Cage Match: Standard Notation vs Tablature
In this series of articles, I will attempt to encourage an open dialog about very polarizing viewpoints regarding standard notation verses tablature, but in a more or less positive manner.
Some people know only one, some know both. Usually guitarists have pretty strong views on why one is better than the other. The great thing is that both, as written languages, are widespread no matter what your spoken language is. At no other time in history has more music been available for guitarists to read. It is a great time to learn, and no matter which method you continually use, you will learn something you didn’t know.
Let’s start with tablature. Tablature, or tab, started back in the mid 1500s with stringed and fretted instruments that were strung with goat intestines. Now, if you were a musician back then you either worked for royalty or the church, or you begged on the street. If you were lucky and you were a trained musician, you worked for the King. When the Queen’s sister was visiting from France, you were charged with writing a song for her. Usually you would compose this at whatever instrument you played (a lute was a good choice) and, since you were trained, you wrote it down so you wouldn’t forget it. And you wrote it in tablature. Early lute tab does exist, although there was no widespread acceptance of exactly how it was written, and scholars have debated for years what certain symbols on the paper actually meant. However, one thing it did have was rhythmic markings on the paper which allowed the musician to replicate his composition and teach it to other musicians.
Fast forward 470 years, and guitar magazines started their rise to prominence in popular culture. They realized guitarists were terrible readers of standard notation since they learned usually by sound and sight. They started transcribing their lessons and songs in both standard notation and tab – and started teaching the guitar playing public how easy tab is to read. They started using some symbols not available in standard notation for such guitaristic things like bends, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, whammy bar dives, etc. After a while, some guitar magazines dropped standard notation entirely in favor of tab. It is faster, takes into account the position of the guitar the notes were actually played, and it doesn’t concern the reader with such things as flats, sharps, or note names for that matter. For years, guitarists have had to learn songs from chord charts, so this was an extension of that. If it sounds like the song, you’re playing it right.
Now, standard notation is a different matter. Like tab, notation is really old. It didn’t have a standard way of being written until the mid 1700s or so, and even then, many modern readers would have a hard time reading a manuscript from Bach’s own hand. It evolved over time and became the lines and dots we know today. Most music books until the late 80s (even guitar books!) were written only in notation, so a guitarist has to try the music in several positions unless the transcriber left specific notes. If you learn two lines of music and reach a note or chord that might be easier in another position, you might have to learn the previous two lines in the other position. Reading notes consists of looking at the note, deciding what letter it is, and then finding the right place on the guitar to play it, and playing it using the correct rhythm. It’s a frustrating exercise for some, but like anything, it gets easier with practice.
Now tablature seems like the winner here, right? Well, not so fast. Most tablature (especially on the internet) doesn’t notate rhythms at all, so unless you have a great memory for the song you want to learn, you need a copy of the song to listen to while you read through the tab. While tab is the clear winner as far as what is available online (by about 1000 to 1, if not more), most tabs we look up online are sloppy, incomplete, and just plain wrong. So we have to rely on our ear (and eyes if we see a YouTube video) to figure the song out.
Notation fails guitarists in several ways too. With tab being so prevalent, not many teachers are teaching it, and the written language isn’t evolving with guitar’s ever-increasing techniques. Notation is written one octave above the pitch of the guitar, which can be confusing when composing for guitar and other instruments. It seems as though the whole thing is better suited to a French horn player than a guitarist who just wants to rock. And, truth is, as a professional guitarist, I have never been in a situation that required reading for a performance, either in the studio or live. It is used for theater or studio work in New York or LA, but not most professional situations which require a good ear and great instincts. So why is it good to know?
Well, it does transcribe rhythms, which tab fails at. It gives a more complete picture of the song, rather than just numbers. It helps us communicate with other musicians, since a sax or keyboard player (who usually read much better than the illiterate guitarist) has no use for tab. Learning notation allows us to understand our musical world better, which means unlocking the connection between chords, scales and those cool arpeggios you practice. Imagine what your world would be like not being able to read words – it would be very different. In music, not understanding even basic notation leaves us out of a rich musical world, and helps us be not so guitar-centric with all of our music.
If you want to write parts for other musicians to play, you have to speak their language. And it isn’t that hard to learn.
And why is tab great? It is fast and easy. It gets us where we want to go quickly, and we can learn the exact way the guitarist played something. That is pretty cool. Yeah, tab rocks.
Some magazines, like Guitar World, try to combine notation’s rhythms with tablature, but it ends up more confusing. Most magazines and songbooks these days use both. However, it doesn’t help when artist interviews proudly proclaim ignorance about their musical world. Great guitarists are great despite their lack of musical knowledge, not because of it. Why aspire to be just like an artist like that when you can be even better?
Which brings me to…who wins?
Well, this isn’t so clear. Both have terrible disadvantages and huge advantages. So learn both. Hey, you probably already understand tab, so take a summer and go through a basic reading book. You will be a better guitarist for it, and even more importantly, a better musician. We guitarists need every skill we can acquire to compete in this world. Plus, we might just be able to understand our books and magazines better if we can read the notation as well as the tab. Bohemian Rhapsody will make more sense to you too, I promise.
So which is it? Which one do you like better, and what is your excuse for not learning both? Keep it respectable and open up those books!