Applied Knowledge, Music Theory

What’s the Difference Between Chords & Tabs? [EXPLAINED]

Written By :Andrew Siemon

Chords and tabs are fundamentally different things, although, in many ways, they serve the same purpose. The purpose is to show you how to play certain songs, musical phrases, and ideas on the guitar or a similarly stringed instrument.

That said, the two are different from each other, although, they can certainly be used in conjunction with one another. It’s not uncommon for there to be chord diagrams on the top of tablature, to name just one example. That brings me to the difference though.

The difference between chords, chord diagrams, and tablature is the former concerns only the finger positioning of notes played together on the guitar fretboard. Tablature is a musical notation system that includes chords and single-note melodies through a numbered system rather than note names.

And that’s the brunt of the difference between the two. This topic isn’t really one that requires a person to really go in-depth, but I will explore it for the absolute beginner in the section down below. I’ll be diving into the answer I just gave in further detail, including some diagrams and pictures so you really get the message.

The Main Difference Between Chords and Tabs

1) Tablature Is the Entire Score & Chord Diagrams Concern Only Chords

Tablature Is For The Entire Score

Ultimate-Guitar has probably the biggest library for guitar tablature.

Like I was saying earlier, tablature is kind of like the lazy man’s replacement for standard notation and sheet music. More specifically, it’s a notation system that guitarists have used for years and it works really well for a lot of us.

Especially if you use Guitar Pro which is an incredible tool for guitarists – something I explained in great detail in my other article on the topic.

Most guitarists, especially those who are self-taught, will be very familiar with tablature. Classically trained guitarists will probably be much better at reading traditional sheet music, similar to pianists.

Mark Sarnecki's Complete Elementary Rudiments - Why Do Some Pianos Start With A C and Not an A [ANSWERED]
Mark Sarnecki’s Elementary Rudiments (including the Answer Book on Amazon) is the book I recommend if you want to learn this stuff.

It works by notating each fret of the guitar as it relates to the actual string on the instrument. For example, if you take a look at the tablature below, you can see that I’ve outlined which line represents which string, and also which number represents which fret.

How Tablature Works - What's the Difference Between Chords & Tabs [EXPLAINED]
How tablature works

A tablature is an incredible tool for guitarists, and it’s no surprise that many people use it now, including myself. Not only that but it has been adapted in such a way that people have included timing notation and dynamics as well.

Advanced Tablature - What's the Difference Between Chords and Tabs
Some of the advanced notations you’ll see on properly done tablature nowadays.

I would say that sheet music is actually fairly hard for a guitarist to use because the guitar can play many notes at the exact same pitch but in totally different pitches.

Triads in C Major
What C Major Triads look like on the top 3 strings both in tablature and on the guitar.

For example, the E on the A-string (7th Fret), is the same pitch as the E on the 12th fret of the Low E-string. While the two have totally different tonalities because one string is thinner than the other, they are the same pitch.

This is part of the reason why guitarists don’t like sheet music, but I think the primary reason is that guitarists are often self-taught. The fastest and easiest way to figure out a song is with tablature. Whereas it can take years to learn how to read sheet music.

While tablature is faster for the beginner to figure out, there are some downsides to it. For instance, sheet music and standard notation can be applied to any instrument, and not just guitars. But tablature cannot.

How Tablature Works 2 - What's the Difference Between Chords & Tabs [EXPLAINED]
How tablature works – although, I know it’s a bit convoluted

That’s a whole other topic we can discuss on another day. Moving on from this, let’s dive into how chord diagrams commonly work as a way of distinguishing the two from each other.

Chord Diagrams Concern Only Chords

Featured Image - Why Is It Important To Learn Chords on Guitar [SIMPLE]
What drawn chord diagrams look like

Chord diagrams, as the title suggests, mean they concern themselves only with the chords. They are extremely useful as well, and as I said at the start of the article, they can often be included at the top of sheet music or tablature.

I haven’t been a beginner for many years, but from what I’ve gathered, most beginners will be particularly attracted to chord diagrams because they show you how to play the guitar in a very visual manner.

Moreover, chord diagrams are the medium of choice for the singer-songwriter type who just wants to figure out how to write their own song as quickly as possible, without any complications along the way. They are visual and anyone can read them.

Of course, one could say that sheet music and tablature are also visual, they’re not visual in the same way because they have to be read, rather than just looked at.

Chord diagrams are designed to mimic the exact layout of the guitar fretboard. Take a look at the diagram down below.

C Major - What Are The 3 Main Chords on the Guitar.
How a chord diagram works. For chords at other parts of the neck, the diagram will say things like “at the 7th fret,” or “at the 13th fret,” etc.

Similar to tablature, chord diagrams are drawn in such a way that each line represents a string on the guitar. Usually, from left to right, or from bottom to top, is meant to signify the Low E string to the high E-string.

Important Things to Note About Chords and Tabs

1) Both of Them Can Be Used Together

It’s very common for there to be chord diagrams on top of the tablature. And the same thing goes for standard notation or sheet music as well.

When used together, tablature and chord diagrams are really effective at showing how a guitarist plays a song. When you add in other symbols for dynamics, timing, the use of effects, etc, it gets even closer.

2) Tablature and Chord Diagrams Can Be Wrong

One thing I will say that is more obvious to people who have been playing for a long time, but not so much to beginners, is that both can be wrong. It’s not uncommon for tablature to be completely wrong, as a matter of fact.

It may even be the norm, considering much of the tablature online is user-generated. Sometimes the tablature that companies like Hal Leonard publish as “the official tablature” isn’t correct either.

Books like …And Justice For All or even Master of Puppets are famous for being not close to how the songs are played in reality. You can check out this YouTube video here which shows that.

Andrew Siemon is the principal creator for, a website entirely devoted to all things guitar. From repairs, music theory, chords, and improvisation, to recording at home. I've been doing this for 20 years and I've got another 50 in me.

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