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Lesson #26: Reading Tabulature

by Tyler de Witt posted on 1999-10-17
Topic: The End Result Subtopic: General
Level: All Levels Number of Readers: 73526

Tabluature

Some of the lessons in this category are going to deal with reading music, because this is after all, an important source for what we actually end up playing.

The purpose of written music is to communicate a musical idea without actually playing or hearing it. When you are presented with a sheet of music, even though you've never heard the piece before, you are still able to play it, because the system of written music was designed for this.

The most widely used written music is called 'musical notation'. Music notation is universal. A piece of music written for saxophone can still be played on the piano, because the notation is the same. Notation will be discussed later.

'Tabluature' is a different kind of notation, and this system is specifically for guitar. Someone playing saxophone _could_ theoretically read a piece of tabluature, then map the notes to where they were on his instrument, but it would be very difficult. Tabluature is designed for the guitar, and this is what we're going to be looking at in this lesson. The short form for tabluature is 'tab'. Consider this:

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

Visualize these six lines as the six strings on your guitar. The letters on the side are the note names of each of the open strings. Now consider this:

E|----------------
B|----------------
G|----------------
D|----------------
A|-3--------------
E|----------------

This indicates that you must play the 3rd fret of the fifth string.

E|----------------
B|----------------
G|-----5----------
D|---5------------
A|-3--------------
E|----------------

This indicates that you must play the 3rd fret of the fifth string, then play the 5th fret of the fourth string, then play the 5th fret of the 3rd string. Get the idea? We read from left to right, just like writing, and the first note that comes along is the first note we play. Now consider the following:

E|----------------
B|----------------
G|-5--------------
D|-5--------------
A|-3--------------
E|----------------

This indicates that we must play all these notes simultaneously, like a chord. When they are stacked vertically, we play them simultaneously. When they are arranged horizontally, we play them in succession.

E|----------------
B|----------------
G|-5--5--5--------
D|-3--5--5--------
A|-3--3--3--------
E|----------------

This indicates that we are to play 3 chords, one after the other.

This is basically what tabluature is all about. If you can understand that each line represents a string, and each number represents a fret number that should be played at that given moment, then you're all set to go. All the rest is just details, which will be described here.

The purpose of notation is to communicate something. So far, we've managed to communicate what frets to play on what strings. Also, we've communicated with order to play all these notes in. Of course, there will also be other things that we'll want to communicate, such as slides, hammer on, pull offs, vibrato and so on.

Consider this:

h - hammer on 
p - pull off 
b - bend string up(also written as ^)
r - release bend
/ - slide up
\ - slide down
v - vibrato (also written as ~)
t - right hand tap
x - damp string and play it

If you are not familiar with what some of these may mean, you should read some of the lessons in the technique category.

An example of each of these will now be shown. To save space, only 2 of the six strings are being shown.

E|----------------
B|--2h3-----------

This indicates that you are to play the note on the 2nd fret, but then hammer on to the 3rd fret.

E|----------------
B|--4p2-----------

This indicates that you to play the note on the 4th fret, but then pull off to the second fret.

E|----------------
B|--8b10----------

This indicates that you should play the note on the 8th fret, then bend it up a tone so that it sounds like the note on the 10th fret. Remember, the second note is just an indication of what the first note will sound like after it has been bent.

E|----------------
B|--8b10r8--------

This indicates to bend the note on the 8th fret so that it sounds like the note on the 10th fret. Then it is to be immediately released so that it sounds like the note on the 8th fret again. Remember that sometimes a bend will also be written as ^ instead of 'b'.

E|----------------
B|--2/10----------

This indicates to play the note on the 2nd fret, then slide up to the note on the 10th fret.

E|----------------
B|--10/2----------

This indicates to play the note on the 10th fret, then slide down to the note on the 2nd fret.

E|----------------
B|--10v----10~----

This first example indicates to play the note on the 10th fret, and then apply a vibrato to the note. The second example means exactly the same thing.

E|----------------
B|--2t12----------

This indicates to play the note on the 2nd fret, then use your right hand to tap the string on the 12th fret.

E|----------------
B|--x-------------

This indicates to damp the strings, usually with the left hand, and then strike them to create a percussive sound. No number is shown, because the percussive sound will be the same no matter what fret it used.

This covers most of the things that you will run into when reading tabluature. If someone wishes to communicate something else using a special symbol, the symbol will usually be explained at the top of the piece of tabluature.

Now that you know what tabluature communicates, you must also know what tabluature does not communicate. Tabluature does not communicate the duration(length) of notes. When playing this:

E|----------------
B|----------------
G|----------------
D|----------------
A|-1---2-3--4-----
E|----------------

One would not know exactly how long to hold each of the notes for. BUT, we can get an idea of how long the notes should last according to the spacing of the notes. For example:

E|----------------
B|----------------
G|----------------
D|----------------
A|--1-2-3-4-------
E|----------------

We could assume that these notes are of equal duration, because they are equally spaced.

This is the fallback of tabluature. In order to play what is on the sheet, usually we have to have some idea of what the piece already sounds like. In this case, the tabluature serves only as a guide as to where the notes are, and the rest is played according to what we have already heard.

Besides this, tabluature is very useful, especially for those who don't know how to read musical notation. Also, it's very useful in a place such as the internet, because tabluature can be written using simple ASCII characters, and moved around as text files.

Things to remember from this lesson:

1. Tabluature is a music notation that is specific to the guitar.
2. Tabluature tells you what frets to play on what strings.
3. Tabluature tells you what order to play the notes in.
4. Tabluature does NOT tell you the duration of the notes, even though you can get an idea of them from the spacing of the numbers.
5. Tabluature is useful on the internet, because it can be notated in ASCII characters.


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