Free Online Guitar Tabs: Should They Be Illegal?

guitar-sheet-music-online-guitar-tabsOnline guitar tabs, transcribed versions of popular tunes done by millions of our fellow pickers and posted on the web, have become the preferred method of song learning for a great many players. They are readily available on scores of tab sites and offer a fast and easy alternative to more traditional types of knowledge-gathering. The question I ask today is this: is posting one’s own version of someone else’s song a violation of their copyright and therefore against the law?

Copyright and licensing are hot-button issues in our modern world of music and some have suggested that posting transcriptions online might well be a crime. Personally, I have never heard of this ever being tested in any kind of court case, but I do not think there is any violation involved with putting one of these things up for someone else to use. I have never seen a tab where the transcriber claimed authorship of the song they were working on and I don’t know if any money can be made by an individual doing this from their home or office. I may be wrong here, but I think the current law provides for ‘reasonable educational use’ that is not for-profit. Any legal experts out there are welcome to share their knowledge with us, your fellow Gear-Vaulter’s, and get us thinking correctly.

The problem I have with online tabs is not one of legality but one of musicality. Most of the tabs that my students print out and bring in for their lessons are just plain wrong and are not worth the paper they come in on. I tell my students that these transcriptions are as good as the person who did them and no better. Many of them I have seen look to be the work of a 12-year-old with about an hour of guitar experience. There is a big difference between a real transcription done by a professional transcriber and one done by someone’s teenage kid after their homework is finished. Most are so wrong that no one would pay for them and I am sure that is why no one has taken this kind of thing to court.

My other problem is that some students feel that tabs replace ear training and learning from recordings. Nothing will make you a better player faster than getting your ear thing together and the effort to learn this way is always worth the effort. Music is sound, not numbers, dots and dashes, and we should all be able to relate to sound on its own terms. Guitar tabs offer instant gratification but, due to their inaccuracy and their non-skill-building approach, can easily become a dead-end, rather than the short cut they seem to be. Real, accurate transcriptions will always have a place in the guitar world, but lame online guitar tabs need to go the way of the dinosaur, legal or not.




  1. Treating the web as different than sharing face to face is missing the mark. The tabs your students print up may suck, but they have you to help them, right? What if it wasn’t off the internet, but something a friend showed them or something they figured out on their own, but it was wrong?

  2. A big issue that you haven’t mentioned is not whether contributors to such illegal tabsites claim copyright, or make money from their tabs. It’s the fact that these sites get a lot of traffic through their sites which ultimately results in a lot of advertising revenue. They wouldn’t get the traffic if they weren’t exploiting artists’ music in printed forms, which the unlicensed sites are doing without the permission of the publishers. So it’s not whether the ‘tabber’ makes money, more that the websites themselves are using devoted tabbers to provide free material to populate their site which is of music they don’t have the permission or licence to exploit.

    I have just launched a new fully licensed guitar tab site at It’s been featured in Guitarist and Guitar Techniques magazine and has been up and running since July 2010. The catalogue may not be as big as ultimate guitar but all guitar tabs are official and properly licensed (and above all, accurate!!!) and is growing on a weekly basis.

    Take a look and let me know what you think.

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