Tablature can be controversial, especially to those who are content with playing by ear. Some musicians love it. Some don’t want to learn it. You probably already know what tablature is. We’ve talked about it in other blog articles I’ve posted here. Tablature serves the same purpose as the regular music notation we’re already somewhat familiar with. But unlike standard notation, tablature doesn’t require you to memorize where to place your fingers on an instrument to produce the notated pitch; each tabbed note has all that information in the note. Each tabbed note is like a mini roadmap.
An early introduction to tablature for me was when I bought folk legend Pete Seeger’s book titled, “How to Play the 5-String Banjo.” It was this book that introduced me to his up-picking banjo picking style that has played such an important part in my folk music life. But it’s doubtful you have the original 1960s version. Somewhere I read that Seeger sold a grand total of just 5,000 books on that first print run. I happened to stumble across a copy of it in my college bookstore. Seems to me the copyright date on that book was 1964, the year I graduated from college. The point of my nostalgic look back is that if the book hadn’t been a book that contained tablature, the book would have been of no value to me. It was the tabbed tunes that showed me where to put my fingers and what duration should be assigned to each note. I still have that book. The book is available as a reprint and the cheapest price I’ve found is around 30 bucks. I paid 2 bucks for my copy! (I bought this book years before I owned a banjo because I just knew that someday I would play a banjo.) If you’d like to take a look at the book’s description page, type in the title along with Pete’s name, and I would also type in the publisher name which is “Oak.” Interestingly, the cover on the reprint is green. My 1964 version is red. This might be a visual way to quickly determine the version if you happen to see one at a garage sale somewhere. Lots of people start to learn to play an instrument, expect instant fireworks, and then quickly abandon the effort. This is often followed by a wild effort to sell the instrument and whatever music books they’ve bought for it, so it’s more than possible you might run across this book, courtesy of someone who decided to abandon music making. Since I learned well Pete Seeger’s up picking style and used it for many years in a band I was in, I wrote a big banjo book with lots and lots of up picking tablatures. The book is titled, 5-String Banjo Hot and Wild! I hope you never see that book at a garage sale. 🙂
On the back of Pete’s book he quotes an old banjo player who was asked the following by some curious admirer of his playing: How do you learn the notes on a banjo? The old banjo player said, “Hell, there ain’t no notes on a banjo! You just play it!” Well, not true. There are notes on any banjo. You just have to know where they are. But how do you find those notes? I play by ear and I also play by reading music notation, including the tablature notation of my own arrangements. Playing by ear means I have to hear someone else play a tune before I can duplicate it. It could also mean I can compose my own tunes by ear, which I have done a lot of. If I would ignore tablature all together, I’d still have a lot of tunes I could play without having to look at the notes in someone else’s tablature. If you play by ear, you can “fake” the tunes others play. But what if you aren’t familiar with the tune, but you like it and want to learn it? What if you want to play a tune that I, or someone else, has composed? Or what if you, a by-ear player only, want to play an old folkie tune where the original audio recordings no longer exist? And, oh, ouch, what if the only music source is tablature of the tune? You want to play that tune. But there’s nothing to listen to. And so, your by-ear talent isn’t worth much in these circumstances if you don’t have an audio source. If you can’t hear the tune played, you will need notes on a page so you can play from that. If there are notes on the page and you don’t know how to read the tablature, the tune is still lost to you.
There are those who don’t want to take the time to learn tablature. They play well by ear and are satisfied with that. Or they are into composing their own tunes and have no desire to write down their compositions. That’s perfectly okay. They work out an arrangement, and then they play it over and over until they have it memorized. The problem is that as years pass, we forget how we played that tune. And the tune is lost. I had these kinds of experiences before I knew how to write tablature. Even after I knew how, I would often delay writing down my arrangements. This leads to big problems. Especially if you are playing a multi stringed instrument like a uke where arrangements can become fairly complex pretty darned quickly. I’ve rigged my Cordoba tenor uke so I can finger pick it, like a guitar. I love playing the uke this way because you can make it sound like a little classical guitar, even with just four strings. I’ve played a lot of classical guitar, (don’t worry, I really am a folkie!), and so one of the first things when I began finger picking the uke was to play, by ear, a reasonable facsimile of some of those classical guitar tunes I used to play from standard music notation. I arranged the tunes for the uke, (not an easy task!), and then I played them over and over so I wouldn’t forget how I played them. Eventually you can imagine I got pretty sick of this strategy. Especially since there would be times when I couldn’t remember how I played some of the passages and then would go into a dead panic until I somehow managed to recall what I’d forgotten. And then I would play that almost forgotten passage over and over so I wouldn’t forget it. Bad strategy unless you delight in self torture!
