Tablature Is Hope For All Musicians

Pete Seeger in his later years

Pete Seeger in his later years with his ever present long neck banjo, an instrument he made famous.

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  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.

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Starship Flute!

starship_blog-articleMany years ago, when I co-owned and co-operated Awe-Struck E-Books, one of the first ebook publishers on the Net, we eventually were publishing more than 400 titles by more than 100 authors. It was a lot of work, but it was also great fun. We were selling ebooks like crazy from 1999 to 2009. But we finally wore ourselves out with it and have since sold it to another entrepreneur. During that 10 years of enjoyable madness I was writing my own books and publishing them through our company. Even though I had my own books published prior to the formation of my own publishing company, I seized the opportunity to publish myself through Awe-Struck. I must say it was a heck of a lot easier than trying to get my books published by strangers! It also gave me the opportunity to write whatever I pleased. The privilege of experimenting is a mighty gift! When you publish your own books you needn’t worry about having your books rejected! And so, in great earnest, I began writing books on how to play the Native American flute, of all things. I didn’t expect anyone to be interested enough in the NAF to actually buy a book. But I’ve since written quite a few how-to books on this very subject. It’s a wonder because my first flute book had crudely laid out tablatures; I hadn’t found music composition software yet. In fact, I don’t think the software I finally settled on, Tab|Edit, was even available when I wrote my first flute book. I had to settle with pecking out the fingering configurations in the Courier font, a monospaced font that made it easy to line characters up vertically, something absolutely necessary when writing any type of tablature. Eventually, though, I found Tab|Edit, learned how to use it, and overnight my tablatures took on a professional look. I redid all my flute books using this new tablature, and before I knew it I was selling a ton of flute books. I had no idea people were so hungry for how to make music on the Native American flute.

Most of my flute books are available as a PDF ebook. These can be read on your laptop or your tablet. It can also be printed on your home printer, or by your copy shop. I have since put to print the first flute book I’ve ever written titled, “Celebrate the Native American Flute.” It’s quite comprehensive and is immensely popular. But my most comprehensive book, by far, is the flute book titled, “Earth Flute.” It’s currently available in PDF, but I’m working on the print version as I write this blog article. There is so much music in the NAF, and I know that many musicians don’t realize this. And so as I was putting together the 50 music samples to show this, those 50 free samples that will be part of the book, I decided I would write a convincing demonstration of the flute and its little known chromatic scale. It’s a 5-minute demonstration that you might like to listen to. I’ve posted it here—  key change demonstration

Scroll down until you see “key change demonstration where I play the most basic scale, the pentatonic scale. Then I play the extended pentatonic scale. Then I play the chromatic scale, a scale that includes the “black” keys as well as the “white” keys, (think of a piano keyboard). And finally I play the first section of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, (a top forty hit 🙂 ), in six different keys, all six keys on just one 6-hole flute! Most players aren’t aware this is even possible on the Native American flute. But it is. This humble tube with just six holes varying the pitch will give you any melody you might want from it. We tend to forget that the sophisticated and more familiar metal-keyed flute is a fairly new development in our musical history. In fact, metal keys on the closed end transverse flute first appeared in the 1800s. The Native American flute has no metal keys. The flute without metal keys first appeared thousands of years ago with the first flute appearing as far back as 45,000 years! Those early flutes were made from bird bones with two to four holes drilled into them, and the flute was the first wind instrument to appear in our history. (For more fascinating info on this, go to and type in “flute.”) Here’s the question: what kind of mind figured out that first flute? The wheel was far easier to develop than a device you blow into and get sound. A log rolling down a hill would help man make the leap to a wheel. But what kind of mind would devise a thing that would allow a human to make organized sound…? Wooo-eeeee-ooooooooo…. J

The 6-hole NAF is an extremely powerful instrument. You can get just about any note you might want from it. You can stick with the very simple pentatonic scale, the root scale of every culture on this planet. Or you can reach out and explore. Do you remember that iconic scene in the movie, 2001, where the ape throws up a bone and the bone turns into a starship? Your flute is like that bone. Reach out with it, and before you realize it your flute will turn into a starship and you’ll be the commander! Beam me up, baby!

