This Story Rocks

The Ultimate Ultimate Guitar Story

BY Kevin Litman-Navarro

I had just turned nine years old when Jack Black's School of Rock hit theaters. Like Black and his motley crew of middle-school musicians, I wished to pick up a guitar — which I would call an axe — and shred till my fingers bled. I wanted to bang out face-melting solos, gut-busting riffs, and bone-shaking chords.

My mom decided it would be best if I took piano lessons.

Still, you can't stop fate, and I was destined to become an extremely mediocre guitarist. When I was able to steal away from the watchful, Puritanical eyes of my rock-fearing parents, I would grab my brother's guitar — which my parents would call a devil stick — and furtively log on to the computer, navigating to Ultimate Guitar dot com.

Since the turn of the century, Ultimate Guitar has been the main online resource for guitar learners. The website is home to some 1.2 million tabs (sheet music for people who can't read sheet music) all uploaded by fans. Because Ultimate Guitar is fan-driven, it can also be seen as a rich database: a living document that measures the popularity and longevity of bands based on how many people want to play their music, to be like them.

Ultimate Guitar Royalty

Who are the kings of this universe, the ones we turn to woo a love interest, or express our deepest feelings? Look no further than the all time top 100 rated tabs. The list factors in how many hits a song gets to some degree, so it really highlights the most appreciated songs on the site.

Most represented artists in the 100 top rated tabs

Of course! Timeless rock god ... (checks notes) ... Ed Sheeran tops the list. Which brings me to an important point: you don't care who is on this list. It's not very punk rock to get that kind of validation from the internet masses.

Wisdom of the crowd be damned, let's focus on me, and the bands that inspired my teenage fever dreams of rock stardom. (And some others, because, hey, I'm not totally selfish.)

In no particular order: The Beatles, Blink-182, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Taylor Swift, Radiohead, Ed Sheeran, Fall Out Boy, Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Death Cab for Cutie, and Pink Floyd.

Measuring band popularity through tab volume

Usually, people cite metrics like Billboard chart position or Spotify playcount to argue for a song's popularity. But by looking at how many tabs are available online, we have another measure of popularity. How does the phrase go? Show someone a song and they will listen for a day. Teach someone a song, and they will play it for a lifetime.

In the graphic below, the size of each circle corresponds to the amount of tabs that band has on Ultimate Guitar (many songs are tabbed many times, because people have different ideas about how the songs should be played).

Press enter for an in-depth breakdown of every bands' tab counts, and scroll over the circles to see how many times a particular song has been tabbed.

Finding overlooked songs through tab popularity

Looking at the number of tabs per song is a good indicator of which songs have a longer half-life, but it only tells part of the story. What I'm really interested in are the songs that have an outsized presence on Ultimate Guitar relative to their percieved popularity. In order to find these outliers, I decided to compare interest in a tab with the top billboard position for that song.

We would expect the songs closer to number one on the Billboard rankings would have more tab views. So the interesting songs will be the ones with a low billboard ranking, but a high number of tab views.

The chart below shows all The Beatles songs that cracked the Billboard Top 100.

Press the right arrow key to show how many tab views each song has, and reorder the chart based on tab interest. Scroll over the bars for more information.

Chart Position
No. 1 Unranked

By looking at tab interest, we can see that the song If I Fell is far more popular than the traditional metrics demonstrate. While people may not have bought as many copies of the song, it's probably played around campfires, in childhood bedrooms, and to court lovers everywhere.

In other words: I've measured song popularity before, and I've found that song popularity is more than just looking at the charts.