A bit about musical notation, specifically tab.

So, as I was imbibing my early morning creativity booster, I read through my messages and responded to some. I read everything people send, but I don’t always respond – because I sometimes can’t think of anything to say.

Today, I had someone ask me a pretty good question in a private message. I’d share it, but it was specifically marked private – and I don’t need to share it in order to get today’s article done.

But, it’s from their message that I got the idea to write this article. I’m gonna tell you about musical notation.

Tab, sometimes ‘tablature’ or ‘tabulature’ has a pretty neat history.

When someone looks down on you guitarists for reading tab, just smile and say that at least your not the bass player!

More seriously, just ignore ’em and realize that they speak from a place of ignorance! And, I’m gonna teach you why!

Hmm… This is the shortest intro that I’ve written in a while. I’m pretty much done with the intro. This feels wrong! (I’ve written like 160,000 words for this site. I have a lot of words.)

Yeah… So, I’m pretty much done with this intro. I’m not sure how that happened.

Musical Notation.

First, if you want to be a good guitarist you should know tab and you should know something called ‘standard musical notation.’

Let’s establish a few facts. Stand back, TheBuddha’s gonna try to explain this!

For starters, what we call “standard musical notation” is probably only due our education being Western-dominant. It doesn’t even, in its current form, have a very long history.

For the purposes of this article, I will be discussing Western music. If you want a grand mind-fuck, look at some music to the East. So, we’re just gonna stick with the West, it’s far more applicable and I know it better.

Music, like stories, was passed by sharing it directly with other people, by example. It was pretty terrible, to be quite frank about it.

Then, some monks wanted to pass around chants. This was actually not too bad. See, monks used to meander around to different abbeys. This was all well and good and much monk joy was had.

But, some serious monkage caught on and, pretty soon, they wanted other religious people to be able to hear a choir.

Initially, these were for everybody singing in the same note. This was, for the most part, pretty easy to pass around.

So, you’d have a bunch of dudes up there chanting in the same pitch. This was pretty fucking boring. Regular non-monk people were pretty devout and willing to tolerate this, even though it sucked.

Given non-monk music, at the time, it wasn’t very interesting. It sure as shit didsn’t contain a bitchin’ solo and it was frequently in Latin.

Someone once said, and we’re not exactly sure who, “This blows donkey dick. We need to add a second voice, in harmony with the first voice.”

This was actually nothing new, but now it was monk chants taken to the choir. So, it has the force or religion and the might of severe penalties if one didn’t pretend they liked this awful single-tone, boring-ass chanting.

So, the people pretended they liked it, and this went on for quite a long time. It actually took ’em a little while before they said, “You know, maybe we can harmonize and stuff?”

Much merriment was had, and pretty soon those creative bastards went and added a second voice. Then, they just went batshit crazy and kept adding voices.

You can find choral works for many, many different voices.

It’s pretty much like one of ’em said, “Hey, let’s add a voice.” This was a good idea, so they just kept on adding more and more of ’em. Seriously, there are choral works that are pretty damned complicated.

Now, sending this complex stuff from church to church posed a problem.

Before, you could send one monk with a reasonably good memory. Now, you’ve got like 100 people up there singing a merry tune. It’s a logistics problem – and they kept adding more voices.

Here’s an example of a classic that’s actually not too complicated. I think this is only four or six people. My ears are only so good and the page doesn’t tell me.

Which, if you stop and think about it, pretty much means they applied my “bitchin’ solo theory” to voices, and much rejoicing was had.

Well, monks also wrote stuff down. Equally important, ’cause the west hadn’t yet figured out the printing press, they’d copy shit down.

Someone wanted to send music to other people, or write down how it was supposed to be sung. This was also not a new idea, but it’s the idea that you’re most familiar with.

Oh, I should probably tell you that there’s a ton of different musical notations. You should probably be aware of that. Seriously, there is a bunch and I’m not actually going to urge people to try to learn them all. I do, however, think guitarists should know about this and learn more about them if they need to.

We are just concerning ourselves with two. That is Standard Musical Notation and Tab. There’s a lot more to it than just those two.

