it — different people will approach the song in different ways and reflect that in different versions of tabs, sometimes even with different tuning — but I’ve never been disappointed with the results in trying to find guitar tabs for any song I’ve been interested in playing.

Music theory and practice has its place, of course. I’m not suggesting otherwise. But if you want to skip past years, or even decades, of learning that and just want to play what you want to play right now, guitar tabs are a great way to go.