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Here's what I have to say on the subject of tablature for the guitar and it's relatives. All links are internal - just start reading instead of clicking!


Introduction - Tablature is so easy!

For the benefit of any outsiders looking in, tablature is a system of notation for playing music on a stringed instrument. It doesn't indicate the musical notes, but rather where to put your fingers on the instrument to find the notes. For each note in the piece, tablature shows you what fret on what string to play.

I had played classical guitar for about 20 years before I came to tablature. I have always been a voracious reader of classical guitar music, never memorizing pieces. Like many classical guitarists, I had always looked down my nose at tablature, but when I finally got involved I was astounded by its sensibleness and simplicity.

In a master class once, I heard a world-renowned guitarist - one of the biggest names - say, no, he couldn't read tablature. The best guitar music reader I know personally claims he can't read tablature.

These claims always tickle my funny bone. How can a guitarist not know how to read tablature??? He has to know where the strings are, and where the frets are, right?

This reminds me of a European friend who came over to the U.S. and went to rent a car. When they said none of their cars had a manual transmission, she exclaimed, "But I don't know how to drive an automatic!"

In spite of this denial by various advanced players, you won't find many people to disagree that tablature is much easier to get started reading than music notation. In fact, this simplicity seems to be the main reason for all the resistance. It just isn't right that someone can be playing music without struggling for years!

I once put a piece of multi-voiced classical guitar tablature in front of clarinetist friend (hi, Karen!) who had never played guitar before. She played it slowly, but without error note-wise or rhythm-wise. And then she laughed at what an easy instrument the guitar is. The wound still hasn't healed.

I know that when I started on tab, within minutes my reading was at a level that took 10 or 15 years to reach with music notation. Admittedly, my tablature reading benefited from 20 years of guitar music reading. It also helps that I only deal with the one easy-to-read, modern tablature format - the one proposed here.

Tablature has taken on many faces during its approximately 500-year history. (You either already know this - or else it won't make sense. Sorry!) Some used letters, some numbers. Many of the ones that used letters displayed barely distinguishable swirls. Some tablatures were right-side up, some upside down. Some used lines for strings, some used spaces. Some tablature gave continual rhythmic information; most gave bare, skeletal rhythmic information, showing a symbol only where the rhythm value changes. Most tablature in modern editions does not show any rhythmic information since you are expected to get it from the supplied music staff.

Little, if anything, about the following proposal is radical. Virtually all elements of it have been drawn from tablature systems that have been popular at one time or another. Anyhow, it's what works best for me. That means it has to be the best, right? Or else there's something wrong with me. Hmmmm...


Proposal for a standardized tablature

1. Numbers: Ordinary numbers, not letters, are used to indicate frets.

2. Spaces: The spaces, not lines, in the tablature staff denote the strings.

3. Right-side up: The tablature is right-side up, which means the uppermost space in the tablature staff corresponds to the 1st string of the instrument. This is the high E of a normally tuned guitar.

4. Rhythms: Complete rhythmic information is provided with the tablature. Stems and beams are shown above the tablature staff.

5. Note durations: Instead of showing the length of a note, tablature shows where to cut off the note, when necessary.

6. Harmonics: Natural harmonics are notated with a capital letter H followed by the fret number. Artificial harmonics are indicated by a small letter h followed by the fret number.

7. Other musical symbols: Any symbol indicating dynamics, articulation, slurs, glissandos, etc., in music notation can be used in tablature.

8. Fingerings: Unless anybody has a better idea, finger numbers should be placed above the staff, above the fret number it refers to.

9. Stand-alone: If both tablature and music notation are supplied by the publisher, they are printed separately.


Discussion of proposal points, with tablature examples

1. Numbers.

Getting numbers on our standardized tablature will be an easy victory. All modern tablatures that I have seen use numbers. What could be more natural? We already refer to the "1st fret", "5th fret", etc.

               ___     ___                             ___     ___
     | | |   | | | |   | | | |               | | |   | | | |   | | | |
    ___________________________             ___________________________
    _5_____|_________|_____0___|            _f_____|_________|_____a___|
    _6___8_|_6_5_6___|_6_5_2___|            _g___j_|_g_f_g___|_g_f_c___|
    _7_____|_______7_|_0___2___| instead of _h_____|_______h_|_a___c___|
    _0_____|_0_______|_____2___|            _a_____|_a_______|_____c___|
    _0_____|_________|_____0___|            _a_____|_________|_____a___|
    _______|_________|_________|            _______|_________|_________|

Playing my own devil's advocate, I can see the argument for using letters, as a lot of ancient tablature did. An advantage with letters is that you can toss in fingerings.

