Music Notation -vs- TAB
What is better for learning bass guitar, standard music notation or TAB?
The answer is: neither is better, you need both. Many will argue that music notation is superior to TAB (in many ways it is), but TAB absolutely has value and I suggest all bass players (and guitar players) learn how to use it. Recently I have witnessed multiple bass teachers say that TAB is inferior and the only way to read and write music is with standard music notation. I completely disagree.
I think it is important to learn both music notation and TAB. Music notation is definitely the standard, and it is absolutely necessary for performing most written pieces. However, music notation does not indicate some very important information for beginners. Using both music notation and TAB is the best way to provide the reader all the information needed.
Music notation is the best way to indicate pitch, key, rhythm, articulation, and dynamics; but it does not indicate what string to use or the fretboard position. Most of the time the reader decides where on the fretboard to play a piece of music, but what if the composer wants a specific sound that is achieved on a different string or in a different position on the fretboard? Another example is, what if a music teacher is creating an exercise where the point of the lesson is to force the student to use a different position or to change positions on the fretboard? Without TAB, it is very complicated to show the reader (or student) the proper or intended way to navigate the fretboard.
Sure, some will claim that you can indicate this information on standard notation, but I have yet to see an example that is actually usable, especially for beginners. TAB is the most common, most efficient, and best looking way to indicate the appropriate string and fretboard position. It is very common to see TAB underneath music notation. The notes and rhythm are in the music notation and the intended string and fretboard position is found in the TAB.
I'm not suggesting that TAB is always necessary. It is absolutely not necessary to indicate TAB where fretboard position is irrelevant. I am not suggesting that you don’t have to learn to read music. I highly recommend learning to read music, as it will open you up to every written piece of music in the world. However, I am suggesting that a beginner may benefit from knowing more of the composer's intentions like intended string and fretboard position. Providing both standard music notation and TAB is the best way to indicate all of the information. It may not be necessary for everything, but it is helpful for beginners to see exactly how they should be playing the music. Modern music for bass guitar (where position and fingering are important) should be written with standard notation and TAB. You need both, period.
If you need help with playing in different fretboard positions and/or navigating the fretboard, then check out my eBook entitled Fretboard Visualization. Learn a step by step process to memorizing the whole fretboard, modes, and music theory. Take the next step to becoming a better bass player and musician.