Thursday, March 7, 2013

Theory of Ethos: Tablature - Boon or Bane

"A piano has 88 keys, and is capable of playing 88 notes.  In contrast, a 4 string bass has 96 different places you can play a note, but only 41 distinct pitches.  The piano is an instrument of range, but the bass is an instrument of choice."  Victor Wooten

It's Back to Basics time here at Chico's World, so Theory of Ethos is going to have a basic lesson, too.  We're going to take a look at tablature:  how to read it, what it can be used for, and how it can hurt us as guitarists.

If you have no clue how to read tab, this lesson will be a little tricky.  There are tons of tutorials on that, so go hit up one of those and come back when you finish.  Here's two:
One in video
And one in text
http://guitar.about.com/od/tabchordslyrics/ss/read_guitar_tab.htm

Tablature is a way of representing music in terms of the guitar fretboard as opposed to traditional music notation.  In traditional notation, the lines and spaces represent higher and lower pitches.  In tablature, the lines represent the strings of a guitar, and the numbers on it are frets.  It simplifies certain things for guitarists.  You can tell at a glance where to put your fingers.  This is a C triad, written in both notation and tablature.








e------------
B------------
G---0--------
D---2--------
A---3--------
E------------




If all you have is the notation, then you have to figure out where to put the notes on the fretboard.  With the tab, that bit is taken care of for you.  But the notation tells you things the tablature doesn't, like how long to hold the chord.  And neither one of them make it obvious that there are several other ways to play this chord.


e------------
B------------
G------------
D---5--------
A---7--------
E---8--------


e------------
B------------
G---0--------
D------------
A---7--------
E---8--------


e------------
B------------
G------------
D---2--------
A---10-------
E---8--------
(This last one requires two-hand tapping, but is quite useful in certain situations)

There are ways around some of this.  You can shoehorn rhythm notation onto tablature.  It's difficult to notate dotted rhythms or whole notes (since they don't have stems), but it can be done.  The problem is that you frequently see tab without rhythm notation and so it is common for guitarists to be completely oblivious to rhythm notation.  It is possible to simply read where to put your fingers on the tab, and listen to a recording for things like rhythm and articulation.  

But what about a piece for which there is no recording?  Or something you compose?  Or what if there is a recording but no tab exists?  Then it would be useful to read and write rhythms.  

But there's one thing that there is no getting around: The tab doesn't tell you that there are other ways to plays those notes.  Tab in fact implies that there isn't another way to play that.  "This is where you put your fingers.  That's all that matters."  But it isn't all that matters, is it?

In the early Black Sabbath days, Toni Iommi started downtuning his guitars due to an injury that made his fingertips sensitive to pain.  The slacker strings hurt less, but simultaneously changed the sound of the guitar.  He took advantage of this by sometimes playing riffs that sounded low in pitch way up on the higher frets of the guitar on the lowest strings.  This changed the tone of his guitar to a darker sound and is huge part of the "doom-y" feel of early Sabbath albums.

Different strings sound different.  It sounds obvious, but exploring the tonal differences in various places on the guitar neck isn't something most guitarists spend time thinking about.  More importantly as creative artists, playing in a different part of the neck may open up possibilites that were not otherwise available.  Let's look at that C chord again.


e------------
B------------
G---0--------
D---2--------
A---3--------
E------------

Played in this position, you have certain options.  Open strings lie very close to fretted notes, meaning you can incorporate them into melodic lines, like this bluegrass-inspired lick.


The version higher up on the neck would have a more difficult time with this lick, and in fact it is quite impossible to accurately reproduce it with the articulations.  But, there are some harmonic options that become available that are difficult lower on the neck.  Take this lush C(add#11) chord


Part of what gives this chord it's interesting sound is the dissonance between the third of the chord, E, and the added note, F#.  There's no way to voice this in first position so that the F# and E natural sound in the same octave, which is something you might never know if you depended on tab and didn't try to play the chord in a different place. 

But that's not to say that tab is all bad.  Part of how to play a song is in fact tied up with where you put your fingers.  The beauty of barre chords is that a certain exact fingering allows a chord to be movable. And there are only two ways to preserve for posterity (or you, when you forget before next rehearsal) exactly how you play a song:  One is to video record it.  The other is tab.  

When I was in college, my bass instructor hated tablature.  Just bringing it into his office was inviting criticism, if you weren't immediately thrown out.  But junior year, I decided to play a Bach prelude on bass - the one in C minor from book 1 of The Well Tempered Clavier.  Rather than play it as a duet, I decided I would learn both parts on bass.  It was quite a challenge, taking most of the school year to finish, and when I was done I decided that the exact place I put my fingers was as much a part of my arrangement as anything else.  So I transcribed it in tablature.  

My instructor balked at first, and then I explained it to him just like I did above: tablature is the best way to write down where you put your fingers.  He relented.  Senior year I did a Bach two part invention on bass - similar in concept to the prelude, but it proved much more difficult.  I never would have gotten through it without tabbing it out as I went along.  I still have those tabs.  And as far as me or my instructor can tell, I'm the only person in the world that can play that particular invention on bass, both parts simultaneously.  

So, is tab a boon or a bane to guitarists?  Here's the takeaway.  Tab can massively hinder your development as a musician, but only if you let it.  If you take it for what it is - a way of communicating to others fret positions - and be wary of what it isn't - a complete replacement for the need to read notation or rhythms - then it can be a great tool.  
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