NOTE: I’m hard at work getting my book, Earth Flute, into print. When I release it, along with the 50 free audio samples from the book, I will let you know. You can learn all about my music books on this website under the MUSIC BOOKS menu tab.

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Building a Native American Flute

CHRIS-HandsSepia_5wideThe Native American flute is one of those folk instruments that looks like it would be easy to build. After all, it’s just a simple barrel with six, (or five), holes drilled down its length. You blow in one end, and you cover various holes with your fingers to get different notes. There’s little more to it than that? Right? Wrong. If this is your idea of a functioning flute, you will be terribly disappointed when you try blowing into a simple tube with holes in it. Try it for yourself. Blow through that paper towel tube from your empty paper towel roll. You already know that you’ll get a big fat nothin’! If you want sound, don’t blow. Instead say, in a high falsetto voice, “Toot ta doooo,” like you did when you were a kid! 🙂

The flute, like any instrument, has to be built in accordance with the principles of physics, even if the builder isn’t aware of those principles. (You don’t have to know the actual principles to build a working flute.) How do you make a blowing end that will produce sound? How in the world might this be done with nothing more than a tube and that little block thingie that sometimes looks like an animal or bird sitting next to what appears to be a sound hole close to the blowing end? Do you make a blowing end, (called a “fipple”), like you see on a typical whistle? Well…yes…and no. It’s not a fipple end like you might see on something like a penny whistle. Unlike a typical fipple, on the Native American flute there is a separate air chamber, there is an air channel, there is a partition to block the air, and there is that block thingie, often called the totem or the chimney, which guides the air across the labium, the edge that splits the air you blow and makes the sound. But there’s more! Even if you knew how to make a blowing end that produces sound, how would you space the note holes so the whole thing plays in tune? In other words, how could you consistently play Mary Had a Little Lamb on any NA flute so your kid would recognize it? The NA flute is a true mystery of design, elegant in concept. So if you want to know how to build a flute you can actually tune correctly and play, keep reading….

Several books have been written on how to build a playable Native American flute. Many of the books I’ve investigated don’t go into much depth. They will show you how to build one type of flute and that’s about it. Quite often these books will show you how to build the 5-hole flute, but not the 6-hole flute. (The 6-hole flute has more musical possibilities and is favored by NA flute masters like R. Carlos Nakai.) But a new book has recently been released that gives specific instructions for building the ancient Anasazi flute, as well as instructions for building the types of flutes we are more familiar with made of wood, bamboo and river cane, PVC, and clay. And this book even shows you how to build a flute system, a swappable head piece that fits on barrels of varying flute keys. There are also detailed instructions for building the double-barreled drone flute. A drone flute plays an accompanying drone note, (much like a bagpipe), as the melody is played. It delivers a startlingly haunting sound. The drone is not a modern flute, even though you might think so. Drone flutes were found among the remains of the Aztecs who lived 5,000 years ago. This is the only book I’ve investigated that shows specific instructions for building many types of NA flutes, including the Anasazi flute and including the drone flute.

The book I’m talking about is titled, “Native American Flute Craft,” and it’s written by master flute builder and flute musician, C.S. Fuqua. The book is packed with instructional photos and explanatory text. The book shows things like how to wrap bamboo and river cane barrels with fine twine to keep the barrels from splitting. It shows how to make various chimneys, those little block thingies I referred to earlier, that sit in front of the sound hole. Why are they even needed? Aren’t they just there for decoration? Nope. In the book you’ll learn how crucial they are to the function of the flute. The book will show you how to finish the flute. Most important, the book gives you the simple math, (yes, the math is very simple), to space all the holes correctly. What was once a mystery to many that want to build a flute is no longer a mystery. Fuqua has laid it out in universal values so you will be able to build a flute in any key, from the higher register to the low C# contra bass flute. In fact, there is a special section in the book that shows how to build the contra bass. Detailed tuning charts are included, along with detailed instructions on where to drill the sound holes on any size flute as well as how to modify a sound hole to make a note sharper or flatter. (The scale must be tuned correctly or your music will sound awful.) You can tune by ear, but most builders, even seasoned professionals, use tuners. So tuners are discussed as well. There is also an in depth discussion at the book’s beginning about Native American flute myth and history. The end of the book has materials sources as well as crafter databases in both the U.S. and U.K.

