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> Reading Music - Tabs And Music Notation, Part 1 - Tabs
Andrew Cockburn
post May 20 2007, 03:39 AM
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Reading Music - Tabs and Music Notation


Part 1 - Tabs

Introduction

Hi all. In this 2 part series we are going to look at how we write down what we play. We do this for many reasons - to remember a killer riff we just wrote, to allow others to reproduce what we play, to capture the performances of our guitar heroes so that we and others can learn to play them, or just to simply illustrate a point in the forum like "I am playing this run, and I have a problem with the 3rd note ...". So all in all, being able to read and write music notation in some way is essential.

There are 2 methods of writing down the notes. The first is guitar specific and is called tab, and is the easiest to understand. The second is more general and is called music notation or some variation therof.

Now, I know what you are thinking - "I'll have a look at this tab lesson, because I know tab is easy and it makes sense - I'll skip the second lesson". I'd like to explain why that might be a mistake, and how you will benefit from looking at both parts of this lesson, and I'm doing it here at the beginning while I still have your attention:)

Tab vs Music

So why do we need both? Well they both perform different yet complimentary functions. As a well rounded guitarist you need to understand both.

Tab on its own, whilst it is easy to understand has a couple of serious flaws. The first is that it doesn't contain any timing information at all. That's a fairly serious shortcoming if you think about it. If you have a sequence of 4 notes they could be anything from extremely slow and equal notes, to super fast notes, to triplets. They could even all be completely different durations and you wouldn't know it.

The second flaw that tab has is that it doesn't contain any key information. That's not quite so serious, but can be important if you want to use a tab as a basis, and maybe go on to improvise something similar.

Music on its own also has a couple of flaws. Firstly it is not designed specifically for the guitar, so does not give any guidance on where to play the individual notes. On a piano this is not serious, but on a guitar, it can make a lot of difference exactly which string you play the notes on.

Secondly, again since it is not designed for the guitar, music notation can't convey such things as bends, slides and other subtleties, so if you play guitar from music, it will be very dry and will lack much of the expressiveness that we can use with a guitar vs a piano.

So on its own, each form of music notation has its limitations. Only when they are taken together can they come somewhere near to conveying the subtleties of a piece of music. I'm not suggesting that you become an expert musical sight reader, but I am suggesting that a knowledge of musical notation will help you when you are working on some of the more complex tabs you are likely to meet. So with that in mind, please give part two a look when you are done with part one!

Guitar Tabs

Ok, that's enough of that, lets get down to business! In this lesson we will look at tabs which are the easiest type of notation to start with as they are very intuitive to guitarists.

The basic premise is extremely simple. A tab is a representation of the strings of a guitar, with the lowest string on the bottom. As you read from left to right, the tab has numbers placed on the individual strings that denote the fret you need to play the note at. Here's what it looks like:

Attached Image

One great thing about tab is that you can also show it in character form - really great for posts:

E||-------|-------||
B||-------|-------||
G||-------|-------||
D||-------|-------||
A||-------|-------||
E||-------|-------||


And heres an example of it in use - a simple scale of C major:

Attached Image

Or in character form:

E||----------------------|----------------------||
B||----------------------|------------0----1----||
G||----------------------|--0----2--------------||
D||-------0----2----3----|----------------------||
A||--3-------------------|----------------------||
E||----------------------|----------------------||


So roughly translated, this says:

Play the 5th string on the 3rd fret, then
Play the 4th string open, then
Play the 4th string on the 2nd fret

etc.

I also noted the notes of the open strings - starting from the top line, ehich is the E string or 1st string, down to the bottom E string, or 6th string.

You'll notice that I also marked in the bar (or measures) as lines.

Pretty easy huh? The strings and frets are all spelled out for you step by step. Lets look at a couple more tabs. Sometimes we want to play more than one note simultaneously, either as a double stop, or a chord. To show that,m we simpley stack the notes on top of each other like this chord of C major:

Attached Image

Or in character form:


E||--0----||
B||--1----||
G||--0----||
D||--2----||
A||--3----||
E||-------||


Note that we didn't put any number on the bottom E string - this means that we don't play it in this chord as you would expect.

By the way, an essential tip when writing out tabs in forum posts or emails, is to use a fixed spacing font such as courier, otherwise the lines will not match up.

Decorations and Expression

The hard part is over now, the rest is just understanding how we notate specific decorations such as bends vibrato etc.

