Guitar TAB Millstone

Discard the jokes about drummers not really being musicians; these days, I’d say it’s the guitar-playing kids who hobble on the tablature crutch. I browsed a couple of guitar magazines recently, and in the transcriptions and “lessons” sections, they’ve abandoned standard musical notation altogether. They used to put standard notation and tab next to each other, as far as I remember from when I used to read the things. Now, it’s all tab, at least in this one magazine. For those not in the know, guitar tab is a shorthand system that tells the player where to put their finger on which string. No musical information is transmitted; it’s more like fretboard hopscotch, and you don’t need to know a single note.

Tablature serves the familiar rock-guitar mentality of trying to play things like the record. I think tracing older footsteps can be good for the beginner – like a toddler mimicking speech – and tab can be helpful for directly showing how to finger something. However, you have to learn how to apply these tidbits, and to do that, you have to understand what it is you are fingering. Tab only gives somebody a fish so they can eat for a day. Standard notation – the kind that those smart-ass pianists and other real musicians use – teaches somebody how to fish, so they may eat for a lifetime. Tab provides a quick fix, so that you too may be Page or Hendrix for a few bars, and neither the player’s knowledge of theory nor their ear is exercized at all.

My past experience with tab, as a younger guy, was not very productive. I would often opt for the easy way of learning something (“where do I put my fingers”) instead of absorbing the real music as written. (Or as heard.) If lost my place, then the jig was up – and I wondered why I wasn’t getting anywhere. Tab conditions you to be a robot, executing parasitic neuro-routines. If, however, you have a theoretical understanding of a tune – if you know the key and the changes, why the melodies have the notes they do – then you stand a much slimmer chance of getting “off track.” And heck, you can even improvise within the tune. That’s why when I shifted to learning jazz, tab had to go. Obviously, it has zero use there. Most of the transcription books I’ve studied have been piano or sax, anyway, which have been far more instructive for me than the guitar books that say, “Start this diminished fragment on the fifth position of the third string...” Yeah, and why don’t I just hit myself in the head with a brick before tackling “Daahoud”. You aren’t always going to be in the same place on the fretboard when you want to use that fragment...

Anyway, I got a kick out of seeing this guitar mag that had basically acknowledged the futility of imparting real musical knowledge, and there’s plenty of tempting (and often inaccurate) online tablature, too. The guitar is a visually oriented instrument, or it is when you first learn it. But think of sax players like Coltrane or Rollins, who don’t watch their fingers as they play, and who can spontaneously pour out volumes of masterfully shaped phrases. Might be a lesson in that.

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