The book is 137 pages long. It’s in an 8 x 10 inch format, which allows you to lay the book open at your workbench for easy access. Some instruction books are the size of a typical paperback book. This makes it difficult to keep the pages open as you try to use the book at the workbench, and diagrams in a book this size are usually quite small. “Native American Flute Craft” is not a small book. It’s convenient to use when you are actually using it as a reference at the workbench. It’s also fun to just read the many interesting topics, even if you never plan to build your own flute. The book is also available in ebook form so you can set up your iPad or other tablet at the bench.

C.S. (Chris) Fuqua is a first class flute builder and flute musician, and I’m the proud owner of many of his bamboo, pine, and PVC flutes. I play any and every kind of music imaginable on these flutes: Native American traditional; folk; country; blues, classical; gospel; jazz; meditative; sacred, and children’s music. You can play any type of music on the simple Native American flute. I love this book. It’s part of my spiritual medicine, as are my flutes. The squirrels and bunnies out back love my flute playing. 🙂

Chris Fuqua is a scholar of Native American flute myth and history. And it shows in this book. You can learn even more about this book as well as other books Chris has written, just by clicking the ‘Music Books’ tab and the ‘Books/CDs’ tab in the top menu bar. To go directly to where you can learn more about “Native American Flute Craft,” the book just discussed, click the following link—

Native American Flute Craft book

You can read a short description of many of the other projects Chris has been involved in by clicking the following link—

C.S. Fuqua info

(Scroll down to see Chris’ About Us info.)

The next blog article will discuss the musical differences between 5-hole and 6-hole NA flutes. Don’t miss it! 🙂



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The Distinct Advantages of TABLATURE

Modern Tablature

Modern Tablature

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—

How to read very old style tablature

(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.

An old book of 116 tablatures

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.


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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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Those Danged Piano Lessons!

piano-girlAs parents, we want to give our children every opportunity we can afford. I knew that’s what my parents had in mind when they insisted that both my sister and I take piano lessons. Back then most people were unaware of “tablature,” a music notation that made it much easier to learn where the notes were on an instrument. And so we learned music the traditional way; we learned to read those elliptically shaped thingies that guided us to correctly play a tune. Fine. Wonderful. But I hated piano lessons. I wasn’t overly fond of the sound of a piano. At least not then I wasn’t. But my sister loved the piano. She thrived on it. And so, as I stubbornly refused to practice, my sister welcomed the piano with open arms. The lessons paid off for her because today she’s an excellent pianist.

I eventually found my way to stringed instruments. My love for the guitar began when my dad pulled his old tenor guitar out of the closet one evening, and I was entranced when he began to strum and sing along with it. (I’ve already talked about this in a previous article.) I learned to play stringed instruments by first strumming chords and singing along. Eventually I tackled the guitar from a classical guitar point of view. That is, I used the music reading skills I’d learned in my piano lessons and applied that to the guitar. I didn’t need a parent to nag me to practice like my mother did with those piano lessons I was sure I didn’t need. I loved the guitar and devoted myself to it for some years.

I’ve given a lot of guitar lessons, but you might be surprised that I seldom put students in a formal music book. I tried that and found the students were as bored with it as I was with taking piano lessons. And so I quickly changed my tactics. Most kids (and adults!) wanted to play rock and roll. That made it easy for me. I found a book that had a load of easy bass patterns played on the lower strings of the standard guitar. The Beatles and the Animals and the Stones were big bands then. So I also taught my students patterns from their hit songs. I also taught finger-picking patterns made popular by folk musicians of the time. My students loved all this, of course. I stayed away from pressing them too hard with standard music notation. It was abstract to them, as it is to many music students when they begin to learn it. I would just play them the patterns, and then I’d have them play it over and over, hoping they’d remember it. They always did. When they would come back for that next lesson, they always had down the pattern I’d showed them the week before, ready for another. They were like baby birds, hungry for more.