But a wackiness with these ancient tablatures is that they equate "a" with 0 and went up from there! Didn't they listen to all our pop songs rhyming "A, B, C" with "1, 2, 3" ???

Anyhow, if someone proposes using 0 for the open string and starting with "A" for fret one, maybe he'd have something. Capital letters are necessary because lower case letters come in a variety of heights. Some go way up, some go way down, and this can make the vertical placement hard to see.

By the way, has anybody considered going the other way and using the letters a, b, c, d for fingerings on numbered tablature?

2. Spaces.

Getting spaces for strings in our standardized tablature may be a slightly harder fight. Lines are probably more often used in modern tablatures, and they do seem so much more string-like. I can live with that, but I still think the spaces have a few advantages.

A problem with the lines is that all the fret numbers are struck through. This can hamper readability. In particular, it may add a touch of confusion between -0- , -8- , -3- , -6- and -9- at a glance, depending on the font and the heaviness of the line.

Another problem with using lines is that the tablature looks a little more like music notation and can play tricks on an experienced music reader's mind. The problem is mainly with two of the guitar's open-string notes, B and G, since these notes fall on lines of the treble clef. The open 3rd, 4th and 5th strings in tablature look something like musical notes that they are not:

          --0--------  might give an impression of an open B, 
          -----0-----  might give an impression of an open G or B, 
    and   --------0--  might give an impression of an open G.

When spaces are used as strings, there are less tricks from these "note impostors". In fact, there is a very nice coincidence - the open 1st string...

          _____0_____  looks just like the open E that it is.  

Unfortunately, these ascii examples do my preferred tablature a disservice. The line is broken below each fret number, and the rhythm symbols are positioned unnecessarily high above the top of the staff. Adding insult to injury, the other form of tablature which uses lines for strings avoids its biggest drawback in ascii because the lines do not strike through the fret numbers. That's life - or cyberlife, at least. Please make mental corrections for the ascii shortcomings.

3. Right-side up.

All modern tablature is right-side up, so this one will be easy to get. Early music players argue that upside down tablature is no more or less natural than right-side up. In the upside down form, the highest string on the page corresponds to your highest string from the ground (that is, the lowest bass string) and looking at the tablature on the music stand is like looking at the strings of your instrument in a mirror.

That may well be, but consider this observation from a friend who does not read music and came to guitar tablature as a blank slate. (Hi, Alan!) When I told him about upside down tablature, he was miffed at the notion. He pointed out that when you look at right-side up tablature on the page, the treble-most string is "up" towards your forehead, and when you lean forward to look at your strings (in what may be a mental operation) the treble-most string is correspondingly "up" towards your forehead. It's interesting to note that our earliest known published vihuelist, Luys Milan, used right-side up tablature.

Here is a snippet in the two orientations for comparison.

       ___   ___                      ___   ___
     | | | | | |   | |              | | | | | |   | |
    ___________________            ___________________
    _0_____0_____|_0___            _0_0_2_3_3___|_____
    _1_____1_____|_0___ instead of ___________0_|_2___
    _2___________|_1___            _2___________|_1___
    ___________0_|_2___            _1_____1_____|_0___
    _0_0_2_3_3___|_____            _0_____0_____|_0___

This example brings up another issue: whether or not to use standardized 6-string tablature even if the music is for a 4- or 5-string instrument. Logically, it would seem such a standardization could only help; the 4th string, for example, would always be in the same place in the tablature. Practically, I'm guessing there's no perceptible added difficulty switching between 4-, 5-, and 6-string tablature notation.

4. Rhythms.

Many ancient tablatures only provided a new rhythmic value where the rhythm changed. Until we're down to the last few cups of ink on earth, I don't think we need to be that stingy. Tablature should give complete and continual rhythmic values, just as music notation does.

These rhythm values are placed above the tablature staff, with stems directly above fret numbers. They look just like musical stems, dots and flags - except there are no flags, only beams.

The longest rhythm value is the quarter note, which is simply a stem with no beam. Half-note values and longer are indicated by successive quarter note stems. A stem with no fret number below it means to sustain the previously played note. (Ties are not needed.)

Here's as close as I can come drawing the rhythms using ascii characters. The intent is that they look exactly like the stems and beams we are familiar with in music notation.

                    ___                           _____ 
    | = 4er note.   | | = two beamed 8th notes.   | | | = 3 beamed 8th notes.  
       __                                 ___
    |.  | = dotted 4er plus 8th note.  |. |-| = dotted 4er plus two 16th notes.
    _____                                _______
    |. -| = dotted 8th plus 16th note.   |-|-|-| = four 16th notes.  
    _____                         _____
    | |-| = 8th plus two 16ths.   |-| | = two 16ths plus 8th.  
    |. |=| = dotted 8th plus two 32nds.  

