As a guitarist, tablature is your best friend and worst enemy. Here’s why.

I have a lot of tablature.  Numerous album tab books, 3 and a bit boxes of guitar magazines full of songs, lessons and riffs.  A huge range of primarily rock, metal, blues and indie and that’s the perspective I’m writing from. Tablature is a great way to learn and play songs, it gives you a visual way to play.  There’s no way I could read standard notation that fast. It’s an excellent way to present songs in a standard format that anyone, anywhere in the world can play, language is not a barrier.  There’s so many songs and riffs that I could not have learned without tablature.

But there are a few issues.

Think about a flower.  These are beautifully crafted by nature.  If you want to know more about a flower you can take it apart to see how it is made and examine its different parts.  But then you don’t have a flower.  There’s a risk with tablature that you reduce the beauty of a song to sterile numbers on paper.  I’ve done this myself plenty of times.  You think that taking each note individually will help you. Sometimes it does, such as for learning an intro or a riff but mostly it doesn’t.  I find it helps to think in terms of chords – their shapes and transitions – and if you also look at the different parts of a song such as the introduction, verse, chorus etc. you may find there are repeating chord patterns or only subtle changes in the progression.  Once I started to look at a song as a whole  rather than note for note in tablature, previously complicated songs suddenly broke down into several parts making them much easier to learn.

This, though, raises the perennially thorny question – should I bother to learn music theory? I would say that it won’t make you a better guitarist in itself but it will help you understand how chords and scales fit together which in turn helps you learn how to improvise, jam with other people and makes it easier to write your own songs amongst other benefits. For beginners especially, tablature can be your worst enemy because it doesn’t help you understand these sort of things. Instead it tends to lock you into learning a few riffs which on the one hand is great to feel a sense of achievement that you can actually play something but doesn’t tend to help in the long run. I speak from personal experience of how I started, struggling to play whole songs but thinking I was pretty good with my handful of riffs I could play but when I started guitar lessons it very quickly dawned on me that I didn’t really know anything. Incidentally, I have written a few posts should you want to learn more about music theory:

One thing that’s easy to forget is most bands have more than one guitarist. Guitar parts are often termed ‘rhythm’ and ‘lead’ but this is not particularly helpful, especially as the generally accepted definition of rhythm = chords and lead = solo is too simplistic, they are not fixed. Rhythm guitar tends to provide the groove and lead guitar tends to provide the melody but there’s no reason why a rhythm guitarist can’t play riffs or solos and similarly no reason why a lead guitarist can’t play chords.

This was something else I didn’t really think about when I started. I had tab books and magazines and I was going to play those Metallica songs, just like on the CD (ok, it was a long time ago). Interestingly when I went acoustic, I hardly bothered with tablature and was no longer concerned with playing songs exactly as they were recorded. This is where understanding music theory really helped me. It helped me to break free from tablature’s constraints, allowed me to work with chords and play songs without trying to play them exactly note for note.

Two guitarists in a band produces some interesting scenarios. Some bands like Metallica often have two distinctive guitar parts. Which one do you pick? Or do you learn both? But then you can’t play both at the same time so do you play a weird hybrid? Other bands like Iron Maiden or Megadeth often use harmonised guitar parts so you can at least pick one part to play and still sound like the song. 

On the other hand artists like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, rightly lauded for their soloing, were equally very accomplished rhythm players, often seamlessly switching between the two or playing both at the same time, which is also something Eddie Van Halen, Eric Johnson, George Benson, Al DiMeola and Wes Montgomery amongst others did. You can see from this list of names it’s not particularly easy. There’s also fingerpicking which tends to combine rhythm and melody, sometimes bassline too. Blues and folk immediately spring to mind as styles where this technique is used, it’s more common for acoustic guitar players but again it’s not that easy to learn. 

These are pretty big, but there are still three more potential deal breakers because tablature relies on someone transcribing a song to produce it.

You don’t know how much attention to detail has been paid to the transcription.  If the transcriber is a fan or has studied the band / artist then they are likely to pick up on any intricacies.  For example, some players tend to stay in the same position with little movement yet songs may be transcribed into tablature all over the fretboard.  It does make a difference, not so much to the resulting sound, but it definitely overcomplicates things and makes a song harder to play. 

Sometimes tablature is not very accurate.  This might be due to complexities in the song that tablature doesn’t represent very well.  A good example of this is strummed chords.  If you think about strumming a pattern of G, Cadd9 and D chords, variations in picking pattern and speed of chord changes give natural variations likely to result in open strings and accidental notes. Similarly it’s very easy to get accidental palm mutes, harmonics, incomplete slides, missed notes and so on – all of which don’t translate very well into tablature.

Sometimes tablature is just plain wrong.  I’ve seen songs transcribed in magazines using standard tuning that I’ve subsequently found out are played in altered / open tunings.  Two that come to mind are Alex Chilton by The Replacements and Lithium by Nirvana.  I couldn’t figure why Alex Chilton sounded kind of right but also very wrong until I found out it’s in open A.  I also saw Lithium by Nirvana recently transcribed in standard tuning but it should be dropped D, it just doesn’t quite work in standard tuning.

So to summarise all this I’d say that tablature can be very useful, sometimes it’s essential.  Just be aware of its limitations. Don’t let it constrict you nor let it limit your playing and certainly don’t feel you have to play every song with note for note accuracy.

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