Were the piano lessons I was encouraged to take as a child of any value to me? Yes. I learned where the notes were on the keyboard. I learned how chords were constructed, and I learned how that framework of notes varied in different keys. I learned about the circle of fifths. I learned where those blues notes were. I learned a lot, and I, too, was a baby bird, hungering for more. But I didn’t learn this so much from my formal piano lessons. My piano teacher had me playing very straightforward stuff, which was why I didn’t like to take lessons. But that image of the piano keyboard helped me immensely because it showed me note relationships—especially the sharps and flats on the black keys. But I didn’t dig into all those fascinating elements until after I began playing the guitar. I would often transfer my piano keyboard knowledge right onto the fretboard—especially when I was trying to figure out guitar chord fingerings on the fly. This knowledge eventually made it possible for me to start writing how-to music books. You can’t compose authentic tunes unless you know how it all fits together, musically. Even if the composition is a melody with no chords in sight, you still have an easier time of it if you “hear” the chords as you play that melody you are composing. So the piano was immensely useful to me because it gave me a music background to build on.

Do I recommend that children be forced to take piano lessons? No. Let your child make the choice. My daughter is a professional cellist, and she made this decision when she was in 7th grade. She never had a piano lesson until she went to Juilliard where they require a year of keyboard, even if they aren’t majoring in piano. It might seem like we’re spoiling our children if we let them discover their muse. But I don’t think so. If your child wants to learn to play blues harmonica, don’t force the child to take piano lessons first. If you know how to cross-harp on a Hohner Marine Band harmonica, you will know that piano lessons won’t motivate or help your child. Cross-harping the blues is a by ear thing, something that a formal music education can’t teach you. Let your kids figure out their own paths. Most music students aren’t going to end up writing how-to music books, like me. They will hopefully be playing the instrument they love just for the sheer joy of it. And that’s the way it should be. Learning how to play an instrument should not be work; it should be fun.


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The Native American DRONE flute!

Drone fluteThere is power in the drone! I’m not talking about the military drone that can wreak havoc from the sky. I’m talking about the peaceful drone note that is often used in folk music. If I would ask you to turn your mind to the bagpipe, you would probably know what I’m talking about. The drone is that steady note that doesn’t alter in pitch, while the constantly varying melody is played against the steady drone note. It’s a haunting sound. Especially when the pipes are played at funerals. Especially when they are used to play a dirge for the war veteran or the fallen cop or firefighter. Even though we think of the bagpipe as a Scottish instrument that’s of European tradition, (its origins are more complex than that), the pipes have been absorbed into American culture and are played at many American funerals and other somber and dignified events. I saw my first bagpipe up close and personal at an air show, of all places. It was a big event attended by thousands of people. But when the piper and the drummer fired up somewhere in the middle of that vast crowd, its sound cut through it all. My friends and I tracked the sound down, and this piper-drummer duo was having a great time as people gathered around them. My second experience with a live piper was when my daughter and I were visiting friends in England. A young woman, looking quite smart in her traditional piper’s garb, played up a storm at the Shakespeare festival. But the most moving experience happened right where I live. A man from my town, Scottish by lineage, learned to play the pipes. For many years he played at funerals, dedications, and military events all over the state of Iowa. That drone note was so moving it took you right down to your knees.

But the bagpipe is not the only instrument to use a drone note. You would probably be quite surprised to know that one version of the Native American flute has a drone note that is built into its physical configuration. You can see that configuration in the three-panel photo heading up this article. The drone flute is not nearly as common as the single flute barrel with its single melody. But oh lordy, drone flutes deliver a great sound! According to flute builder and flute historian Chris Fuqua of WindPoem Flutes, remnants of the drone flute have been found in the ruins of the Mayans and the Aztecs. It’s thought that this type of flute was used in religious rituals. Chris decided one day that he wanted to build a drone flute. And so he did. (The results are shown in the image that heads up this article.) When he played it for me the other day, it took me to my knees just as the piper does at a military funeral. It’s difficult to describe how this type of flute sounds, but at the end of this article I’ve provided a link to the Listen page so you can hear Chris play it.