It is helpful to beam together the subdivisions within a quarter note (or dotted quarter in 6/8 time.) For example:

    |-| |=|=|=| = two 16ths plus four 32nds.  
    | |-| |-| = one 8th plus four 16ths.  

5. Note duration.

Many people believe tablature is capable of only supplying the most basic rhythmic information and that a chord containing notes of various durations would be impossible to notate.

This isn't true. In a pinch, you could treat each fret number like a musical note head and supply a separate stem and flag. But I have a much more elegant solution than that. A light bulb went off over my head years ago: forget about duration - indicate where the note ends.

Simply place a "." at the point where the note should stop. We already read periods to mean a decisive endpoint. If all the sounding notes should be cut off at the same point, an option is to use a small, solid block (looking like a half-note rest) centered in the tablature staff.

Here are some examples. I use a "z" as an ascii appoximation for the "super stopper" that applies to all the sounding notes. It looks like a little block; a "z" suggests an endpoint; and it even looks something like a musical rest - a backwards quarter rest.

In the following examples, a D-minor chord is held for 2 beats, 3 beats, and 1.5 beats, respectively. In the 4th example, the treble notes are cut after 1.5 beats and the bass note sounds for 3 beats.

                                     ___              ___
     | | | |        | | | |        | | | | |        | | | | |
    _________      _________      ___________      ___________
    _1___.___||    _1_______||    _1_________||    _1___._____||
    _3___.___||    _3_______||    _3_________||    _3___._____||
    _2___.___||    _2_____z_||    _2___z_____||    _2___._____||
    _0___.___||    _0_______||    _0_________||    _0_______._||
    _________||    _________||    ___________||    ___________||
    _________||    _________||    ___________||    ___________||

   Note that the rhythms in examples 3 and 4 could have been written:  |.  | | | 

What could be clearer? This notation makes it a cinch for composers to write veritable symphonies of disappearing notes. Think of the mess it would take to write the following example in music notation.

     _______ _______  
     |-|-|-| |-|-|-| | |
                                                   ____ _____
    Note that this rhythm could have been written  |.-| | |-| | |

6. Harmonics.

Here is an example showing both natural and artificial harmonics. It comes from an arrangement by Eric Hill of "For All The Saints" by Ralph Vaughan Williams. A natural harmonic is played by lightly touching the node with a left-hand finger, and plucking with a right-hand finger. An artificial harmonic is played by fretting the string at the indicated point and touching the string 12 frets higher with the right-hand index finger, and plucking with a different right-hand finger, usually the ring or thumb.

                          ____    ____
      |  |  |  |    |  |  |  |    |  |     | |  | |

7. Other musical symbols.

Slurs (ligados) are notated just as they are in music notation - a curved line. (Actually, I think guitar music should use dotted curved lines for ligados.) I can't show this using keyboard characters.

Glissandos are also notated just as they are in music notation - a slanted dash. Even though the dash character isn't slanted, it does a fine job of showing a glissando - perhaps an unslanted dash is fine for tablature? Here's an example from Zani de Ferranti's "Carnival of Venice", variation 5, using a few glissandi.

      _______ _____        __  ________ _____      __________                  
      |-| | | | | |   |. |  |  |-|  | | | | |   |. | |-|-|--|  |.  |.          

8. Fingerings.

You will often hear people say that tablature gives complete fingering information. Not true. Even though it shows just what strings and frets to play, it doesn't tell a player what finger to use.

Since tablature provides string and position information - that's what it is! - the only remaining fingering information that might be needed are the finger numbers themselves. I would confine them to above the staff to keep them from getting confused with fret numbers. To further distinguish finger numbers from fret numbers, maybe red ink would help.

Altogether, I'm not completely happy with this. As is the case with music notation, fingerings are not so instantly useful way up there as right in front of the notehead. Fortunately, fingerings are needed far less in tablature. (The 0 fingering - meaning open string - is never needed.)

In any case, the situation is no worse than for the bulk of published guitar music, where fingerings are splattered everywhere except in front of the desired note.

I have doubts that a system for fingering tablature can be devised that compares to the most useful system for fingering standard music notation. It would be great to be proved wrong about this.

9. Stand-alone.

Adherance to the above guidelines will yield a completely self-contained tablature. This allows it to be printed separately from the music notation version, which has the immediate advantage of halving the page turns.


Tablature Frequently Voiced Concerns

How could anybody object to such a simple, inoffensive, useful thing, you ask? Here are some common criticisms, and my responses.