Lets look at bends first as these crop up a lot in tab. To notate a bend, we give the starting fret number, and the number of the fret that sound like the number you are bending up to. So for instance, if we wanted to start on the 12th fret and make a 2 semitone bend, that would be equivalent to playing a note on the 14th fret, so we show noth notes, with a "b" in between to denote the starting point, the fact that it is a bend, and how far the bend is. In our example we would write "12b14". Sometimes, the 14 would be in brackets - "12b(14)" and occasionally the b is missed out to give somehit like "12(14)". One thing to realize about tab is that there is a variation in how different people write them.

The opposite of a bend is a release, and you would use the same convention to show it, with an "r" in between the two numbers, for instance "14r12". And often you might string bends and releases together like this : "12b14r12". In this case it is obvious that the release will be back to 12, so that can be missed out to give "12br". Graphical tabs may use other symbols such as arrows to denote a bend.

Lets look at that tabbed out:

Attached Image

Or in character form:

E||-------------------||
B||--12b14--12b14r12--||
G||-------------------||
D||-------------------||
A||-------------------||
E||-------------------||


Next up are hammer-ons and pull-offs. They work the same as bends, using the letter "h" for a hammer-on and "p" for a pull-off". Graphical tabs use an arcing line (this is called a slur and is borrowed from musical notation):

Attached Image

Or in character form:

E||--------------------||
B||--12h14----14p12----||
G||--------------------||
D||--------------------||
A||--------------------||
E||--------------------||


After that, there is a list of of different symbols that modify the way notes are played. Here are a few of them:

Attached Image

These are the most common. Remember that these do vary and you may see things done differently by different authors. Most tabs include a key somewhere, and you can use this to figure out any variations on what I have given you. Common sense is a must when interpreting tabs, and it usually helps to have the track to listen to as well if it is available.

Tabbing Programs

Tabs work great as characters, but there are also programs out there that will take your tab and show it in a neat graphical format - like the images I have included. There are two notable programs that do this - PowerTab which is free, and the slightly more accomplished Guitar Pro, which is available for purchase online. These programs are great - they let you lay down a musical idea quickly and very neatly for display to other guitarists. They will also generate musical notation for you (very helpful if you are just learning) and will also play back what you have entered through your computers speaker. Whilst they will never take the prize for sounding musical, they are extremely helpful for allowing you to either see if you have got your ideas down correctly or if you are working with someone elses tabs, to check you are playing it right. Tabs made by PowerTab or Guitar Pro are also exchangeable by email, or can be downloaded from various websites. For instance, ultimateguitar.com has a large number of tabs, and a large proportion of them are in PowerTab or Guitar Pro format.

An Example Tab

Ok, just for fun, here is an example tab - it is none other than "Curious Coincidence" by our good friend Kristofer Dahl - this is a great tab as it covers a multitude of techniques. Here is the first page, and you'll notice it includes music notation too for you to start to have a look at in preparation for the next lesson. I created this tab using Guitar Pro, using Kris' character tab as a basis, and used the video itself to work out the correct timing (since timing isn't included on the tab, but is required to enter a tab into a program like Guitar Pro).

Attached Image

Finally, for reference, here is a reasonably full list of tab abbreviations that you might see.

Tablature Legend
----------------
L - tied note
x - dead note
g - grace note
(n) - ghost note
> - accentuded note
NH - natural harmonic
AH - artificial harmonic
TH - tapped harmonic
SH - semi harmonic
PH - pitch harmonic
h - hammer on
p - pull off
b - bend
br - bendRelease
pb - preBend
pbr - preBendRelease
brb - bendReleaseBend
\n/ - tremolo bar dip
\n - tremolo bar dive
-/n - tremolo bar Release up
/n\ - tremolo bar inverted dip
/n - tremolo bar return
-\n - tremolo bar Release down
S - shift slide
s - legato slide
/ - slide into from below or out of upwards
\ - slide into from above or out of downwards
~ - vibrato
W - wide vibrato
tr - trill
TP - tremolo picking
T - tapping
S - slap
P - pop
< - fade in
^ - brush up
v - brush down

That's it for now - in part two we will explore the more complex world of traditional musical notation.

Any comments are welcome in the forum as usual!

