If you play guitar, and you’re a little bit lazy like me, you’ve probably been exposed to guitar tabs at one point or another. If you haven’t been exposed, a guitar tab is basically a transcription of guitar music that displays the music notes as fret numbers on the individual strings, rather than on the standard musical staff. If you’re not great at reading music, looking at numbers on strings can be way easier than sight-reading a real music transcription. The real guitar purists probably despise tabbing, because it seemingly dumbs things way, way down, and discourages people from learning to read music, but I think it’s great if you just want to learn a song, and don’t really care to better yourself as a “musicologist.” Plus, a lot of rock and jazz guitar is based on scales that fit into movable fretboard patterns, so you can actually become a great player without ever really learning how to read real music.
I don’t know who originally came up with the idea of “tabbing” guitar music, but my first exposure to it was in guitar magazines like “Guitar,” “Guitar World,” and “Guitar One.” These magazines always had 5 or 6 different songs tabbed out at the end. After using these for awhile, I discovered that people had started posting guitar tabs as simple text files on the internet, which was awesome, because you could lookup the tab to pretty much any song you could imagine. Two good sites back then were Harmony Central and Wholenote. Harmony Central used to have a huge archive of tabs, but they have been literally torn apart by copyright suits from the record companies (or whoever), so their tab section is pretty much useless now.
The next big movement in internet guitar tabbing was “play-along” midi-based tab files that required an external application to read. The two big “competitors” in this movement are “Powertab” and “Guitar Pro.” These are both applications that you can download (one is free, one is frickin’ expensive). There are several good sites out there that host archives of tabs. The best one I’ve found is Ultimate-Guitar, but there are several other decent ones, including, 911-Tabs, powertabs.net. On the other hand, there are tons of really bad sites out there, and tons of really bad tabs too, so sometimes it can be hard to find exactly what you’re looking for. Lately, the MPA has been really cracking down on a lot of these sites because of alleged copyright infringment, but I think that’s a bunch of BS – the vast majority of tabs are created by people sitting down and figuring out songs. There are probably some tabs out there that people simply type in from existing transcriptions, but I really think it’s arguable whether this is infringing on a music copyright. It’s not like the artists release “official” transcriptions to their music, so how can you claim that any transcription infringes a copyright.
Anyway, this post was supposed to be about Powertab vs. Guitar Pro, so on to that. Powertab is a free application that you can download to read .ptb tab files. You can edit the tabs on the fly, or create new ones using the application, but the editing is pretty tedious. The tab is tied into a midi playback “engine,” which is the best feature. If you have a good .ptb file, the midi-playback and the moving “note-marker” make it really easy to learn a new song, or learn a complicated section of any song. You can slow the playback down, and it also has the ability to change the tuning of the midi-playback, in case you have a .ptb file that’s tuned down, but you don’t want to retune your guitar. Overall, Powertab has it’s quirks, and can be kind of a pain to work with if you need to use “advanced” features, but the play-along features are really intuitive and pretty good.
Guitar Pro is the other major application in this “market.” I think it was written by a French or German company, and it costs $59 to download! It has a lot of the same features as Powertab, but it also has a feature they call the “Realisitic Sound Engine.” Rather than the bare-bones midi, the RSE is supposed to use a more advanced sound library that will sound a lot more like a real guitar. It also supports adding midi drum tracks to the playback, which I’m not sure if Powertab can do (although you might be able to fake something out with different midi instruments). I’ve actually tried Guitar Pro with the RSE, and I found that it’s actually pretty useless. The RSE playback does sound better, but it has this weird delay that only sounds right if you turn off the metronome. One problem with this delay has to do with the note-marker in Guitar Pro. When you play a track in Powertab, the notes are highlighted in red as the music scrolls by, which makes it easy to watch and hear the timing of the music. In Guitar Pro, as the track plays, only the current measure is marked, so it can be hard to follow when the track has to scroll to the next page. With the weird RSE delay, it’s even harder to follow the track as it’s playing. Overall, Guitar Pro might be slightly more user friendly for editing tabs, but the playback in Powertab is much better in my opinion. I would definitely discourage anyone from forking over the $59 for Guitar Pro, I don’t think it’s anywhere near worth-it when the arguably better Powertab is free.
One other thing to note is the availability of .ptb files vs. .gp* (Guitar Pro) files. There seem to be a lot more Guitar Pro files out there, but I’ve found that most of the good Guitar Pro tabs are actually exact copies of the good .ptb files. I don’t know if these corresponding .ptb files were simply exported from Guitar Pro, but in the end, I’ve only found a few good Guitar Pro files that weren’t available in .ptb format. Don’t be fooled by the greater number of Guitar Pro files, a lot of them are just crap. (A lot of .ptb files are crap too, but at least it’s free crap.)
Anyway, that’s enough of that, my final conclusion is this: use Powertab and don’t support greedy Guitar Pro.