1. Modern tablatures are generally not complete.
2. The composer's intention is harder to see in tablature.
3. I'm a good reader. What do I need tablature for?
4. Doesn't tablature stifle creativity? With music notation you can change the fingerings to personalize a piece. In tablature, you would have to rewrite the passage.
5. What's the problem with idiot guitarists? Can't they just learn to read in a variety of tunings?
6. So how come the violin family doesn't use tablature, huh, huh?
7. And what's the big deal about altered tunings? All that does is change the fingerings.

1. Modern tablatures are generally not complete.

That's not a fault of tablature. As shown above, tablature can show everything that music notation does - all note durations, dynamics, accents, fingerings, etc.
(Back to the FAQ list.)

2. The composer's intention is harder to see in tablature.

Again, anything you put in music notation, you can put in tablature. It's just another way of writing musical notes and has no essential differences from standard notation. A black dot on the 3rd space (from the top) of a G-clef is an A. A "2" on the 3rd space (or line) of guitar tablature is an A.

Admittedly, if rhythm values are placed above the tablature staff, the differentiation of musical lines might not be clear. This is hardly ever a matter for concern - how often do composers notate separate dynamics for an inner voice? - but when it is, stems and flags could be attached to individual fret numbers.
(Back to the FAQ list.)

3. I'm a good reader. What do I need tablature for?

You need it for music of all eras in altered tunings. And when we begin to accept tablature, composers and transcribers can make greater use of alternate tunings.

Moreover, tablature is "just right" when the original was written in tablature, even if the tuning was the same as, or close to, our standard tuning.

What I won't say - but what you will often hear from early music enthusiasts - is that learning to read tablature allows you to play all the old stuff directly from facsimiles of the originals. There are big problems with this claim because of all the different tablature systems - and illegibility. Without disparaging anyone, I have seen many instances of early music specialists struggling mightily with ancient tablatures that would be 1st or 2nd year reading material in music notation.

Transcribing old tablature to music notation always raises questions about the composer's intentions. However, a direct translation into modern tablature would be 100% reliable. This is what I do for myself, by the way - plug the original tablature into a computer program I wrote that cranks out the standardized tablature described above. It takes less effort than fingering a piece of guitar music. (It also looks a lot nicer than this ascii stuff - as nice and as funcional as it is.) Although I am not reading from the original, it gives great satisfaction that there is nobody between me and the composer.
(Back to the FAQ list.)

4. Doesn't tablature stifle creativity? With music notation you can change the fingerings to personalize a piece. In tablature, you would have to rewrite the passage.

This is not hard to do, actually, and may be easier than changing fingerings. To move a note to the next higher string you just subtract the number of semitones separating the strings. Likewise, to try out the notes on the next lower string, just add the correct number of semitones.
(Back to the FAQ list.)

5. What's the problem with idiot guitarists? Can't they just learn to read in a variety of tunings?

Nothing. No.

(Back to the FAQ list.)

6. So how come the violin family doesn't use tablature? Huh? Huh?

This question is based on the notion that the string world has attained divine perfection in every conceivable way. Whoops. I think I hear some warning buzzers going off in my in my head.

I wonder if the violin family isn't doing itself a disfavor by shunning tablature. It would seem to have all the advantages for bowed strings that it has for guitar.

Here's a little tune I've put into violin tab. I'm not saying what it is. If you can see what the tune is, that would serve to refute the claim that tablature doesn't show music. It would support the claim that there is no essential difference between tablature and standard notation as claimed in FAQ number 2 above.

If you can't see the tune, then that gives you even extra incentive to take a few seconds to tune the top 4 string of your guitar like a violin and play through it. I recommend everybody, particularly tablature-scoffers, try this. (To tune like a violin, match the 7th-fret note with the open string above it, giving intervals of a 5th.)

                               __                                   __
  | | | |  | | | |  | | | |  |. | | |  | | | |  | | | |  | | | |  |. | | |

             ___        ___                                            __ 
  | | | |  | | | | |  | | | | |  | | | |  | | | |  | | | |  | | | |  |. | | |

Back so soon? My suspicion is that most of you played it without error on the first shot, and everybody else got it on the second - even you who have never played from tablature before; even you who have never held a violin in your life.

Think of the implications. You walk into your first-ever violin lesson, the teacher puts a violin (with penciled-in "frets") in your hand, a page of tab on the music stand, and without a single word of instruction you are playing violin music. If that doesn't boggle your mind, you are unbogglable.

Oh, but that was in the key of C, you say. Kid's stuff! All right then, try lesson 1b: same tune, 5 sharps.