Anyhow, it took ’em until sometime in the 1,200s to figure this out. They have mucked with it quite a bit since. It’s had quite an expansion since printing methods have improved, instrumentation added, and all that stuff.

It happens… However, you’re going to have a hard time if you want to go back and read the old monk writing and see what they were doing. You can learn it, but I don’t actually recommend it.

You should know Standard Music Notation.

You should also know tab. Good tab comes with both Standard Musical Notation and the Guitar Tab.

Yup… There are more than one types of tab. In fact, there’s a fuckton.

Tab isn’t the only thing you’ll use. If you want to be a country music star, you should probably learn the Nashville Numbering System – and definitely should, if you want to play in a studio.

Tab isn’t just for guitar. Shit… Let’s go back to finish my story…You’ll see…

It wasn’t much later, right about the year 1,300 that someone said, “Fuck this shit. I’ve got a different idea.” (Notice, I did not say “better.”)

And, he set about writing tablature. That comes from a Latin word that means tabulate – to put it into a chart or, you guessed it, a table. This was probably not actually a new idea, but we’re gonna run with it.

The first tab was actually for organ music.

Yup… The first tab was not actually for stringed instruments. We stringed instruments saw it and felt that it was an awesome way to tell people how to play our bitchin’ solos. We straight up stole it.

And there was much rejoicing.

The guitar, in its current form, hadn’t actually been invented. We come much later in the story.

So, merry bands of bards tooled around, dressed up to be in minstrel galleries, and singing bawdy tunes for drunk people. Wouldn’t it be awesome if they could share their music and sell the notation? Of course it would! That way, they can share the joys of a bitchin’ solo – or make money. Even back then, musicians were mostly broke bastards.

Either way, there’s tab for tons of other instruments. You don’t need to learn them, unless you intend to play them. Still, you should know the history – so you can fend off sneering accusations.

Tab notation is pretty old and a fine system, capable of complex notation, and has as rich a history.

Today, there’s only formal tab for a handful of instruments. There’s even tab for harmonica!

There’s also a critter called “drum tab” which means pretty much what you’re thinking. It’s tab for drummers. That gets its own category and this is not the site to get into that. I’m not sure you need to be familiar with it – but let’s just say that you might need to explain it to someone who told you that they’re a drummer.

That’s not a joke. You might really need to inform them that such exists and that it’d be really cool if they’d maybe learn it and use it.

I am pretty sure the first stringed instrument to make use of tab was the lute, at least in Europe. I don’t think anyone can say so and have great confidence in saying it’s certainly so. But, it seems probable.

It’d eventually get used for other stringed instruments and then the guitar would come along – which we’ll tell the history of someday – and music for the guitar would be written in both tab and standard.

Most tab isn’t really that good. It’s good enough – but you also will want to be able to check some things with the standard notation. You may wish to double check things like note duration. Timing is usually given in the top, as well as any time changes noted in the middle. They’re often broken into measures. But, you may want to be able to check with the standard notation above.

Also, tab is rife with errors.

Seriously… I’ve seen tab tell me to do things that were physically impossible – and I’m pretty adept. I’ve seen tab that I know, without a doubt, is not what the original artist played in the studio.

It’s at this point where I make a choice. Do I leave the historical record, such as it is, or do I play it faithful to the most official source.

I’d guess that I stick with the tab, a good 90% of the time. Why? Because we have a whole band working from that same notation. It’s not just me.

Sometimes, the original artist will do things that I believe are a mistake – and they’ll even have a real mistake in their studio cut. If I’m being fancy, I’ll even try to replicate that. I’m not usually trying to be that fancy, by the way.

But, tab is pretty easy to learn and conveys some information that standard notation does not convey. It explicitly tells you where to place your fingers and what to do once you’ve accomplished that feat.

If you read enough tab, you will get good enough at it to sight read.

What’s that? Well, it means I can play guitar pretty much as quickly as I can read the tab – and it’s pretty damned quick. I can usually read and play faster than what the tempo calls for.

Is this a skill you should learn? Absolutely. It is something you should (eventually) practice and continue to work on. It’s definitely one of those skills that you’ll continue to improve throughout your life.

