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Whither tablature?

Posted by corcoran on Wednesday, January 20, 2010

There has been a flood to tabs posted to BHO lately, and I confess that I have contributed my fair share.  Why am I doing this?  (I can’t speak for the others who have posting tabs.  Let them get their own durned blogs).

Let me start by saying that I am ambivalent about tablature, at least as a tool for teaching the banjo.  On the one hand, tab is a helpful shortcut, a way of capturing the essence of a tune, break, or roll, and conveying it quickly and efficiently.  And with TablEdit, at least, the student has the option of hearing the music, by invoking the MIDI function.  However, we all know of players who complain of being too dependent on tab, of it stifling their spontaneity and improvisation, of it leaving them without a clear understanding of the music.  That’s right, brothern and sistern, I am talking about TAB ADDICTION, that dreaded scourge that is talked about in hushed tones behind closed doors with the shades drawn.

Well, there’s a lot to the concept of over-dependence on tablature.  Look, in the early 1960s I learned how to play Scruggs style banjo (which I prefer to call “North Carolina 3-finger style,” because Earl Scruggs did not have, and never claimed to have, a monopoly on it), back before there was any tab to speak of.  All I really had in the way of tab was a couple of tunes transcribed in Pete Seeger’s “How to Play the Five-String Banjo,” which in retrospect were perhaps not terribly accurate.  By the time the Scruggs/Keith book came out in 1968, I had painfully worked out most of Earl’s recorded breaks by ear, by taping albums on a reel-to-reel recorder and then slowing them down so that I could figure out what he and others were playing note for note.  I did it by holding the microphone up to the speaker from the stereo (when it was in stereo) – no direct input to the recorder for this kid, oh no.  As I like to tell my children, it was not low-tech, it was no-tech.  Anyhow, working out the banjo style that way forced me not only to spend a lot of time groping around the fingerboard to find the notes, but also to work on timing and dynamics in my playing, until I reached the point where I convinced myself that I sounded just like Earl or Eric Weissberg or Bill Keith or Don Reno or whoever.  It is axiomatic to note that in the process, I also developed my ear in a way that never would have happened if I had learned from tablature.

So I think the way to sharpen up your general musical skills, in addition to the learning that is specific to the 5-string banjo, is to do by ear as much as possible.  I did it that way; therefore it must be right.  Now, most of my banjo students through the years have not had either the motivation or probably the time to devote the learning 3-finger style by ear.  If they had the time and incentive to do so, they probably would not have taken lessons from me.  Hence although I have reservations about shoving tab at them, I do so because a). they want it, and b). it saves a lot of time.  I guess I will continue to take the easy way out.  It is one of those compromises that keep life interesting.

Thus for years I have been tabbing out other people’s tunes and, in many cases, my own breaks or original tunes.  Teaching is part of my motivation for doing so.  But recently I have also been considering my own mortality, and it occurs to me that I do not live in a particularly bluegrass-intensive part of the world, and people around these parts are generally unaware of how I play or arrange pieces on the banjo.  Hence much of the banjo work I have done would disappear if I had a heart attack or slipped on the ice and fell under a moving bus or was kidnapped by visitors from another galaxy for the purposes of weird anatomical experiments.  This has led me to post a number of sound files on BHO and, in increasing numbers, my tabs of various tunes and songs.  It is my hope, or perhaps my delusion, that somebody will actually pay attention to some of this material, learn from it, and incorporate the good ideas – to the extent that there are any good ideas – into his or her playing.  We’ll see.

5 comments on “Whither tablature?”

herb Says:
Wednesday, January 20, 2010 @10:25:35 PM

I've only been playing for about 4 or 5 years now, which is long enough (for me at least) to have a descent handle on playing tabs or playing somewhat accurately by ear, but I really dont see too much of a differance in the two. In both cases youre studying the exact (or neerly exact) notation and style of the artist whos playing. In neither situation are you adding personal touch to it, unless by accident, the fact is its the same thing with the exception of one being a heck of a lot less convienient. I can get the whole Bela Fleck discography mastered to the note, but when its all said and done, I still wouldnt have much of a musical personality of my own, and I darn sure wouldnt be Bela Fleck. As far as I can see, theres only one way to grow as an artist and refine individual style, and thats to take a chord progression and build it into your own style, otherwise all we can do is stand on the backs of genius' and wait for there latest hits to come out. I'm personally not far passed step one, but thats the way I've always looked at it.

corcoran Says:
Saturday, January 23, 2010 @1:38:28 PM

Of course I agree that one needs to develop one's own style and to progress beyond copying others. Most of us start out by copying the masters, but if we are to become good players we indeed have to go beyond mere copying. As I emphasized in my initial comments, however, there is an important difference between learning from tab and learning by listening, and that is that the latter sharpens your ear for music in general.

Furthermore, an even more profound difference is that learning by ear involves ACTIVE learning (sorry for the capitalization, but on this site there does not seem to be a way to use italics for emphasis), whereas learning from tabs is, in my view, more a type of PASSIVE learning. Decades of research on learning make it clear that active learning is far superior to passive learning, that introducing one's self and imposing one's own interpretations into the learning process enrich what is learned. A common example is that we usually learn a route more quickly and in greater detail if we drive, cycle, or walk it ourselves (active learning), as compared to being driven or cycled as a passenger or I suppose being carried piggy-back (passive learning).

Nonetheless, you are quite correct that learning how Earl Scruggs, or Bill Keith, or Bela Fleck plays a bunch of tunes is not in itself sufficient to make one a great banjo player. But if you have reached the point of figuring out they play those tunes note for note, you are certainly better equipped to go on and develop your own ideas and style than you would be if you had not.

herb Says:
Saturday, January 23, 2010 @9:45:39 PM

Touche, my friend...just kidding :)

I see what youre saying, and it makes a lot of sense. I hadn't considered the active versus passiver learning styles when reading your original post, but now that you mention it, I can definatly see how putting in the effort to discover patterns and understand the flow yourself could be very advantageous over reading the numbers right off the paper. Anyway, you've got me convinced! I'm gonna start to play by ear, or at least try like hell to, and with your permission, I'd like to start with your song, "Sawmill River Parkway", then maybe we have one of them fancy video jam sessions that I keep hearing about here on the BHO. Let me know what you think, and happy pickin'!

~Adam 'Herb' LeClair

corcoran Says:
Sunday, January 24, 2010 @7:22:32 AM

Go for it, Herb. I would be honoured if you tackle one of my tunes.


herb Says:
Tuesday, January 26, 2010 @8:28:56 AM

Alright, thank you very much! I'll be honest with you though, this may take a while. :]

Adam 'Herb' LeClair

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