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Guitar Tab: A Language Of Its Own

Sep 5, 2008
Guitarists have a tendency to be self-taught or, at the most, to have taken a few lessons in an informal setting. This is a very different approach from that of most other instruments, which are generally taught formally and with a heavy emphasis on musical theory and written music. A guitarist, for whatever reason, will usually try to work his way through a new song without the aid of written music. Anyone who has ever participated in a campfire sing-along will be familiar with the blunders of an inexperienced performer trying to get through an unfamiliar song. This does not, however, mean that written music for the guitar does not exist. It does, and it is called guitar tab.

If you look up the term "guitar tab" in Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary, you immediately realize, due to the term's absence from that book, that the expression is either relatively recent or from the vernacular. Only slightly more helpful is Webster's fourth entry under "tab," which denotes "[short for tabulator]: a key on a keyboard especially for arranging data in columns." But for a true definition, it's off to that most popular of Internet resources, Wikipedia. The Web site explains that guitar tab is simply the term for written guitar music, or tablature, which is the style of written music generally used for fretted stringed instruments, such as the guitar.

A tab staff for guitar consists of six horizontal lines, each of which represents a guitar string. The bottom line represents the lowest string, "E," the second line "A," etc. This arrangement, with the lowest string on the bottom and the highest on the top, follows the basic layout of Western Standard Notation. This should not, however, be taken to mean that guitar tab is a standardized musical writing practice. This is definitely not the case, the result being that songbooks and other guitar tab sources will usually include a legend defining the usage of the tablature.

Guitar tab is not without its flaws. Rhythmic notation, for example, is a major issue in written guitar music, the problem being that it is rarely there at all. So if the guitarist has never heard a song before, he or she has no way of knowing how long a note should be held. Another major problem is that only guitarists can read guitar tab, it does not translate for any other instrument, nor is it comprehensible to any other type of musician. Needless to say, this can make musical cooperation with other instruments difficult.

There are an inexhaustible number of sources for guitar tab in the world. In addition to the more traditional songbooks and guitar magazines, there is a seemingly endless number of Web sites offering guitar tab. It can be searched by music genre, by level of competency, by guitar type...the list goes on. Some of it is on a "pay per play" basis, but some of it is free. Of course, one might have to wonder about the accuracy of some of the materials, but even a somewhat erroneous written edition of Stairway to Heaven is better than nothing at all!
About the Author
Victor Epand is an expert consultant for guitars, drums, keyboards, sheet music, guitar tab, and home theater audio. You can find the best marketplace at these sites for guitars, guitar tabs, sheet music, guitar tabs, and home theater audio.
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