In our last article we discussed the basics of “tablature.” Tablature is a notation system that makes music compositions accessible to musicians with little or no music background. The more familiar western music notation, recognizable by its elliptically shaped note symbols, shows the “pitch” of each note, but it doesn’t show us where to place our fingers on the instrument to produce that pitch. With the standard notation system, finger placement as related to pitch must be memorized for each note.
Tablature, on the other hand, is much easier to read, especially for those musicians who don’t know how to read standard music notation. Each tabbed note does not show the pitch of the note, but instead, with numbers, (and in some older tablature schemes, letters as well), shows us the finger configuration so we know how to produce that note. The finger configuration when reading tablature need not be memorized; the numbers or letters in each note show us where to put our fingers on the particular instrument we are playing. (The image above shows a modern classical arrangement written in both standard notation on the top two staffs and tablature for two lutes on the bottom two staffs.)
But there are other forms of tablature. Early forms of tablature didn’t use numbers, only. It also used letter names, and this was to indicate which frets or keys to play rather than an actual pitch. (Notice the letters like a, b, c, etc. in the lute tablature. These aren’t pitches. The ‘a’ means fret #1, ‘c’ means fret #3, etc.) My daughter is a professional cellist, and she plays with lute musicians who regularly play from this type of tablature. These are musicians trained in classical music, so the complaint by some music elitists that tablature is a lazy way to learn music is obviously bogus. In fact, you can rest assured that if people like this truly knew anything about music, they wouldn’t have such a negative view of tablature. Tablature is a powerful music notation system that’s been around for hundreds of years, and it’s used at every level of music making and with many different types of instruments. One of the earliest forms of tablature that has survived as a physical document is for organ music! You also probably wouldn’t be surprised to know that the music compositions of the baroque guitar were written down in tablature rather than in the standard notation of elliptical notes, that notation we are more aware of but not necessarily knowledgeable of.
Tablature is the favorite notation of folk musicians, with TABs available for guitars, ukes, banjos, mandolins, harmonicas, lutes, and hundreds more. The only instruments you probably won’t find tablature for is the didgeridoo or the kazoo. 🙂 The didgeridoo is an ancient wind instrument that produces just one note. The kazoo sounds like humming against tissue paper on a comb. Tablature is not needed for either of these instruments.
Why is a tablature that shows finger placement rather than pitch so important to the folk musician? It’s important because many folk instruments are played in a variety of tunings. For example, I usually play my ukulele in open C tuning. This requires tuning the first string down one whole step, from an A to a G. This not only makes for some interesting chord configurations, it also makes the ukulele much easier to finger pick, not to mention that less physical strength is required when compared to finger picking in standard tuning. There are times, though, when I might want to play my uke in standard tuning. This means the first string will be tuned back up to an A from the G. Suppose you are using standard music notation. Each elliptical note requires we know where to fret each string to achieve the indicated pitch. But if we change the tuning from standard tuning to a different tuning, the pitches will differ on those strings that are no longer part of the standard tuning scheme. Now, suppose I decide to retune my uke from standard tuning to open C tuning. The pitch of the 1st string will go down a step, from an A to a G. So now those elliptical notes will still indicate correct pitches, but you will have to compensate for this string pitch change by playing the string on a different fret, in this case, two frets higher than in standard tuning. Formally trained musicians call this transposing on the fly. If you haven’t had a lot of formal music experience, you will find this difficult. But with tablature, we only need to follow the numbers, regardless of which tuning configuration we might be playing in. It’s very much like painting a picture by number in that the numbers show you exactly where to put the paint, only in this case the numbers show you where to put your fingers.
Let’s consider an even more complex example. The guitar’s six strings can be tuned to different configurations, including open C, open G, open D, open G minor, open E minor, open A minor, etc. Some musicians, like Leo Kottke and John Fahey, have made musical careers in open tunings! To notate compositions in all these different tunings with a pitch-specific notation system would have us quickly climbing the walls in sheer frustration; we would constantly have to compensate for pitch changes by transposing on the fly, and that’s not easy when dealing with six strings! That’s why, if you are playing tunable folk instruments, the number tablature system is crucial to your success if you plan to play in any number of different tunings.
