Background to Tablature:

Before the invention of any form of notation for music the only means of passing the skill on was for the 'teacher' to slowly show bits of a tune and for the 'learner' to copy and play them back. This auditory, or listening and repeating, method of learning the skills to play an instrument and the tunes which make up a repertoire was commonplace and still goes on today in many parts of the world (e.g. India). Indeed it is still considered by many people, especially in the folk and world music area, to be the best way of teaching/learning an instrument and as being the only way to get across the nuances which so many of the tunes in these genres of music require. 

However, even the best musicians have a limited memory and can only carry a certain number of tunes in their heads. The time eventually came when so many tunes existed that there was a need to be able to store tunes in a written format to allow them to be passed to others and communicated without the original musicians being present. Standard notation - the dots and sticks - is now very much taken for granted but one of the first methods for writing arrangements down was a form of tablature. Hang on - what is the difference between notation and tablature ?? 

Music notation uses a code system which shows which notes are to be played and for how long each should sound. Tablature, usually applied to fretted stringed instruments, indicates which strings should be fretted and plucked and at which fret they should be fretted - later developments also show the tuning of the instrument, the length of time each note should last, whether the string should be plucked with the thumb or the fingers, and special actions such as slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, etc. 

One of the first forms of tablature was created for communicating lute tunes, when the lute was as popular an instrument as the guitar is today, and occupied many differing musical areas including the royal courts. However, it differed from modern tablature by using letters to denote fret positions rather than the numerical system we use today. 


So, tablature is a method of musical notation for fretted string instruments. It resembles conventional written music notation but instead of dots on a 5 line stave, each line and space of which denotes a specific note, it shows fret numbers on a 6 line stave each line of which represents one string on the guitar (6 lines representing 6 strings). The numbers placed on each string represent the fret number which the fingers of the left-hand (for right-handed guitarists (if you are left-handed please reverse these directions)) press the string against whilst it is being played. As with conventional music the tablature is read from left to right.
Tablature (Tab) Example 1

In the tablature example given above, reading from left to right, we firstly see that the guitar is tuned from the sixth string (the thickest bass string) to the first string (the thinnest treble string) EADGBE - these notes making up what is known as Standard Tuning. We then see that the first note we play is fretted at the first fret on the first string; this is followed by playing the second string fretted at the first fret; then the third string fretted at the second fret and then the fourth string fretted at the third fret. (Review that again slowly until you are sure you understand what is going on). That completes the first bar/measure of the two bars/measures shown. 

The second bar/measure starts by playing two notes together in a pinch - the first and sixth strings are fretted at the first fret and the right-hand thumb plays the sixth string at the same time as a right-hand finger plays the first string. This is followed by three further thumb and finger pinches - all whilst holding on the chord of 'F'. 

The tablature shown above has stems coming from the numbers which indicate timing (i.e. how long each note has to last relative to the other notes). Take Care: not all tablature has these and with many variants of tablature unless you have someone who already knows the tune and can play it for you, or you have a recording of the tune to listen to, you will find it difficult getting the correct timing to make the tune sound as it should. Using software such as TablEdit eliminates this problem as not only does it put in the 'note' stems to indicate the timing but it can also play back the tablature on a computer to let you hear how the tune should sound.

See a very short explanation of tab on YouTube here:

Advantages Of Using Tablature:

Differing tunings - ordinary, standard music notation is an extremely good way of notating music. However, it does have a couple of failings when it comes to guitar. If it is used with a piano it is great as all of the notes on a piano are always in the same place. Unfortunately, on a guitar, due to the way the strings are tuned, it is possible to find the same note 2, 3 or even 4 times, on different strings. So, when you come to read a note on the notation you have to very quickly look at the surrounding notes as well to work out whereabouts on the guitar's fingerboard would be best. Hmmmm, unnecessarily difficult ! 

Also, a piano is always tuned the same way. Guitars are often tuned to different tunings to enable the player to use different techniques, to play difficult tunes, to generate unusual and different sounds and harmonies. Sadly, every time you change the tuning on your guitar all of the notes are now in different places. To play in standard notation would now require you to re-learn the position of all the notes - essentially you are having to learn a 'new' instrument. 

However, tablature still looks the same and numbers are still numbers - a 4th fret second string is still a 4th fret second string - no matter what the tuning is. Consequently, the concept is simpler and apart from maybe having to learn a few more chord positions, the reading and playing is simpler too !


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