Tuesday 12 January 2010

Tabs...are they good for you?

Tabs are like a bag of lollies. No, wait, tabs are like a bowl of rice. You couldn't live solely on bags of lollies, but you could live on bowls of rice - but a diet of rice alone is not a great diet.

But like lollies, tabs are fast, easy, instant gratification; they pep you up, make you happy and give you quick energy...but there is no real nutrition. Life doesn't have to be all about nutrition though does it? Can't we just enjoy ourselves from time to time?

The beginner guitarist is at a critical stage; I wouldn't like to put a number on it, but out of all the people who have said to me "I'd like to be able to play the guitar" and then I've shown them a few things, and push them in the right direction, lent them a guitar - so far zero have continued to pursue it. And no, I don't think it is me ;)

Playing guitar is a bit of a glamourous looking pursuit, to see a guitarist "rockin' out" looks like the most fun you could have standing up...but it represents *a lot* of practise, frustration and sweat to achieve that. So in the early days it is either immediate results - or a heck of a lot of persistence - that keeps the interest going. You need those immediate results to get past the initial hurdle.

That's where tabs come in. They are easy to learn (search wikipedia for "tablature", it's a good primer) - and tabs give you immediate results. The first thing a guitarist needs is be shown how to play the riff to "Smoke on the Water" or something really easy that they can suceed with and inspires them. Learn three chords and then be able play about a million songs. Hook them in with the easy stuff, then show them how to find tabs.

But tabs shouldn't last forever. Learning by ear, working things out by yourself, being able to sight read from music score, learning scales by rote, music theory, composing your own music - these sorts of things will round you out as a guitarist and musician.

Once you have the guitar bug for life, tabs in fact will start to feel tedious. I still refer to tabs as a reference or a starting point; however I now dislike rote learning a song from a tab. You are wondering why I generally tab out all my arrangements then aren't you? Quick answers: it's a tool for me to nut out and write down what I'm thinking during the arrangement process which often takes weeks of small increments - in fact sometimes I type stuff into powertab to see what it sounds like, before attempting to play it! - often I forget stuff if I haven't played it for a while but a quick glance at the tab gets me back on track - I like to share my stuff with the world and have people enjoy it, and then play it back to me with their own changes and twists that I never considered!

So yes, tabs are good for you, but everything in moderation - do something too much and it will stop being good for you. It's true of much in life.



  1. JAW, I could not agree more. I have lent guitars and tried to help people get started, but now I just encourage people, but sit back and say "You're own curiosity and desire will dictate how far you go with this."
    I also agree that tab helped me get going in the early days, I also still use it, but ultimately larger goals and curiosities drive me to be a better musician and not just guitarist with the things that you mentioned...sight reading, improving your ear, etc.
    I am glad you started this blog. The way you have shared your arrangements is already so helpful and this is now a very insightful addition to the resources you have already put out there.
    Keep ramblin! --John

  2. Hey JMD, sounds like we are thinking along the same lines! It's funny, I started this blog because I had a whole lot of stuff that I needed to ramble on about, with no-one to ramble to, so I thought I'd talk into the internet and see if anyone listened. Not many people are listening, but I've found the people that do pipe up such as yourself have similar experiences and thoughts as mine.

    Originally I thought I could ramble in forums to generate discussion with like-minded people, and tried, but it just didn't work out as I thought. Hence switching to a blog, which although a one-sided conversation gave me the venting I needed.

    The other interesting aspect of my ramblings is that everytime I'm quite sure I have said everything I wanted to say some topic pops up that I have an opinion about and generates yet another blog entry...okay, yeah, I have an opinion about everything ;)

    Anyway, I'm just about blogging in this reply! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I wrote a long comment, then must have hit the wrong key and next thing the tab was closed! So here I'm writing it again, but shorter.

    I'm glad you write this kind of articles, Jaw, sometimes I wouldn't not necessarly think of writing about these topics, then your article comes along, and I'm like 'damnit! I can say many things about that!', so I write a comment here instead.

    For me, tabs are just like music scores. Of course, reading music comes from an old tradition, and it is a highly respected skill...but ultimately it is the same. On the piano, you only have one possible key on the keyboard for one given note, so reading a score is exactly like using a tab for the guitar, it tells you specifically which key to press.
    On the guitar, using a score instead of a tab is just one short level beyond, that of being able to find the notes on the fretboard (and choosing the right string to play that note so it's convenient and playable). But it's no different.

    So if not using scores/tabs, what are the other ways?
    As you mention, playing by ear, and arranging (either adapting or composing). The latter implies that you have some theory, knowing how to use the underlying chord structure (and scales if playing jazz).

