The Perpetual Beginner: the problem with tablature

January 15, 2018
The Perpetual Beginner: the problem with tablature

Thanks to the internet, we live in a great time to learn the guitar.

When I was first learning to play, if I wanted to find a tab I had to ask my teacher or try to work it out by ear. Often, when I did ask my teacher he told me to try to figure it out myself first. That was great advice, because there’s no substitute for training your ears. I made plenty of mistakes, and sometimes I never really got it right until much later. But it was an important part of my learning process, and developed skills that I still use every day.

I do use tabs off the internet, even though my ears are well-developed. Sometimes it’s just a shortcut when I don’t want to take up time in a lesson to do the notation myself. Sometimes I’m looking for another opinion or perspective on what I think I hear. But If you’re learning songs from internet tabs, you may have noticed that they’re often inaccurate.

The average person posting an internet tab is probably a lot like you.

They want to learn a song because they love it, and are trying their best to figure out how to do it. It’s a pretty good bet that many if not most people posting these tabs are not pros, and even if they are it can be pretty challenging to nail down exactly what someone played on a recording. You may have also noticed that there can be multiple versions of the same song, and they’re sometimes wildly different. Some might use different forms of notation, or have the notes in different places on the neck. Some just have the wrong notes.

So the easy availability of tabs doesn’t mean that the work has been done for you. You still have to listen and evaluate how accurate it is. It’s certainly a head start, but you still have to use your ears. And this gets to the heart of the biggest shortcoming of tab: it can trick you into focusing more on what you see than what you hear.

Tablature is a really useful shortcut, but it’s usually missing some really important information.

What it does do is show you where to put your fingers: which string and which fret. But it doesn’t place that information in a musical context. In other words, it gives you the where but not the what. So unless you take the time to think it through, it’s easy to just memorize finger patterns without any sense of what the notes or chords are. This can help you learn the song, but it doesn’t do much for your continuing development as a guitarist and musician. Ideally, every song you learn teaches you something that will make learning the next song easier.

Tabs also leave out an essential detail: there’s no way to indicate fingering. They generally don’t indicate rhythm either. It’s possible to add stems to the numbers to indicate the rhythms, but that can be cumbersome and some things work better than others. If you know the song well, you’ll probably hear the rhythm, but if you don’t you should do some careful listening to make sure you have the timing right.

The missing piece.

The fingering question is really important, though. Without fingerings, it’s hard to see chord formations or the geometric patterns on the fingerboard. You do have one visual aspect covered, the location of the note. But putting that note in context as part of a pattern is what tells you what you’re doing. So a tab can show you how to play songs that are beyond your musical ability to understand, but only on a superficial level. This doesn’t mean the tab isn’t useful, it is. But to really learn the song, you need to look deeper. Don’t stop at where to put your fingers. Take the time to put the notes in context…look for patterns on the fingerboard, and make sure your fingering makes sense. If you’re really struggling, there’s a chance you might be missing something.

Remember that most notes on the guitar can be played in more than one place, so every tab you look at should be analyzed and challenged. Use your ears to see if you can hear the difference between one fingering and another. There’s almost always a difference in tone and articulation, and when you start to listen for these details you’re start to notice them.

It gets easier, but it still takes work.

After all these years of learning music by ear I still find that listening is a process. I hear in layers: picking up surface details first, and then getting more and more specific as I listen again and again. There are details that you might not hear at all until you’ve listened multiple times. I’ve transcribed a song one day and then come back the next to find that there were things I had completely wrong. My ear hadn’t processed the information enough to hear it accurately. So recognize that you may not get it on the first try when you’re learning by ear, and you may not be able to tell how accurate a tab is until you’ve lived with it for a while.

I’m not suggesting that tablature isn’t useful. It’s a good tool and I use it every day. I do also believe that learning to read standard notation is ultimately better, and not as difficult as you may think. Tab gives us an efficient shortcut, but it’s important to remember that it IS a shortcut. If you want to be a better player, you owe it to yourself to do the work and fill in the missing pieces.

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