You might be interested in the tablature I use for my “Ukulele Finger Picking” book in open C, my “5-String Banjo Hot and Wild” book in open G, and any of my Native American flute books with tunes tabbed out in many different flute keys. Handling all this is disgustingly simple when we use tablature. The Native American flute can’t be tuned, but number tablature makes playing in other keys on the same flute a piece of cake. On the Native American flute we can play the pentatonic scale, two major scales, two minor scales, several other major and minor scales but with limited tonal range, as well as the full chromatic scale, “chromatic” meaning that we can play the black keys on the piano as well as the white keys, and we can play these black key notes on the Native American flute. Tablature is the “key” to quickly learning these different scales, (just follow the numbers). The different scales make a wide variety of tunes possible when playing in different ‘keys’ on the same flute.
Over the years that I taught guitar and banjo I eventually stopped teaching young kids because their parents insisted I teach them how to read notes using the standard western notation system. They balked when I tried to teach their children tablature, apparently thinking they weren’t getting their money’s worth if I didn’t teach their kids “real” music. Oooooo, it was a trip, let me tell you. 🙂 It was only the adult students who appreciated tablature, because they intuitively knew that no music background was required to learn some pretty hot tunes! If you have a child whose music teacher wants to teach them tablature rather than the standard western notation, listen to the teacher. If your child is forced into a system that’s difficult for him/her, s/he won’t practice. If your child comes to love music and the instrument they are playing it on, then you can ask the teacher to usher them into standard notation, if you like. You won’t ruin your child’s possible music success by having the teacher teach tablature first. If tablature will lessen the stress of learning, by all means let your child take the tablature path. Good musicians know how to read both types of music notation. By the way, my sister, a long time piano teacher, successfully used a beginning book that showed introductory songs through its own tablature system. When students learned these tunes through the tablature, the tablature notation eventually gave way to standard music notation, the notation used for most piano music. In this way the student was gently taken into the world of tune-making without having to memorize where the keys were on the piano. Once they learned some real tunes, they were ready for standard notation. This book proved to be successful for those students she taught, and she used it for many years.
What’s my music background? It’s pretty darned formal. As a young boy I began playing by ear. Then I took formal piano lessons where my teacher insisted on me learning standard western music notation. Eventually, as I got sick of piano lessons, I began strumming the folk guitar as I sang along with my chording. Becoming bored with just strumming, I wanted to learn finger picking, so I found some books with tablature notation. Tablature proved to be a quick ride to learning complex pattern picking. After several years of this I decided I wanted to apply standard notation, not tablature, to the guitar because I had a yen for playing classical guitar music. For many years I played the guitar in both standard notation and tablature. Eventually I began writing the music how-to books featured on my description pages on this website, where tablature is the music notation I use for all my how-to books. I like both notation systems, but I find tablature to work best for folk music, especially when playing in different tunings. It was when I began playing my guitar in different tunings that I realized standard notation just wasn’t gonna cut it. Take it from someone who has been around the park, multiple times, with this. Try tablature. For those who might be interested, there are classical guitar tunes written in tablature. I discovered this as the years went by.
But is there that much tablature available to play? Heck yes! Go online and take a look around. Tablature is an immensely popular notation system. With tablature, even when you thought it might be beyond you, the world of making music will suddenly be open to you, regardless of which instrument you might decide to play. Who knows! You might not know anything about music right now. But deciding to give tablature a try could completely open up the world of music to you. And that’s a happy ending we all want to be part of. 🙂
To prove the veracity of the tablature’s history, try these two websites—
(Click on the menu link, “Tablature further explained.”) This site page gives you the basics of how to read a very old form of tablature.
This particular site shows page scans of a very old tablature that has 116 pages, each page with a tabbed tune. It will take a while to load all the way because the pages are images, (probably PDF images), not text. Modern tablature for the folk or rock player uses numbers, only, and they are easier to interpret. Still, those old tabs must have been great fun to read and play from!
— Thanks goes to my daughter, Gretchen, who was a valuable source person for this article.