The drone flute is the ideal meditative instrument, should you be inclined in that direction. It’s sound is magic as the powerful Pentatonic scale based melody fits beautifully against the steady and hypnotic sound of the drone. In actuality, only two notes are being played at the same time, even though it sounds much more complex than that. You don’t physically play the drone note. It’s like playing the bagpipe; the drone is just that one note. And it sounds automatically when you play a melody on the other barrel. That’s because the drone barrel has no note holes. The melody barrel has six note holes. Play the barrel with the note holes and the drone note automatically sounds with it as you play the melody.

I asked Chris if he planned to add the drone flute to his WindPoem flute line. He said he would make drone flutes only by special order. If you are interested in the drone flute, Chris’s email is on his WindPoem page. Click this link to get there. WindPoem Flutes

Click the link to hear Chris play the Drone Flute. Hear the Native American Drone Flute

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Native American Flute Types

3-FLUTESAs a fanatical player of the Native American flute, this question is often asked of me: How does the material a flute is made of affect the tone? The answer is greatly! So in this article I will talk specifics about the three major flute barrel materials. They are bamboo, wood, and PVC.

BAMBOO: I like to play the blues, so I love the rough edged sound of bamboo. I play a variety of tunes on the flutes I play, but bamboo is especially good for that intense blues sound. They also produce a great sound for meditation.

WOOD: Wood flutes have a sweeter tone and are wonderful for folk, pop, classical, and sacred music. Sacred music sounds especially beautiful because of this flute type’s smooth sound.

PVC: PVC is a high tech plastic material that makes great flutes. Like wood, they sound good with a variety of music. But I frequently use PVCs to play the blues as well.

BAMBOO PLAYING CHARACTERISTICS: All three of these flute types play quite differently. Bamboo is the more difficult flute type to play. Bamboo, by its nature, is very grainy, if one could apply the concept of “grainy” to bamboo which is not a wood but a type of grass! This graininess adds to the tone texture of this particular material. Bamboo barrels will be larger in diameter than a wood flute might be. Because of this, the column of air in the barrel might be less stable if you are new to the NAF. It’s a wonderful instrument to play, but you might have more luck with wood or PVC if you are new to the flute. Bamboo flutes can be touchy, because it doesn’t take much air to get a good sound. If you blow just a little bit too hard, you’ll get squawks, even if you have all of the holes firmly closed.

WOOD PLAYING CHARACTERISTICS: The most common material to make flutes is wood. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I’m not a big fan of cedar flutes. Cedar is probably the most common wood used and most sought after, but the tone is too sweet for my taste. When I play the blues, I want bamboo blues, not bluesy woozy blues. 🙂 Maybe I’m too hard on cedar. I certainly don’t mean to be. But there are woods that give a less sweet tone, and that makes this type of flute more flexible in playing lots of different tunes. My friend Chris Fuqua of WindPoem Flutes sends me one of his custom creations every once in awhile. He has been sending me bamboo and PVC flutes for years. Last week a pine flute came sailing through my door. It’s an F# and it sounds gorgeous. Wood flutes typically have smaller diameter barrels than bamboo flutes of the same key. The diameter of the finger holes are also less on a wood flute than on a bamboo flute. The greater barrel volume of the bamboo flute requires larger holes, something that might be of concern to someone of limited finger size, or limited hand strength or both.

PVC PLAYING CHARACTERISTICS: The ideal flute to learn to play is the PVC flute. It might not have the attractive grain you would find on a wood flute, and it might not have the folksy look of bamboo, but it’s an easy flute to play and learn on. The tone is gutsy but smooth, like a cross between a bamboo flute and a wood flute. The barrel diameter is larger than a wood flute in the same key, but finger-hole diameter is very manageable. The PVC’s consistent barrel bore makes it easy to play accurately.

You can best hear the tone difference between these three flute types in the audio demo I recorded for you. You can check this out on the LISTEN page.

I have written a variety of books on how to play the Native American flute, and each book covers different tune types. To see what they are click the MUSIC BOOKS tab.


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Playing Interpretively

Interpreting adds flair!

Interpretation adds flair!

