Blog 2 – The Pros & Cons of TAB4th February, 2017
Blog 2 – Pros & Cons of TAB
TAB provides the guitarist with an instant indication of exactly where the fretting fingers have to be on the fingerboard in order to play a series of notes. Whole guitar solos and even fingerstyle arrangements of songs/pieces can be written out via this method.
Most TAB scripts that appear on the internet are usually written in the basic form of numbers on lines (indicating position on the fretboard, on a particular string). Without ‘rhythm’ stems attached the reader has no idea as to how long each note lasts in relation to the next. TAB ‘readers’ won’t need such irrelevant information of course, as they will, as a general rule, be quite familiar by ear with the music they’re about to tackle – therein lies disadvantage No. 1.
Unless you’re acquainted by ear with a given TAB transcription you’ll be hard pressed to make musical sense out of the script. If the numbers have the aforementioned rhythm stems then your chances of performing a half decent rendition of a given piece are greatly enhanced. Unfortunately TAB readers well versed in rhythm reading are a bit of a rare species. Those crotchet, quaver, semiquaver stems are, in most cases little or no help. At the end of the day, unless the piece is familiar you’re on a hiding to nowhere. You’re up that well known creek without a paddle.
Disadvantage No. 2: A piece of music written in TAB reveals nothing more than a series of numbers. To take a negative viewpoint: it’s rather like having a piano teacher paint numbers on the piano keys, and then simply send the pupil off each week to learn, by memory, one musical exercise after another via a series of numbers. Even in these current times where music is largely considered as little more than entertainment (try looking for a ‘music’ section in Waterstones) most parents would probably be aghast at the prospect of spending money for their children to have piano lessons only to discover that they are receiving no music education, but instead, just a sheet of paper each week, with a set of numbers representing the notes .
It goes without saying (no brainer?) that, by such a method, the pupil’s not going to learn anything about key signatures, harmony, form etc. Even if you’re interested in playing only rock guitar TAB is not going to help you understand any of the key features (such as minor 3rds and 7ths, flattened 5ths and so on) of most rock guitar solos, improvised or otherwise.
From a more positive angle, however, many budding guitar players soon acquire both a visual and aural sense that certain musical phrases can be performed by following well tried pathways on the guitar fingerboard e.g. the minor pentatonic and minor blues scales, two scales much cherished by rock guitar players, as it is from these scales that so many of rock music’s blues based improvised phrases are derived.
Disadvantage No. 3: TAB is not a common language among musicians ……. music notation is. The 12 year old budding rock star may not be bothered in the slightest that he/she doesn’t read a note of music but in another four or five years that (by then) technically quite proficient guitarist may be regretting that he/she can’t communicate musical ideas with the keyboard or sax player who is conversant with key signatures, transposition, and other concepts such as chord inversions, chord extensions…….
Such a scenario is, of course, unlikely to occur if you’re going to happily stay a straight down-the-line rock player. But not every guitar player does. After playing for a while it’s quite feasible that you might want to broaden the scope of your playing style e.g. start to investigate a more jazz based style, or simply want to explore in a more meaningful way the music you’ve been playing since you first picked up the guitar, or perhaps study music at university……the possibilities are many.
Disadvantage No. 4: Potential income denied.
An ability to read music can have great financial benefit. There are paid gigs, such as theatre, big band, where at least a modicum of reading skills is a prerequisite……and, whilst it may not be a particular ambition of a young rock god wanna-be, nevertheless teaching music and guitar can be both financially rewarding and hugely enjoyable.
So if being unable to read music is so disadvantageous what about all those wonderful songs written by self-confessed music illiterates?
Not being able to read music does not necessarily mean an inability to create great pop/rock songs, and neither does it equate with an inability to play a musical instrument.
So how is it possible to ‘write’ without being able to ‘read’?
In the pre-internet (and hence pre-TAB) days those musicians who knew just a small amount of theory or had limited music reading skills (if any), but who still managed to produce startlingly original as well as undeniably moving music, learned to play partly through trial and error, and partly through a whole combination of methods. For rhythm playing such methods would have included learning chord shapes from tutor books, and then, having learnt a sufficient amount, attempting to strum along to favourite songs.
A common practice would involve playing a recording (a vinyl record in the case of the 50’s and 60’s), periodically stopping the record, until the apprentice guitarist finally had the whole song worked out. Sheet music could help as chord symbols would be provided, but just as is the case with today’s internet sites/youtube videos, the chords were not always accurate, and in many cases, songs were written in a key that was different from that of the recording.
Not surprisingly, such methods would inevitably produce results of varying levels of musical competence. Even established bands that produced fine original material could be capable of ‘murdering’ someone else’s song, particularly songs that were more sophisticated in their harmonic structure (e.g. featuring chord inversions) than the average root chord based pop.
Yet even though not everyone developed the same degree of accuracy as regards being able to hear the correct harmony (chords), bass notes, the exact notes of a rock guitar solo and other such details, this ‘trial and error’ method would be an invaluable aid in what is known as aural development.
This ‘using one’s ear’ approach, whilst still a common practice, is generally far less prevalent in terms of guitar pupils these days. This is largely due to the proliferation of available written material in both notation and TAB (nowadays songbooks often provide both) as well as the many ‘how to play…..’ videos on Youtube whereby individuals attempt to demonstrate how to play a particular song or piece of music. As mentioned earlier, the level of accuracy as regards such videos varies.
The unfortunate consequence of having access to so much material, whether TAB or notation, is that today’s guitarists are far less likely to develop the aural skills of previous generations (although that doesn’t mean that creativity in pop/rock music has dried up).
In other words, an over-reliance on any written or visual material can be detrimental to one’s development as a musician. It’s actually good to try, at least some of the time, to try to fathom out that song or that guitar solo for yourself.
But even with regards to this direct ‘hands-on’ (or should we say ‘ears tuned in’) approach a knowledge of theory – e.g. acquaintance with scales, chord construction, key signatures etc.- will help considerably. In short, you’re far less likely to be musically thrashing about whilst trying to work out the chords, or lead guitar part of a chosen song.
At the end of the day most guitarists who are content to use TAB and TAB only are unlikely to be swayed by arguments as to why they should, like players of most other instruments, learn to read music in standard notation.
By the same token, most of those interested, from the outset, in classical or jazz guitar, won’t need to have it spelt out as to why it wouldn’t half be a good idea to learn to read those dots that dart in and around the five lines known as a stave at the same time as mastering the mechanical/physical skill involved in producing musical sounds from the instrument.
There is no singular path to learning to play the guitar. If you’re determined then the chances are you’ll find a way.
Classical guitar and TAB?
As regards the majority of guitar players, classical music and classical guitar playing won’t enter the picture. Classical guitar concerts don’t attract gargantuan crowds as do many rock bands, and classical guitars sell in considerably less numbers than electric and acoustic (steel string) guitars. But in relation to the TAB vs. notation debate it’s worth pointing out that it would be impossible to begin a study of the classical guitar unless you were prepared to learn to read music as well.
……… let’s not forget that a lot of people who pick up the guitar do so simply in order to strum a musical accompaniment to their singing, and are perfectly happy to view it as a hobby. In that case neither TAB nor notation will be of much, if any, relevance – and moreover, they’d probably be unlikely to find the above article of any interest whatsoever.
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