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The Hazards of Tablature

Posted by SimonSlick on Tuesday, May 23, 2017

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I recently posted a forum topic of “Throw Away the Tabs and Listen” which received a reception almost as positive as the proverbial foreign object in the punch bowl.

This is intended to continue the statement of my objections to tabs and reasoning for same.

            1. Tab does not identify the melody. Perhaps there are some tabs that identify the melody, but I have never seen one. To be fair, I will say I have not tried to learn something from tab in 40 plus years, so perhaps the methodology has improved.

            2. Tabs are commonly wrong. I have no doubt that many tabs are totally accurate in visually depicting how someone else plays a particular song. At the same time I have seen some that are so wrong that they would actually hinder someone from learning the song, rather than assist.

            3. Tabs lead to uninspired music. Tabs promote mechanical memorization, i.e. play this string with this finger while fretting this string at x fret with this finger, and impede musical creativity. The musician is memorizing the mechanics of a chart rather than creating the mechanics to achieve a melody.

            Performances of memorized tabs tend to be flat and mechanical. All of the notes may be there, and they may be played in the precise order as shown, but the performance tends to sound like a midi file rather than a musician playing a song created by inspiration.

            4. Tabs do not foster and promote the hearing of music. Hearing is by far the most important skill that a musician possesses. After all, how many times have you set back and enjoyed looking at a good tab or piece of sheet music? Music is heard. The effort and struggle to find the note or the interval is not a bad thing – it is a good thing for the simple reason that it trains and exercises the skill of hearing.  

            For some, a tab is the only way to learn to play a tune. For whatever reason they cannot hear a song and find it on a fingerboard. That is unfortunate. For some tab is a short-cut or a crutch.

            I prefer music from the heart and soul and not from a piece of paper. All birth is painful, but with that pain comes the delivery of something authentic and inspired.  

4 comments on “The Hazards of Tablature”

Banjo Lefty Says:
Tuesday, May 23, 2017 @12:41:20 PM

I almost agree with you. Players who rely on tab, or on sheet music, for that matter, to the exclusion of their ear, end up with uninspired performances. Learning from tab, however, is a whole other thing, and I don't think you should be so quick to condemn those who do. I could never learn to play a Scott Joplin rag on piano, for example, without reading the sheet music first -- there's just too much going on. Oh, sure, I could pick out the melody line just by ear, but actually learning the thing requires the written music. Banjo isn't all that different: there's a lot going on in bluegrass that you just don't get from listening. If you've got such a well-developed ear, advanced technique, and an extensive vocabulary of licks to draw on that you don't need or want tab, then good for you. But different strokes, as they say. I for one fall into the catagory or learning from tab, memorizing the tab, then throwing the tab away, so that I can then improvise some variations. There are many paths up that mountain.

Richard Hauser Says:
Friday, May 26, 2017 @7:36:48 AM

When learning a new tune, I think it is best to listen to and familiarize yourself with the melody before attempting to learn to play a tune. People have different skills and goals, so different methods can be used to learn a tune. Using tab lets a player develop a "library" of commonly used licks. But, reading standard musical notation for a lick makes it easier to study what is being done musically, and adapt the idea to other musical keys.

IMHO, natural talent, playing environment, and dedication determines how well someone plays an instrument. I have encountered too many excellent self taught banjo players who learned by ear. Tabs can help, but they are not a necessity.

Finally, I don't think learning a tune from tab or notation causes uninspiring performances. Natural talent and dedication are major factors. Some people have it and some people don't.

bruce7 Says:
Monday, June 5, 2017 @6:06:21 AM

I understand what you are saying, very good points in your article, I enjoyed reading it. For myself I can read tabs and music only VERY haltingly so rely on my ear. I do agree though it is difficult to hear everything that sometimes goes on in a tune this way so sometimes you can go astray. However even this can lead to some interesting variations on tune purely by being 'misheard'. I've often looked up tunes on YOUTUBE and been amazed by how different sounding different peoples versions of the same tune are?

Fathand Says:
Monday, August 14, 2017 @6:48:57 AM

1. Tabs do usually identify the melody, you have to read the part where the tell you how the instrument is tuned, sometimes elsewhere in a book of tabs. Same issue can exist in notation if the key signature is missing as I see from time to time.
2. Notation can also be commonly wrong, learning by ear can be wrong too.
3. Notation also leads to uninspired music. Some of the most boring performances I have seen were of someone staring at their music stand playing note by note what they read there, this is even worse than having memorized note for note. I rarely see tab players try to perform from reading a tab. The few people who actually try to perform a tab note for note usually memorize it so they have a little chance to add some feeling to it.
4. Notation does not promote hearing any more than tab. Look at a note then press this key on your piano or piano or clarinet. Tab at least shows you which chord position you would be using to get the feel of the tune. And yes, I can read a tab and have a rough idea how the tune might sound. I can't do that with notation although some people can.

My point is, tab is no better or worse than notation both have their places. We need methods to transcribe music to paper or other media so that people can learn music. We do not all have access to a friend, relative or teacher that can show us how to play what we want to play. New players do not usually have enough ear to learn on their own and can become frustrated and quit before they would learn by trial and error.

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