There are two types of musical instruments. There is the electronic instrument. This would include electric guitars, and various offsprings of it. The other type of instrument is the nonelectric instrument that doesn’t depend on pickups and amps to make it go. When we play music, we can play the notes mechanically, or we can put our emotion into it to make the music live. This is how we can interpret the music. It’s rather difficult to do this with an electric guitar, because these axes are meant to rock when played. A good jazz artist can wring out real emotion from his/her electric jazz guitar. But the nonelectric instrument is much easier to manage. We call nonelectric instruments with strings acoustic instruments, as I’m sure you already know. Suppose we know how to read standard music or standard tablature. There are two ways to approach it. We can play a tune exactly as written, with an even, lockstep rhythm. This is how most popular music is played. If we have other instruments and a rhythm section playing with us, the only way to keep the band together is to play rhythmically. This is a perfectly acceptable way to play music. But there is another way. We can play directly from the heart. How do we accomplish this? We do it by varying the rhythm, varying the volume, and pausing in places to add tension. Breaking out of the strict rhythm most music seems to be played at seems counter-intuitive, but it’s a beautiful way to approach our music. And if we are playing a solo with no one else playing with us, it’s very easy to wax poetic in this interpretive way.

There are times to interpret. If you want to set a mood, if you want to take the listener along with you, if you want to illicit emotion—these are the times when you should play in an interpretive way. But most of the time you will want to play rhythmically. This doesn’t mean you can’t do a fair amount of interpreting when playing rhythmically. If you are playing your ukulele for children, you can add lots of gleeful emotion to your performance. But if you want to really wring out the tune, try freeing up your playing. It’s fun to play this way and in many ways it’s easier to play like this since you don’t have to constantly keep up with the rhythm you’re laying down.

To show you what I’m talking about, I have played the beautiful Celtic tune, “Wild Mountain Thyme” two ways for you. In the first treatment I play it through rhythmically. You can evenly count along as I play it. The second time I play it I interpret the tune in my own way. You can’t count along with it because I’ve taken too many liberties with the rhythm. Yet, my interpretive treatment works. You can listen and compare the two playing styles by clicking right here.

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The Pete Seeger Banjo Style

BanjoSoundThere are several ways to play the banjo. In fact there are many ways. If you doubt, listen to 5-string banjo master Bela Fleck. If you want to hear really great banjo, listen to Bela Fleck and his wife, Abigail Washburn. Their first album together is beyond incredible and we will be talking about this album in a future article. We expect Bela Fleck to deliver the goods, but Abigail Washburn isn’t as well known. At least she wasn’t until the release of this album. Abigail is a highly gifted clawhammer player. This is unusual, because the clawhammer style is difficult to play cleanly and requires physical dexterity I don’t possess. I favor the up-picking style or folk style of playing the banjo. Most people can learn this style. When I began giving banjo lessons some years ago I put my students into blue grass books. But these students, even though they were dead sure they wanted to learn to play the banjo, didn’t realize that the blue grass style of playing would demand considerable practice time. And so after a lesson or two they quit. This would not do! I was making part of my living giving music lessons, and I couldn’t afford to lose students. I didn’t have this quitting problem with my guitar students. The problem lay with the banjo students. More specifically, the problem lay with the blue grass technique. What to do….?

Long before I took on banjo students, I had learned the up-picking style from a Pete Seeger album titled “Darling Corey/Goofing Off Suite.” On this combination album, (available from iTunes and Smithsonian Folkways), Pete plays some searing banjo solos in this exciting style. And so I learned the style by listening to the record over and over again. Actually, I checked out the album, (acetate record), from the public library and then recorded it to cassette tape. The tape is long gone, but I eventually downloaded it from iTunes. That’s how much this single album means to me. And so, in an effort to hang onto my banjo students, I began teaching them this style. And no one quit!

The great advantage to the up-picking style is that it sounds very much like the clawhammer style. But it’s infinitely easier to play than the clawhammer style. I’ve arranged some fiddle tunes that are usually played in the clawhammer style, but I’ve arranged them in the up-picking style. If you would like to hear what this style sounds like, go to the LISTEN section of our site. Better yet, just click this link: The tune is my arrangement of “Kitchen Girl”. Chris Fuqua plays guitar on this one, and he plays some interesting single-string figures against my banjo playing. It’s pretty danged rocky and rolly, I must say. 🙂

NOTE: The arrangement for “Kitchen Girl” can be found in my book, 5-String Banjo, Hot and Wild! To learn more about that book, click the link:


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