Should you sight read standard notation? There, it gets a little tricky.

On a guitar, there’s something like an average of three places to play a specific note. It’s not like a piano. No, it’s not even remotely like a piano.

Let me steal an image for you… One sec…

I blatantly stole this image, just for you!

That doesn’t even cover alternate tunings – that’s just the standard tuning. The easy way to remember it is, “No sharps between B and C, and no sharps between E and F.” From just those two rules, you can draw a diagram of the notes – for any tuning.

Eventually, you’ll just know ’em all.

But, sight reading standard notation and playing guitar is EXCEPTIONALLY difficult. I can’t do it. I should be able to, but I can’t.

I could probably pick that skill up – and I would have, had I stuck with classical guitar longer. I can go along pretty quickly, but I may need a half-dozen play-throughs to really be able to play that piece while reading it. It may even require more, depending on the complexity.

I think it’s a skill worth having, but it’s just never reached the point where I’ve had both time and inclination to get good at it. Instead, I can read tab well enough so that I can keep a sort-of eye on the standard notation that’s above it. And, from that, I might notice a difference and stop.

I may also read through the standard notation before I learn the tab. It really depends on the complexity and how familiar I already am with the work.

I don’t know how far you want to take that.

That skill varies greatly among musicians. If you want something to measure against, that’s where I have taken it.

Where you go, is entirely up to you. You can learn a dozen chords and play by ear. It’s your guitar. You can play it any way you want to.

You can pick out and play lead by ear. It may not be right, but it’s your guitar and you can play it any way you want.

Some people do just fine without learning any of it.

But, as I’ve mentioned before, they’re far less likely to make money at it – in my observations. For every professional musician that can’t read music, there’s like a million people who also can’t read a lick of music that are not professional musicians.

I’m a man of sound first principles!

So, with great bias, I suggest you learn both standard and tab. I even suggest you learn to sight read standard. (I’m not going to listen to my own suggestion, but I am certainly going to suggest that you do so.)

I do, after all, want you to be better than I am. Someday, I want to put you on the list of guitarists that are better than Hendrix. I want you to see the wide open subject that is music, and dig into it with a zeal for education. I want you to be as passionate, if not more, than I am. I want your quest to take you places that you never thought you’d be. I want you to make up for the hours that I didn’t practice, and to take it even further.

I don’t want to be the end of your educational journey. I want me to be the beginning of a grand adventure of discovery and advancement.

That is my ulterior motive. I want you to ask me questions for which I do not have the answers. I want you to make me say, “I don’t know.” I then want you to go figure it out and come back and tell me.

And, the start of that journey is (quite probably) learning to read musical notation, of at least two varieties – standard and tab. It’ll also help you convey your questions more clearly. It has benefits and doesn’t need to be done with rapidity in order to still be useful. Like muscle memory for your fingers, your speed will improve with time and practice.

If you’re curious, I’ve often told students to ‘figure it out.’ Suffice to say, I haven’t had many students. But, it really does work best when you have a good foundation and can then use that to figure it out. (No sharps between B and C, and no sharps between E and F.)

Anyhow, that’s enough about musical notation. Now, you know some facts and some history. You’ll know that “just” being able to read tab isn’t a bad thing. You’ll know that reading both is even more difficult than any of those keyboard players have to learn. You’ll know how far you can take it. You’ll be able to decide where you want it to take you.

It’s up to you, but it’s a grand adventure – and it never stops. There’s so much more. You have Eastern music, music from other cultures, countless genres, and many periods of music. Then, there’s even guitars with any number of strings – with some going as high as 42 and 57! Then, there’s microtonal guitars that let you put the frets in nearly infinite positions!

Yeah! Think about that! You can put the frets anywhere you damned well please! (It’s a horrible idea, really. I suck at it.) You can even get a guitar that doesn’t even have frets at all! (Another devilish idea.)

Alright, I’ve digressed enough. I could write about this stuff for hours. Someone out there will explain any of these concepts in greater detail than I’m going to get into. In fact, there’s still stuff for me to learn. Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

(Also, I’m so not proofreading this.)

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