Thursday, 5 March 2009

TAB: The Phantom Menace?

As you can probably imagine, I'm a fairly frequent visitor to guitar forums and on many occasions have seen what I am beginning to think is a worry addiction among students of the instrument; TAB Addiction
Now before you discount this as the ramblings of a guy who spends much too much of his time writing about guitars and technique, just let me ramble on a bit and explain why I think this is definitely not a good thing.
Whenever a 'hot' guitar album is released, it's generally not too long before it becomes a talking point on the many forums out here in webland. It's inevitable that one of the posts goes something like this:

"Oh man, this album burns! I can't wait for someone to TAB it out..."

OK, so what is wrong with this sentence? Well, the problem I have with it as a teacher and player of many years is that current trends seem to conclude that TAB is the answer to everything and that its seductive 'painting by numbers' interface is all you really need to turn you into a player of phenomenal girth. Wrong. And I've proved it many times.
There are two basic reasons for my unrest with the TAB-as-the-answer-to-everything approach to learning guitar: one is source material - many transcriptions published on the web are littered with errors and, seeing as these are copied and republished numerous times, the errors they contain become compounded. In other words, the 'wrong' version becomes accepted as being somehow 'right' (more on why this happens in a sentence or two...). Even the books you buy from music shops - you know, the ones that boast 'note-for-note' transcriptions on the covers - tend to be a bit hit or miss. When I was teaching full time, I had a student come in to see me clutching a book containing a transcription of Eric Clapton's song 'Layla'; I don't know who did the transcription, but the decision to write it out in the key of A flat should have been picked up somewhere before publication (the riff is in A). So instead of open strings down at the nut, the riff was tabbed as being at the fourth fret - not only did this make it more difficult to play than in the correct key, but it just didn't sound right, either.

In interviews, I've often asked players if they ever get to see transcription books before they go to print and none of them have said that they do - and yet they are the only guys who could possibly tell you if the music is right! The only exception to this was Joe Satriani - and he told me that he found a serious error in that a whole piece had been transcribed in the wrong time signature. Oops.
OK, so I've trashed the nefarious 'free tab' available from the internet and questioned the properly paid for variation available in the market place. What's the other reason that TAB is so bad for players? It's all down to invisible techniques and pitch training...

Let's take them one at a time: what the heck do I mean by 'invisible techniques'? Quite literally, there are many techniques in play in any guitar piece at any one time - some obvious, others not. Is it important, would you say, to recognise that a riff is played with all downstrokes instead of alternate picking, for instance? Well, it is if you want to nail that piece 100% - I'm talking about the slight difference in timbre that separates one picking stroke from the next. And is it important to note that the note A in the second bar was in fact played at the 14th fret, G string, rather than the easier 5th fret E string? Sure it is - for all the same reasons, too. 

So the music has to be right if anyone has got a chance to reproduce it - but the other important concern is what's happening to people who are allowing themselves to become 'tab dependent'. Simply put, I think it means that their ears aren't developing. What used to happen was that someone who was learning would hear something they particularly liked on a record and really struggle to work it out themselves (there was no TAB back in the pioneering days of playing guitar). It was a heck of a pain and, having spent many hours doing this myself, I wouldn't blame anyone for taking an easier way out if it was on offer. But what all those hours did to me was develop my ear - it was subtle and I didn't particularly notice at the time, but it led me to the point where I can usually find my way around the guitar landscape these days - and of course I do the odd transcription for magazines, too. 

I've heard similar stories from loads of players from my generation - and beyond it - too. In fact, the legendary jazz guitarist Tal Farlow told me once that he learned to play many of the tunes in the jazz repertoire from listening to the radio. He said that when a track he liked came on the radio he used to pick up his guitar, knowing that he only had this one pass to get the music right - if not, he just had to wait until it was on the radio again. But he had the most amazing ears and could play virtually anything he wanted to because of it.

So what's going to happen to the 'tab generation'? Poorly developed ears means even greater TAB dependency, very slow progress for the individual and the loss of many of the more subtle nuances that players use and which makes the instrument so magical. And that's not good for the future of guitar playing...

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