This post has been edited by Andrew Cockburn: Jan 4 2008, 10:15 PM


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Kaneda
post May 20 2007, 04:28 AM
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And a great, helpful lesson as always. I enjoy reading these, even if I know it already (Kaneda the insufferable knowitall tongue.gif). The one thing I remember really came as a surprise when I was first taught tablature was that the top line was the 1st string on the guitar - when looking at tabs before I learned to read them, I always figured the top line was the 6th string - and I couldn't make sense of what I read biggrin.gif

Which is somewhat related to another point, which I'll just add to your list of advantages/disadvantages of tablature vs. music notation: Basically, tablature describes how to play the music, while music notation describes how it sounds.

One outcome of this is that with some experience with music notation, you can look at a piece of paper, and get a feeling for the music - even "hear" it in your head. You can look through sheet music books in the library, not having access to any instrument, and understand how the songs would sound. Much harder with tablature. I don't know anyone - even guitarists with 15 years of experience - who can actually hum a song from a tab in real time smile.gif

Another outcome is that since music notation is closer to representing the "building blocks" of music, reading music notation is a great help when looking at the theory/analysis aspect of a piece of music. It's easier to deduct the actual chords, scales, changes of key etc. - important stuff for using a guitarist's music as inspiration for your own improvisation, rather than just imitation smile.gif

I'm not sure I agree with the "dryness" of music notation vs. tabs - music notation does include ways to show slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, harmonics etc. - as for bends, it's easy to augment the notation vocabulary with those, as many do (although GuitarPro etc. don't for whatever reason).

However, I totally agree with your point about tablatures advantage when it comes to where to play a certain note. Some might say that doesn't matter - or that it's even an advantage - since you're free to pick a place. That all comes down to the question of how important the composer's intentions are. If he jumps from 13th fret on the 6th string to 2nd fret on the 4th string, rather than take the easy way to the 12th fret on the 6th string for a reason (of tone), should you do the same? I know I've heard covers of guitar music where a "different" choice of where to play a simple chord made all the difference in terms of "doesn't sound right" smile.gif

Which is a long way of saying you're absolutely right - the best notation for guitar is tabs and music notation in combination. cool.gif

(Can someone give me a lesson in writing short posts? wink.gif)

This post has been edited by Kaneda: May 20 2007, 04:29 AM
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Andrew Cockburn
post May 20 2007, 01:49 PM
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QUOTE (Kaneda @ May 19 2007, 11:28 PM) *
(Can someone give me a lesson in writing short posts? wink.gif)


Sure, just delete it all apart from your last line smile.gif

Thanks Kaneda for your (as ever) useful insights, and despite the length of your posts (smile.gif) - thankyou for spending the time to add your experiences - your experience is welcome and valuable.

This post has been edited by Andrew Cockburn: May 20 2007, 01:50 PM


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Kaneda
post May 20 2007, 02:48 PM
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QUOTE (Andrew Cockburn @ May 20 2007, 02:49 PM) *
Sure, just delete it all apart from your last line smile.gif


Oooh, that makes perfect sense! biggrin.gif You truly are the lesson master cool.gif

Now can you tell me how to get my girlfriend to make dinner every day, clean up after both of us and wash my feet? smile.gif
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Andrew Cockburn
post May 20 2007, 03:30 PM
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QUOTE (Kaneda @ May 20 2007, 09:48 AM) *
Oooh, that makes perfect sense! biggrin.gif You truly are the lesson master cool.gif

Now can you tell me how to get my girlfriend to make dinner every day, clean up after both of us and wash my feet? smile.gif


Yep, there will be a lesson on that when I get back from my holiday smile.gif


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meandmyguitar
post Jun 11 2007, 10:37 PM
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is this song a part of a lesson? and if not is there anywgere i can download the guitar pro tabs?
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Andrew Cockburn
post Jun 11 2007, 11:21 PM
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QUOTE (meandmyguitar @ Jun 11 2007, 05:37 PM) *
is this song a part of a lesson? and if not is there anywgere i can download the guitar pro tabs?


Curious Coincidence? Yes, its one of Kris' there is a huge lesson on it here:

https://www.guitarmasterclass.net/memberson...oincidence1.htm


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Sikjoy
post Jun 12 2007, 11:38 AM
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That clears up allot, thanks!
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Rockwouldbe
post Jul 22 2007, 01:55 PM
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andrew i am going to send some of my studnts to this lesson, insted of working so hard myself.

good job


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Andrew Cockburn
post Jul 22 2007, 04:12 PM
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QUOTE (Rockwouldbe @ Jul 22 2007, 08:55 AM) *
andrew i am going to send some of my studnts to this lesson, insted of working so hard myself.

good job


Great and thanks smile.gif See if you can get them to sign up to GMC while you are at it!


