Guitar music is typically written in one of three formats: standard notation, fake sheets (also called chord sheets) or tablature. Each of these has their advantages and disadvantages.
Standard notation: the most information, the hardest to read.
Standard notation gives the most detailed musical information of the three formats, utilizing the five-line staff, key signatures, time signatures and notes. This allows the musician to know exactly how to form chords and play rhythm… no guess work or interpretation necessary. However, reading standard notation takes a considerable amount of education and practice. It is not incredibly difficult but it takes some dedicated time and focus to become efficient with it. Classical and jazz guitarists most commonly read standard notation.
Fake sheets: the least information, the easiest to read.
You will often see a page with chords written above song lyrics. This is referred to as a fake sheet. It gives the least musical information of the three formats and requires the most interpretation by the performer. The name “fake sheet” comes from its use in performance venues where a musician needs a large repertoire of music that allows listeners to request specific songs.
For instance, a guitarist providing background music at a restaurant may have a patron ask to hear “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison. The guitarist knows what the song sounds like but may not remember the chords exactly. He could flip his music folder open to a sheet with the lyrics and chords for this song and essentially “fake it”… the song would not be 100% correct compared to the original recording, but it would be close enough that the audience enjoys it and probably can’t tell the difference. Hence, this is called a fake sheet.
Some fake sheets will indicate the time signature, a strum pattern or a key signature. However, most do not and consist solely of lyrics and chords. A fake sheet leans heavily on the musician’s familiarity with the song and his/her ability to match the rhythm and melody by ear. Most rhythm guitarists utilize fake sheets. Because beginner guitarists typically start by learning rhythm, they become familiar with fake sheets as their first method for reading guitar music.
Tablature: more information, more difficult to read.
The third format for guitar music is tablature. It is a graphic representation of where the notes for a song should be played. Using six lines to represent the strings of the guitar, each note that should be played is written in order from left to right on the appropriate string. The note is represented by a number that corresponds with the fret on which the string should be played. Notes that are to be played simultaneously are stacked vertically across the strings.
Tablature gives the guitarist more specific information regarding how to play lead parts and how to form chords, but it still lacks in communicating rhythm. Some hybrid forms of tablature apply note shapes so that rhythm is indicated.
Called “tab” for short, tablature is the method for writing guitar music that is preferred by most lead guitarists. Rhythm guitar parts and leads that are very involved can result in tabs that are difficult to read. However, the skills necessary to read tablature are fairly self-explanatory and make sense to intermediate and advanced guitarists.
As a well-rounded guitarist, you will become familiar with all three formats of guitar music at some point or another. If you choose to play primarily popular music, you will spend most of your time with fake sheets and tablature.