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The Unfair Trial of Tabs

Posted by thetexan on Tuesday, July 14, 2009

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So much ado is made concerning the place tablature has in any attempt at learning the banjo.  To tab or not to tab, that is the question.  Whether tis nobler in the mind to purchase a Murphy Henry tape or to become a improvisationally impaired clone of whose ever tab one chooses to learn. 

The debate rages and rages and endlessly, mercilessly, rages, ad nauseum.  Learning from tab will create a player incapable of improv, creativity or self-expression, the critics say.

Poppycock!  Balderdash! Horsepuckies!

Learning from tab WILL NOT create a mimic, monkey see-monkey do, parroting, robotic player incapable of improvising or thinking on your feet!

What WILL create a clone player incapable of improvisation is stopping with the tab, which is what most amateur players do.

Most new players want to turn themselves into a banjo player overnight by learning a cool song from tab.  Then when they learn it, they perform it, to the ooo's and aaahh's of the audience and they fantasize that they have become a banjo player.  Right up to time they sit in with other, more mature players in a jam setting.  Then they get slapped in the face with the harsh reality of their rank improficiency.  Then guess what?  In an effort to find something to blame for this embarassment they point to the evil tab!  "If only I hadn't learned from tabs, this wouldn't happen to me!  What am I doing wrong? Can anyone tell me the answer to the age old question 'should I learn from tabs or by ear?' "

Then, usually, in the process of answering THAT question, tabs get villified, Murphy Henry sells more tapes and no one gets to the root problem of the issue.

And that is...why do new players who learn songs from tab become clones, mimics and improvisationally challenged?  It's a three part answer.

1.  They mistake their ability to perform a mechanically memorized song with mastery of the banjo.

2.  This false sense of accomplishment reduces or eliminates the perceived need to actually study and master the banjo.

3.  As a result the player only ever becomes superficially aquainted with the instrument periodically being reminded how inadaquate his banjo abilities really are.  These encounters with reality almost never result in a true epiphany as to the remedy to their problem.  Instead most players in this condition soothe their frustration by playing one of their memorized songs, again convincing themselves that they must actually be good when, in fact, they are far, far, far from it.

It must be the tabs ! ! !

No.  What it IS is a lack of guidance, determination, methodology, experimentation, systemized study, and.....wait for it........practice.

Let me list those again along with the other ways of learning...

Methodical study
Systematic study by plan or syllabus
Murphy Henry
Homespun Tapes
Watching someone demonstrate
Learning by listening

Since these are all part of a cohesive learning plan why would anyone believe that by simply using would become a proficient banjo player? 

You can't and you won't.

There is nothing at all wrong with learning as many songs as you want by tabs.  It is folly, however, to rely on tablature for your banjo training or to believe that by stopping there you will become a master of the instrument.

Another way of stating the answer is this.  Read this carefully.  If one were to only learn from tab, let's say 100 songs, and one discovers that he is improvisationally incompetent and knows, really, very little about the banjo,  IT IS NOT BECAUSE HE LEARNED 100 SONGS FROM TABS.  IT IS BECAUSE HE FAILED TO STUDY HIS INSTRUMENT WITH THE INTENT OF LEARNING ITS INTRICACIES AND BECOMING ITS MASTER BY PURSUING AN IN-DEPTH, SYSTEMATIC, THOROUGH STUDY OF THE BANJO!


Do not fall into the trap of being fooled into thinking that learning a song by rote (and there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself) means you are moving yourself along the path of competently mastering the banjo.  You are not.  Learning a song by tab is not intended to teach you how to play the banjo, or how to improvise.  It is intended to teach you that rote.  The problem is that many players, especially new players incorrectly assign this unwarrented attribute to tabs and then blame their use when they fail to actually become proficient, competent players due, rather, entirely to their failure to methodically study and practice the instrument.

Tabs are only what they are, a written archive of someone's intellectual thoughts as to how to play a particular song.  Nothing else.  However, as such, they are a treasure trove of hidden nuggets of banjo mastery from the minds of many great players.  And,the study of these give insight into the minds and creativity of others who HAVE mastered their instrument.  But even this last statement presumes a STUDY of those jewels. 

And there, at last, is the real crux of the issue.  It isnt tabs versus Murphy or 'by ear'.  It's lazy vs. work.  It's banjo vs. TV.  It's determination vs. complacency.  It's mediocrity vs. mastery. 

There is no great debate!  There is only determinded study, work, and practice.........or a lot of conversation.



6 comments on “The Unfair Trial of Tabs”

joemac Says:
Tuesday, July 14, 2009 @12:13:30 PM

great blog Dave, bang on..Joe

gkuchan Says:
Tuesday, July 14, 2009 @12:52:47 PM

 Very well put, sir!

Wills Creek Says:
Tuesday, July 14, 2009 @1:11:56 PM

Just when I was at my wits end and frustrated as I can be along comes this blog and inspires me to keep plugging along  Nice information and some thoughts that I never even thought of.


PruchaLegend Says:
Tuesday, July 14, 2009 @2:46:00 PM

If tab is so bad I guess...

it is wrong to read should make up the stories yourself.

it is wrong to watch should make them yourself

it is wrong to hum or sing a popular should write them yourself.

it is wrong to read scientific or engineering should develop the science and technology yourself.

it is wrong....well, I think you get the idea!!!

Great blog!! :-)

Drivingforce Says:
Friday, July 17, 2009 @2:34:20 PM


This is is exactly right!   After a couple of years playing by tab, I finally came to the realization that I was not a banjo player...a crushing feeling...however, that was the time I began preparing to become one.

Banjo is like your golf game, you can lie about being a great player,  but the truth comes out when you actually start to play! 

JMalmsteen Says:
Saturday, November 26, 2011 @3:36:11 AM

Great blog.

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