Tablature or TAB offers a simple and quick way to communicate where a note or group of notes is to be played on the guitar.
At its core, TAB tells you what string to play and which fret to hold down. You can get quite a long way with these two simple instructions and that is why TAB is such a popular way to learn guitar music.
TAB has six horizontal lines, each one represents a string on the guitar. The top line represents string #1 E and the bottom is #6 low E. When there is a number on that line, it means to play the note at the corresponding fret number. For example, if there is a 5 on the top line, it means play the fifth fret on the first string. If there are numbers stacked on top of each other over different strings it means that you have to hold down all those notes and play a chord.
The virtue of TAB is its simplicity. It manages to cut right to the chase of playing the right note on the right string and this allows the player achieve a sense of instant gratification that is very enjoyable. There are several drawbacks, however, and you might find yourself needing more information before you can play a piece comfortably.
For simpler music, TAB works quite well and it can be a very useful form of notation to use in the early stages of learning. Because it gets you playing something recognizable so quickly TAB can foster a sense of joy when playing and remove some of the overwhelm that beginners feel when learning the guitar.
Classical guitar repertoire can pose some distinct challenges to TAB in that the music can become complex quite quickly. Because much of the classical guitar repertoire uses multiple voices rather than chords or single line melody, rhythm becomes a very important element. More so than just a single rhythms, classical guitar repertoire will often have multiple rhythms occurring simultaneously so as to allow voices in the music to be independent.
TAB in the most basic form (numbers and lines) can only provide you with string and fret locations. Important musical elements such as rhythm, left and right hand fingering, dynamics, expression markings, barre indications, articulation, and voicing are not communicated with TAB and that leaves a lot of information left to be communicated.
One workaround for the lack of information provided by TAB is to use an edition that has standard notation written above the TAB. This can provide rhythmic information and also fingerings. This could be very useful during the learning process as it offers an easy way to check that you are in fact playing the correct notes. At a certain point, however, if you are going to refer constantly to the standard notation it would make sense to simply read the notation alone.
It could also be possible to couple the TAB with recordings of the work and videos of performances. In this way you might be able to discern rhythms and also fingerings by observing others’ interpretations. However, this can be a precarious path to follow as you are not guaranteed that the recordings you are using are correct in the first place.
Tablature can be very useful in a number of situations and for classical guitarists it can be a great place to start. In general, however, I would suggest devoting time to learning standard notation. It may be challenging at first but like any new skill it will come with diligent practice and perseverance.