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post Jul 22 2007, 04:30 PM
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QUOTE (Kaneda @ May 20 2007, 05:28 AM) *
...The one thing I remember really came as a surprise when I was first taught tablature was that the top line ...


laugh.gif laugh.gif laugh.gif . When I teach my little girl I have to remember that what I call the top e string she sees as the bottom and vice versa.

Cheers,
Tony


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T101
post Jan 24 2008, 05:48 PM
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Some questions and a suggestion for the tabulature legend:

Questions first:

L - tied note
g - grace note
(n) - ghost note

Could you please explain these? I know what a dead note is, I've come across the "L" once and didn't understand it, and g and (n) I've never seen biggrin.gif

And the other thing - In the tab of Kris's song there is a palm muted part (PM |------------|), this isn't explained in the legend, I could imagine that it could cause some confusion to people who don't know what it is.

With that said - great theory lessons, I'm slowly making my way through them!

EDIT: ... You are fast!

This post has been edited by T101: Jan 24 2008, 05:58 PM
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Andrew Cockburn
post Jan 24 2008, 05:54 PM
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QUOTE (T101 @ Jan 24 2008, 11:48 AM) *
Some questions and a suggestion for the tabulature legend:

Questions first:

L - tied note
g - grace note
(n) - ghost note

Could you please explain these? I know what a dead note is, I've come across the "L" once and didn't understand it, and g and (n) I've never seen biggrin.gif

And the other thing - In the tab of Kris's song there is a palm muted part (PM |------------|), this isn't explained in the legend, I could imagine that it could cause some confusion to people who don't know what it is.

With that said - great theory lessons, I'm slowly making my way through them!


Sure - a tied note is two notes added together. You play the first note and add on the duration of the second note without actually playing it, just let the first note continue ringing.

A grace note is a single note added before the main note of a very short duration

A Ghost note is a note played extremely quietly to add emphasis to the note that follows it - sometimes it is just there as a rythmic placeholder to keep things flowing.


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T101
post Jan 24 2008, 06:03 PM
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Thanks! Glad to have that cleared up.

Another thing, and I apologize for not including it before (I actually edited it in, but you are too fast laugh.gif ) :

Would you mind explaining the different kinds of harmonics mentioned? Artificial, natural, etc. etc.

Sorry to ask so much, and sorry to say that this probably won't be the last time wink.gif
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Andrew Cockburn
post Jan 24 2008, 08:32 PM
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Heh, I"m ready for that one - check my lesson here smile.gif


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post Jan 24 2008, 09:18 PM
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hey Andrew, now that T101 mentions tied notes, i was wondering if tied notes are necessary or important in tabs? I mean, in sheet music, you connect durations from adjacent bars by tying the notes. But since Tablature does not indicate timing like sheet music does, is it actually important/necessary to note "L" in the notes of a tablature?


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Andrew Cockburn
post Jan 24 2008, 10:25 PM
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you know, that's a very good question!

The best answer I can give off the top of my head is that a lot of tabs are made with guitar pro which DOES have timing built in even though you don;t see it in the exprted tabs, and the tied notes are included to make things correspond between the stave and the tab.

Apart from that no, you are probably right, unless someone knows differently?


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T101
post Jan 24 2008, 11:38 PM
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Now that I come to think about it, a lot of tabs say "let ring", that is pretty much the same then, right? Except with the L you know how long you have to let it ring.
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twood
post Mar 20 2008, 12:58 PM
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hi guys,

Andrew your lessons are really really great. Could you please give a short description of hammer-on, pull-off & legato technics? or is it stuff you teach later on?

thanks
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post Mar 20 2008, 01:01 PM
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QUOTE (T101 @ Jan 24 2008, 10:38 PM) *
Now that I come to think about it, a lot of tabs say "let ring", that is pretty much the same then, right? Except with the L you know how long you have to let it ring.

Let ring is usually used on arpeggiated acoustic melodies so every note of the arpeggio you play you don't stop sounding until you need to move your hand. You keep the chord held and play down the strings without dampening them. It isn't really the same thing as a tied note.


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Gear
Guitars:- Caparison Horus Snowcloud, Parker Nitefly M, Parker Nitefly SA, Gibson SG, Parker P10e, 40 Year Old Spanish Acoustic
Amps:- Framus Ruby Riot 2x12" stack
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