December 11, 2023

Learning songs from tab

When I first heard Eddie Van Halen’s – ‘Eruption’…I almost had a coronary. At the age of 14, I found the TAB in an old Guitar magazine (that was all we had lol).

I spent days and days pouring over the numbers and squiggles on the pages trying to master it. Parts of it were sounding OK, but others were a mess.

I usually just gave up, turned the volume to 10 and did my own ‘air guitar’ version.

Now when I help my students learn a new song with tab, I see them making the same mistakes that I did back in my bedroom in the 80’s.  Here’s a list of four common mistakes to avoid when learning songs from tab:

Mistake #1 – Making your way through from start to finish

When we read a book, we do this. And that’s fine, but reading TAB is different. By the time we get to the end of the song we’ve already forgotten most of the stuff before it and it sounds like nothing.

We need to program it into our subconscious. And to do that we need repetition. We need to take small bites and chew on them, over and over. Maybe it’s the first bar. Maybe it’s the tenth. Whatever bar you’re up to, first learn the individual notes. Then you play it slowly with the correct timing or rhythm.

Mistake #2 – Playing it as fast as we can

This one needs no explaining, but everybody is guilty of doing it. To avoid this we again need to program the riff or melody into your subconscious. And then we can speed it up.

The hardest part is keeping it slow. It’s easy to think that because we’ve played it perfectly once, we are now awesome and it will be perfect and dazzle the audience immediately.


When you have memorized the phrase or riff and can play it 15 times without error – then you can have a go at speeding it up.

Mistake #3 – Always playing it from the beginning

So we’re at bar 12 and we’re stuck on a tricky riff. So many of us make a mistake at bar 12 and then go back to the beginning. We’ll work our way to the scary bar 12 and guess what? We stuff it up!

Stop making the same mistake. Instead, play that tricky bar until you can play it forwards, backwards and upside down.

Sounds pretty obvious right? But I bet you’ll do it in the next week.

Mistake #4 – Programming mistakes

If you play something over and over it becomes imprinted in your subconscious. So if you keep stuffing it up…you’re imprinting that mistake. You’ll play it that way every time. Catch yourself BEFORE it becomes imprinted and STOP. Take a deep breath and sloooow doooown.

If you follow these simple tips, you’ll find learning songs from tab a lot more enjoyable. As well as taking less time to learn the song right, the first time.

Crack on!

Learn more about Mark McKenzie on his Google profile.

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