    As for playing by ear, I see it on two levels:

    - finding the chords and melody by ear, from there the normal arranging process comes into play

    - transcribing the whole tune, note for note, without necessarly having to understand the theory behind it (not even having to know the chords). This is similar to using a tab/score, but using a different tool, the ear, instead of the eye, that tells you which notes to play. And much more gratifying. After a lot of practice, you may find that the easiest way to remember an arrangement which you've forgotten some parts is not having it written down, but just giving it a new listening, when hearing the notes is just like seeing them written down, whether it is an original piece of music, or your own arrangement (that you have not tabbed or scored, but recorded as a reference instead). I was kind of there in my late teens when playing the piano, but it's a skill that comes and goes.

    Finally, my comment is at least as long as the one I originallly wrote.

  4. What could be more frustrating than writing up a big response and then losing it? I developed the superstitious habit of pressing ctrl-A ctrl-C (ie select all copy to clipboard) before I press submit on any web based text entry...or like what I'm doing now, typing this into notepad to later paste into the form. I just don't trust those web forms! ;)

    Anyway, we are still in agreement. I get just a tiny little bit purist about music score over tab; a tab is a program for sequencing your guitar fingers, whereas a score is the language and grammar of music. But that's the point - tab is about getting you going, getting you passionate about the guitar; the rest can come later!

    You are right about re-listening to an arrangement you are rusty on rather than referring back to the tab - once I have tabbed something up and posted it on the web, I never look at it again. Worse case I will listen to my youtube recording if I need a primer. I think the only reason I am making tabs these days is for the internet :)

    Hmm, I've gotta work out how to subscribe to your blog so I get emailed when you add an entry...why have wordpress made it hard for me to do so?!


  5. It's true that I learned how to read music when I was 7, so I may not realize how a burden it can be to have to learn that when all you want is to get going, play your first riff (although thinking about it now I do realize it). On the other hand, the concept of tabs can be understood in about... 1 minute. But essentially, scores and tabs have the same function, that's what I meant.

    I believe that subscribing to my blog is possible by subscribing to the newsletter (there's a box for that on the right) and that you then receive an email when I post a new entry. Of course you won't receive a newsletter as I will never write any.

    But I've also just added the RSS feed, some may be interested, personnally I've never subscribed to any RSS as I don't use any reader. Being informed by email is nice though, well Jaw, I've just noticed that option to tick, just below this text box, 'Notify me of new posts via email', so much simpler, but what's the difference then with subscribing to the blog in that box top right? Anyway, ticked!

  6. After asking you about subscribing, not only did I work out how to subscribe to your blog (yeah, it was pretty obvious) but also how to add a button to my one so that people can subscribe to mine!

    Yep, getting an email to say "there is something to have a look at" is the best way to keep track.

    Snap - I learnt to read treble clef when I was 7 also. Must be a good age to learn how to read music score :)

  7. I learned how to read clef when I was 10, but that was on the saxophone. I still have no idea what note is on any bar for the guitar and I've been playing off and on for 10 years now. (i still remember the sax notes though :) )Anyway I never took the time to learn where any single string note is on the guitar. I never learned any scales either. Now I certainly regret it. I should go ahead and learn it but I'm spending all of my time learning JAW's FS stuff :) When I can pull myself away from this FS (still very new to me) I will certainly give that my attention. I was going to start on that thumb independence piece, .... The more I learn, the more I realize how hacky and messed up the way I learned how to play the guitar was. But it will be remedied.

  8. I don't think there is such a thing as a hacky way to learn the guitar, you'll be pleased to know. You overcame the only true hurdle, and that is hanging in there. Most people when attempting to learn the guitar give up because it is too hard.

    Once you're in, it's more like choose your path. I think that it's useful to get some initial direction from someone who knows what they are doing, like how to hold a guitar, how to read treble clef - but I wouldn't say it is totally essential.

    I've spent most of my time being hacky, apart from the initial classical training (which happened before I was even a teenager, but it is still all there. Wonderful, those formative years, push your kids! ;)) For instance, I am only vaugely aware of different scales, and my ability to improvise is terrible - I've got no skills in those areas. I've focussed waaay too heavy on rote song learning in fingerstyle...but I don't see that as a bad thing. Especially if you are enjoying yourself.

    What I think happens with all hacky guitarists is they eventually, throughout life, try on a bit of everything, bringing skills from previous styles to the next style. At the bitter end they have probably reached the title "well-rounded guitarist" :)