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for the poetry
of the music
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Andres Segovia


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The issue of whether learning and playing guitar music from tab (short, for tablature) is as sufficient, equal to, or better than standard music notation has continued since tab’s revival
in the 1970’s and 1980’s. I write, revival, because tablature was the original method of conveying to a guitarist, lutenist or player of one of the guitar’s predecessors or close relatives, how and where to place the fingers
on the fretboard. The primary difference between the tab of the 16th century and
today’s tab is that the original used alphabet letters, rather than numbers to indicate the desired fret location. In the case of chord forms, in place or our gridded diagrams, complete graphical renderings of the hand on the fingerboard and fingers at appropriate frets, were the mode of the time.

Tablature is, primarily, a guideby which a guitarist can determine at what fret and at what string to play, to effect the desired sounds. If you can count, you can employ tablature.

Notation is a fully detailed written translation of the desired sounds, their rythm, the nuanced timbre (quality of the sounds) etc. If you cannot read musical notation, you cannot employ standard notation.

The two statements above, would lead one to believe that tablature is the best choice because it does not require the prerequisite of learning to read music notation. And if you solely want to play the guitar, why would you botherlearning to read notation, anyway? Especially, if most of the music you want to play is tabbed and readily available online or in book form.

Well, you tabbers are saying, “Right, right....” and you notation players are saying, “I thought D A Arlaus was supposed to be such a good teacher........”  You will not all agree with me on this, but let’s compare tab and notation for how they work, what they convey and the results that are possible from each method:

Tab vs Notation Considerations
Indicates where to place a finger
Indicates how long to play
But Not Actually
Is it logical and does it lead to understanding the music?
Facilitates the best, most playable and most logical fingering
Player learns the music faster

Let’s examine each one of the considerations:


Tab wins, hands down, here. But is an exact indication of where to place a finger a good thing? If you are a pianist, it might be helpful, but if you are playing a stringed instrument, such as the guitar, most individual pitches can be made by fretting different locations on several different strings. The differing locations create differing timbres or qualities of the pitch. The highness or lowness of the pitch remains the same but it may be bright, resonant, harmonic, dark or have some other quality.

Beyond the choice of sound quality, there always remains a best position in which to play a particular passage in its musical context, based on understanding the fretboard and the philosophy of proper guitar technique, which is pertinent to every genre.


If your response to this consideration is, “Who cares?” it means that you only play music with which you’re familiar. If it were not so, you would think it’s infinitely important. Most tabs give the player some idea, in a relative sense, how long to sustain a note or chord. I say in a relative sense because the indication of length of sustain in tab is the distance from one tabbed note or chord, to the next one. Some unpleasant variables creep in at this point.
Did the page actually print as accurately as it was created? Do those notes or chords look as far apart to you as they do to me? There are some tabs that use standard notation stems, dots, ties and other indicators of actual timing. In my experience, I have found that most tab players do not have an in-depth understanding of rhythm, in the theoretical sense, so they use their intuition to determine how long pitches should sustain. If the tab players do thoroughly understand how rhythm works, its nuances and how to count complex times, then for them, tabs that are written with rhythmic indicators are sufficient for them. Not only are pitch lengths of importance, but picking direction is of paramount importance to all genres and the same comment follows: if the tab player thoroughly understands how the rhythmic indicators in their tab, influence/mandate/dictate their picking, then for them, tabs are as adequate as standard notation for this particular consideration in our table.

A notation player, knows (or can determine) the precise duration of every note in their music. When one is trained to read and interpret notation, rhythmic theory is a part of that training and understanding. It is intrinsic to understanding and correct playing. If notation is correctly written, a person in Guatemala can write a musical composition, send it to a person in Alaska, and if the Alaskan musician understands notation, the music will be executed in Alaska, precisely as it was composed and executed in Guatemala, without the Alaskan ever having heard it. Every note will have the correct sustain and accent.


Tab is logical in the sense that if a number is higher, it is closer to the body of the guitar and higher in pitch and if the number is lower, it is farther from the body of the guitar and lower in pitch. It is logical in that a jump from 6 to 19 on the same string will have a greater change in pitch than a jump from 2 to 6 on the same string. That is where the logic of tab begins and ends.

Musical notation is a language, no different from any other written and spoken language. Forget what you’ve heard about music being mathematical. It can be explained by mathematics, but how it works is utterly linguistic. Think of how you sound to the Chinese person at your favorite take out place, when you order chow mien. Have you every heard them say "chow mien" to the cook? Probably not. The way you order Chinese food is the way tab players play music. The sound that someone told them should come out, comes out. They don’t really know why, other than that the tab number indicates it. When a Chinese[-speaking person orders take out, the person at the counter smiles broadlyand you never hear anything that sounds like what you order. That’s because they are speaking a common language that you don’t know.

A piece of music written in standard notation, holds, for the notationally literate, as much of a story as does the daily newspaper. From examining it, without playing a note, one can determine if the story is happy or sad, if it’s fast paced or leisurely, if there are supplemental stories, if the story takes a sudden turn of emotion and if the reader is skilled, they can hear the music without playing it -- just the way you translate the words you readinto ideas and images that make a sort of mental movie or slide show. There is no contest, here. Notation wins this very crucial consideration.


Tab is DOA on this consideration. Only a guitarist with a great ear and fretboard knowledge is able to choose the best, most playable and most logical fingering for all passages based on tab. Those who have not been taught the guitar in an holistic manner may not realize that pitches tabbed at 2 on the high E string, 3 on the B string and 2 on the G stringare the same as 7 on the B string, 7 on the G string and 7 on the D string. (And there are other possibilities.) The sound of the two groups of notes is different in quality but not in pitch (if your guitar is properly tuned.) A tab player is not given the choice of fingerboard positions.

Depending upon what precedes and follows this D chord, a notation player analyzes the context in which they find this D chord and plays it where ever it is most sensible and where the sound suits the guitarist. Music that is written in notation does not put the guitarist’s mind in a “box.” They are not constrained to a predisposed place in which to play. They are solely considering the sound that they hear when they read the music. It might be in the second position or it might be in the seventh position. The only thing of concern is the sound. Playing the guitar or any other instrument is never about a placebut is always about the sound.Notation wins again.


You die-hard tabbers think this should be a YES for tab, because that’s why you play from tab and never learned standard notation. The truth is, it’s the method of practice, enhanced by the player’s understanding that results in a shorter or longer learning period. The facts clearly point to notation readers possessing more understanding of the music they play than tab readers. In the long run, the guitarist who understands what they are playing -- by that I do not mean the one who merely knows the fret number of every pitch and chord they will play, but rather that they know the music the way they know the words to their favorite song or poem. They know the individual words and because they are speaking the same language as the song or poem, they understand what each word means and what whole phrases actually mean. So, too with music.... it’s a story, not just a lot of sounds converging. The one who knows and understands the story will be the better story-teller. The musician who has this understanding and practices assiduously, is the one who will master their music faster.

No tablature will be used for any purpose on this web site or in any of the GTT Guitarists' Guides. The purpose of this web site is to assist guitarists in perfecting technique, expanding their general musicianship and mastering the guitar. "Doing my part to spread the excellence, one guitarist at a time," is the Guitar Technique Tutor Podcast slogan and my personal bent.


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Wednesday, November 1, 2017