So to completely eliminate the risk of ever forgetting how to play a tune again, I made a tablature blank sheet, the same tab blank I give you in my book, “Ukulele Finger Picking,” and I wrote down each arrangement so I wouldn’t forget it. I breathed a big sigh of relief when I finally had about a dozen tablatures down on the page. I would never forget them now. Happy with this achievement, I began writing more uke finger picking arrangements for other tunes. I tackled folk, blues, classical, gospel, Christmas carols, children’s tunes, and even meditative tunes with great gusto! After more than a year of work, all those arrangements I’d tabbed out came together into one big glorious book, “Ukulele Finger Picking.” Those who are interested in learning how to finger pick the uke can learn from my book. All you need do is play the tunes from my tablature. Writing that book, as well as other music how-to books I’ve written over the years, taught me an important lesson early on. The lesson was that even though the tabs in my books are my own arrangements or original compositions, as time passes I forget how to play them. Yes, I really do. I often go to my own books and play that forgotten tune from the TAB I had written years back! Writing them in tablature form gives me a permanent record of how to reproduce that tune on the instrument.
Let’s look at another aspect of this. Not all of us are equally talented musically. This doesn’t mean we are poor musicians. It just means that we all learn our music in different ways. Let’s look at a painter. Some painters have to have a scene to look at as they paint. This was even true of the great masters. Painters interpret what they see and put the scene on canvas in whatever way their talent takes them. The talent for this varies widely. Many of the old Masters used a series of lenses and mirrors to project the scene onto the canvas, leaving the artist to build on this image. The master painter, Vermeer, is especially well known for this. A really good painter can make that original scene sparkle more brightly than the original scene. So the question is merely academic as to whether painters who require a physical scene to look at before they can paint it are true artists. They are. Quite obviously they are. Some painters, though, have astounding visual memories, where they can sit down with nothing but the canvas and a box of paints. They don’t need a scene they view in order to paint it. The scene comes out of their imagination. The same is true for musicians. A few musicians out of a hundred can compose tunes from scratch. Or they can play by ear without even thinking about it. In this case we say the musician has a strong audio memory. But some musicians don’t have strong audio memories. They rely on something like tablature so they can play the music of others, (much like Vermeer’s projected images), and they can use whatever music imagination they might have to make the tabbed tune someone else wrote even better, just like the scene the visual artist might paint can be made better. Most musicians are good copiers. Many can interpret the copy in fantastic ways, giving new value to the tune. Few musicians have strong audio memory. Does this mean that those without this audio memory can’t be good musicians? Absolutely not. Playing the tunes of others and interpreting a tune that’s unique to you is possible by reading the music notation of others. That’s where tablature comes in. It makes it possible for musicians who are great interpreters to play and add value to the music of others. And the neat part is that as we play the music of others, the act of doing it over and over creates a music structure that eventually strengthens through playing the music of others and sets our music imagination into motion so we can strengthen our own audio memories. This slowly but surely makes us better musicians. It’s equivalent to body builders becoming gradually stronger as they continue to work out.
You can decide to play by ear only. Or you can decide to play at least some of your tunes from tablature. What path you take is the path that fits your talents and works for you. But if you’ve ever thought that tablature might be too difficult to devote any time to, know that it’s not difficult to learn. It’s stupidly simple to learn. Knowing how to read it will open up a vast world of music to you. You will only know this by giving tablature a try. And you will only experience the joy of playing with nearly unfettered freedom as you interpret the music of others. When you play the music of others, and when you feel yourself becoming lost in the beauty of it, you are riding the crest of a wave you never want to leave.
Music is a form of communication. You can’t communicate unless you have something to say. Tablature provides the message you can interpret in your own way and then send to all those who hear you, including yourself.