The Basics of Tablature

Standard/Tablature Comparison

Standard/Tablature Comparison

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog articles, you’ve probably already read my previous blog about my piano lesson years as a young child. I learned to play the piano by learning the “standard” elliptically shaped note and staff notation all of us might not understand but at least recognize when we see it. I’m talking about all those elliptically shaped “notes” that sit on the lines and spaces of just a 5-line staff. It’s an ingenious system, no doubt about it. But this system has been a stumbling block for the folk musician. This is because the folk musician tends to play by ear rather than by carefully following “notes.” Folk musicians are a hardy bunch that wants to learn to play their instruments quickly rather than spend years learning a notation system that requires considerable effort to read well. But this article is not about bashing the standard notation system. I learned it, grew within it, and it has served me well over the years–especially when I eventually turned my hand to writing music how-to books. But this system does require time and effort to learn, and many musicians who just want to sit around and play a little music with their friends don’t take well to this formal system of notation.

But there are other music notation systems, and on the whole, they are easier to learn than today’s standard notation. Hundreds of years ago some bright bulb invented the first form of “tablature.” Tablature is a notation that’s intuitive to read. Since it shows the player where to place the fingers to make a note, rather than which pitch to play, musicians took to tablature. Tablature was immensely popular among early musicians and still is popular today. It’s highly doubtful that early folk musicians passed TABs around ye old campfire, but professional musicians of the day did exactly that! Standard notation requires considerable effort to learn well. That’s probably why I disliked taking piano lessons as a child, even though that knowledge helps me write how-to music books. But not everyone wants to write music books. They just want to play a little music once in awhile. That’s where tablature can save the day.

The huge advantage of standard music notation over tablature is that when the musician sits down to play the composition, it will be on pitch, regardless of which instrument is used to play it. And this standard notation always has just five staff lines, regardless of which instrument might be used to play the tablature. There are different “clefs” so the pitch range will match the instrument, but the “look” of the standard notation staff lines will always be the same. Tablature is different. Acoustic guitar tablature has a 6-line staff, bluegrass banjo tablature has a 5-line staff, and ukulele tablature has a 4-line staff, each line representing the actual string on the instrument. The number on a particular line will tell you where to fret the string. Ingenious, when you think about it. You couldn’t play the harmonica or keyboard or Native American flute by reading guitar tablature. The advantage to standard notation is that each elliptical note stands for a specific pitch. It doesn’t matter if a guitar player or a fiddle player plays the music from standard notation. Each musician, regardless of which instrument s/he might be playing, will be playing the same pitches from that notation. Tablature is different. Tablature is a “relative” notation. Each “note” shows you where to place your fingers on that particular instrument. It’s not so much about the exact pitch we would expect from a pitch source like an electronic tuner. It’s about “relative note intervals.” In fact, pitch is so not a part of tablature that you can tune your instrument out of pitch, provided the note intervals are relatively in tune with each other! This means “Doc FeelGood and the Distillery Boys” can get together for a gig without even needing an exact tuning source. The ear is good enough, even if the person tuning doesn’t have the gift of perfect pitch. The guy with the good ear in the group tunes his guitar so all the strings are relatively in tune. All the strings might end up a little too low or a little too high, but if the pitch intervals between each string are correct, it’s go fly, baby! Then everyone else can tune relatively to the guitar player. The guy with the bluegrass banjo will probably be tuning to open G tuning. But the guitar player will probably be tuning to standard guitar tuning, which is a considerably different configuration than the 5-string banjo. Yet, all the individual musicians, if reading from their own tablature, (if they are all relatively tuned to each other), will sound great together! If someone in the audience would walk by and launch a tuner app on their smartphone, s/he would probably find that the whole band is a little off in pitch, but they still sound darned good together! If you want to eliminate the possibility of the leader of the group being somewhat tone deaf, you can download a free chromatic tuner app and use your smartphone to put everyone exactly in tune. Then pull out the TABs and play away!

Tablature is easy to learn because each note is a set of instructions that show you where to put your fingers to make that note. The tablature “note” shows you which string and which fret to hold down as you pick it. It’s almost like painting by number. Of course, time duration of each note is a concern. But TABs will mark how long to hold each note. That’s why it’s so popular with folk musicians. You might know nothing about music but still be able to correctly finger the instrument. Remember, each tabbed note is a mini set of instructions that shows you how to make that correct note sound. But unlike standard notation where only one set of notes need be written for all instruments to insure everyone sounds good together, with tablature notation a separate TAB must be written for each instrument, depending on how many strings the instrument has, and what the tuning configuration is. You couldn’t play 6-string guitar tablature on a 5-string banjo with very good results. Why? Because the 5-string banjo doesn’t have a 6th string!

Standard notation does not tell us where to place our fingers. This is why standard notation is more difficult to learn. The position of the elliptical note on the staff line or space tells us what the “pitch” of the note is. However, it does not tell us where to place our fingers so we get that pitch. Depending on the instrument, we have to learn and then memorize the various fingerings to make the pitch the music calls for. And what the fingering might be on one instrument will be different on another. Learning the note positions on the staff and relating that position to the finger configuration on whatever instrument you are playing is the difficult part of learning standard notation. This is why even though tablature is hundreds of years old, it’s still popular and heavily used today by folk musicians, rock musicians, and even classical music musicians. (The next article will extend the discussion to tablature for classical music instruments like the baroque cello family and the lute.) Check the Net to see what tablature is available for the instruments you might play. You will be amazed! I use tablature in all my how-to music books. In fact, the illustration that heads up this article is from my how-to music book “5-String Banjo Hot and Wild.” It shows a partial measure of standard notation, with the equivalent in tablature below it. The notations look totally different, but they are exactly the same notes.

I don’t claim that tablature is superior to standard notation, but if you are new to the music game, and if you would like to learn to play an instrument but don’t have the time to devote to learning standard notation, consider tablature notation. The music sounds exactly the same, whether it’s read from standard notation or from tablature notation. And if you invest a couple of bucks in a chromatic tuner app for your smartphone, even those who play from tablature will be playing on pitch.

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