Guitar Tablature: It’s Always Been Here

Ancient Guitar Tab

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The Skinny On Guitar Tab – Ancient To Modern Legal

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“He said unlicensed guitar tabs and song scores were widely available on the Internet but were ‘completely illegal.’” – U.S. Music Publishers’ Association President Lauren Keiser speaking to BBC News about tablature.

Being unable to read sheet music should never separate a guitar player from any great tune. That is, as long as tablature is around. Long before industry icons C. F. Martin and Company®, Fender® and Gibson® came into being guitar tablature was aiding as well as abetting both pickers and strummers. Guitar tablature is as old as the instrument itself. So what’s the big deal about tablature?

What is tablature?

Tablature is a musical notation that uses numeric symbols, usually single digits, instead of the conventional notes seen on traditional sheet music. Identifying simple numbers is all it takes to accurately read tablature, also called the “tab version” or “tab.”

First used for stringed instruments in Europe around the beginning of the fourteenth century, tablature, sometimes spelled “tabulature,” is from the Latin “tabalatura,” to tabulate.

The beauty of tablature is that it tells a player exactly where to place each finger throughout a particular song, chords as well as individual notes. Furthermore, the visual arrangement of tablature lends itself well to stringed instruments, especially acoustic and electric guitars. That’s because diagrams look familiar, like a fretboard with six strings. It’s easier to interpret than standard charts and there’s no need here to read music, but it still can’t hurt.

Ancient Guitar Tab
Ancient Guitar Tab - Click to Enlarge

Because tablature does not rely on musical notes, conveying a particular song in terms of harmony, pitch, sustain and other factors, has its limitations. Nevertheless, tablature remains an effective learning tool because it makes use of intuition.

Perhaps this is why guitar tablature has experienced such an explosion during the digital “DIY” age. Seeing how a favorite download or radio tune naturally burrows itself into the human psyche, akin to an unwanted jingle, tablature reduces the musician’s problem of picking up on a new song to a mere, “Show me where my fingers go and I’ll do the rest. I already know how it should sound.”

What are the advantages of the method?

Tablature is simpler to read than customary sheet music; there is no gray area when deciding which notes to play. Generally speaking, mimic the tablature and half the player’s battle is over.

Though there may be plenty of sharps, flats and eighth-notes to play in a given song, intuition suggests the rest by inferring intonation and distinguishing sonic characteristics. There is also ample room for improvisation.

What’s the debate with tablature?

Tablature is an effective way to quickly learn a song. In fact, so much so, its efficiency has become a contentious topic. For the last six years, some of the powers-that-be in the music industry have waged a war against assorted Internet sites that allow users to download guitar tablature of various songs, no matter who did the transcribing or the degree of accuracy.

BBC reporter, Ian Youngs, published a piece on December 12, 2005, “Song sites face legal crackdown” that described the beginning of the tablature conflict:

“The U.S .Music Publishers’ Association (MPA), which represents sheet music companies, will launch its first campaign against such sites in 2006. MPA president Lauren Keiser said he wanted site owners to be jailed.”

The same BBC article adds, “Publishing companies have taken action against websites in the past, but this will be the first co-ordinated legal campaign by the MPA.”

Lately the controversy over tablature seems to have simmered down to some extent but rest assured the battle rages on. No matter the outcome of the MPA’s crusade, guitar tablature is not going away anytime soon.

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Paul Wolfle

As a vintage and contemporary music enthusiast, guitars dominate Paul’s life. He plays slide in open tunings on a National Steel Tricone resonator and electric blues, in standard tuning, on an assortment of other instruments including his white Fender Stratocaster.

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