                               __                                   __
  | | | |  | | | |  | | | |  |. | | |  | | | |  | | | |  | | | |  |. | | |
             ___        ___                                            __ 
  | | | |  | | | | |  | | | | |  | | | |  | | | |  | | | |  | | | |  |. | | |

No big deal, right? And to think it also makes you an instant viola and cello player. Pretty amazing, huh?

Getting back to guitar, another point the above exercises demonstrate is how simple it is to play in altered tunings with tab. This should have huge implications in the area of guitar composition and transcription.
(Back to the FAQ list.)

7. So what's the big deal about altered tunings? All that does is change the fingerings.

A different set of open strings can make available different textures from what we can get in the standard tuning. Altered tunings give access to keys that are harder to play in the standard tuning. Check out the pieces by Francois Campion in 7 alternate tunings elsewhere in my web site. The little Mozart waltz in A major below is significantly easier to play after retuning the 3rd string.
(Back to the FAQ list.)

Sample tablature pieces

Since putting up this page with my thoughts on tablature, I have put massive quantities of tablature on the web - works by Mudarra, Guerau, Francois Campion, Mozart and others. You can get to them easily enough from my main page, but help yourself to a sample right now.

These two little waltzes are by Mozart. They were written in August 1994. I wouldn't put much stock in the rumors about him coming out of retirement just to compose something for the fledgling Washington (D.C.) Guitar Society. (See my Mozart page for the full story.)

The arrangements are for a guitar with the 3rd string tuned down to F#, making tablature the way to go for the many guitarists who resist reading music in this slightly altered tuning.

                   The Patowmack Stomp; K516f.81492819B1519A6            
  E A D F# B E.        from the Musikalisches Wuerfelspiel       W. A. Mozart.
        ___ ___           ___ ___  ___ ___             ___ ___    ___ ___     
      | | | | |  | | |  | | | | |  | | | | |  | | |  | | | | |  | | | | |     
        ^ ___ ___          ^ ___ ___            ___ ___ ___         ___ ___   
        | | | | |          | | | | |     | | |  | | | | | |  | | |  | | | | | 
     ___ ___  ___ ___ ___  ___ ___ ___                                        
   | | | | |  | | | | | |  | | | | | |  | | |                                 

                The Bureaucratic Shuffle; K516f.27BB31AB56AA264                      
  E A D F# B E.        from the Musikalisches Wuerfelspiel       W. A. Mozart.
             ___ ___ ___  ___ ___ ___    ___    ___ ___ ___         ___ ___   
      | | |  | | | | | |  | | | | | |  | | | |  | | | | | |  | | |  | | | |   
   ___       ^ ___ ___          ^ ___ ___     ___ ___ ___    ___    ___ ___   
   | |       | | | | |          | | | | |     | | | | | |  | | | |  | | | |   
   ___  ___ ___ ___  ___ ___ ___    ___ ___  ___                              
   | |  | | | | | |  | | | | | |  | | | | |  | | | |  | | |                   


Readability of tablature

I have argued that tablature is the way to go with altered tunings, and that it wins hands-down for getting started.

This may come as a surprise based on all of the foregoing, but I do NOT make the blanket claim that tablature is always, or even generally, easier to read than music. In the special case of our standard guitar tuning I find that reading music is easier - with an important stipulation: that the music is fingered, and fingered according to my standards.

If it's unfingered, or the fingerings are wrong for my hands, or the fingerings are notated in an unhelpful way, all bets are off. I make no apologies for this dependence on fingerings; without them I see too many possibilities to sort through on the fly. See my web page on fingering notation for guitar music.

It seems that with years of practice you can reach a point where it takes less brain power to recognize a chord depicted by a "picture" of musical notes than to read and process a stack of fret numbers in tablature. And there is also the problem of a lack of a good method for fingering tablature.

Note the apparent paradox here. Music has to be well-fingered to be easily readable at sight. Thus, not only are you recognizing a pattern of notes, but you are reading a stack of numbers to boot. And somehow this is easier than just processing the stack of numbers in tablature! It doesn't seem to make sense. Maybe the explanation has to do with all the finger numbers being small, 0 to 4.

In any case, I feel my brain revving much higher reading tablature, and it seems like no amount of further practice is going to change that significantly.

Still, this is no great indictment of tablature. If memorization is the goal, instantaneous readability is not so imperative. And tablature surely works well enough that many, many guitar hobbyists would never need anything else - if obliging publishers would make a wide enough variety of music available in tablature.


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Parents, if you're considering tutoring or supplemental education for your child, you may be interested in my observations on Kumon.