Tablature, if you've never seen it before, is a type of musical notation, or instruction, used to aid in learning string, fretted instruments. It contains the information necessary to know what string to pick, when, fretted at what fret. Here's a small sample:


The red circles represent notes played on what string. Strings run from bottom to top, 5 to 1. The numbers in the red circles tell you which fret to press for that given note. The letters below each red circle/note indicate which right hand finger you pick that note with. You read it as you would this text, from left to right. So, in this "recipe", the first thing that we do is fret the 3rd string at the third fret and pick it with our thumb. There's a special effect direction between the first and second notes that tell us to "pull off" the fret (from the 3rd fret to the 2nd) while simultaneously picking the 2nd string open with the index finger. And on and on, left to right. You'll notice that things are grouped in clusters of 8 and 16 notes. These are called "measures", but more importantly, these are groups of notes that exist together as "licks" or "tags".

Tablature is to banjo playing as a recipe is to baking bread.
You can get your list of ingredients, assemble them in the manner indicated in the recipe, throw it in the oven, and have an inedible brick in about 30 minutes if you've never made bread before. There is so much technique involved in mixing and kneading bread that comes only from tons of experience and possibly even some personal instruction. Same with banjos and tab. I can't stress this strongly enough. In my teaching, I occasionally come across banjo players who have been learning from tab and aren't happy with their playing. They tend to play very mechanically with little feel or sense of time, but most importantly, no understanding of what it is they are trying to play and what it is supposed to sound like. It is virtually impossible to learn a song solely by studying the tab without having a really good idea what it sounds like in your head. Pete Wernick said in one of his excellent banjo camps (and I paraphrase) that this music was passed around among people who very often didn't read or write English, much less music. When it comes to learning the banjo, be from Missouri: "SHOW ME."

Learning Banjo is analogous to learning Language.  If you take a class in German, for example, you will become proficient at declining nouns, conjugating verbs, diagramming sentences, and passing tests, but you won't learn much in the way of real practical use of the language. (I learned more about sentence structure in English by taking a class in German than I did in 20 yaers of speaking it!) To do this, you must speak German. Go to a country and just start using it. Same thing here. If you want to be able to diagram all the finger strokes in a song, use tablature. If you want to learn to play, just start playing with others, as long and as often as you can.

Tablature is a snapshot. The original banjo tab bible, "Earl Scrugg's and the 5 Strign Banjo", was published after Earl sat down with Bill Keith for a couple of days. This resulted in a set of song tabs that were the result of Keith watching Earl play the song one time.  Many people see tablature as a "Bible" of how a banjo piece should be played. Pick any Scruggs song you like, then search for version of that song. You'll find that he seldom plays anything exactly the same way twice. What's more, if you listen to the entire recording of any version, each break he plays within the song is different. Tablature is a snapshot of how one player played one break to one song on one given occasion.

Tab doesn't teach kickoffs or endings. Typically, tab will start with the first measure of a song, throw in some repeat bars, and take you to the last measure. You're on your own outside of that. 

Tab doesn't teach song form. I can always spot a tab learner at a jam. They will take an A,A B,B song form fiddle tune, for example, play A once, then B, then stop. Meanwhile, everyone else in the jam is trying to figure out where the song went. Song form is the whole song, verses, breaks, starts, endings.

Tab requires that you know exactly what it's supposed to sound like in order to learn it. It's impossible for anyone but the most advanced, intuitive banjo player to play a piece of tablature for a song they've never heard before. It would be like trying to speak German after having read only text books.

Tab can't teach "feel". I list this last, but it is perhaps the most important inherent flaw in tablature. You can call it "feel", "punch", "pop", "bounce", "tone", or any of dozens of terms that describe the subtle inflections of timing and emphasis that any good player puts into his music, but tab can't teach any of it.

Tab can't teach technique.  I can't stress this enough. Playing the banjo is not like typing - you just hit the right keys in the right order, and you've got a letter. Banjo is all about HOW you pick and fret. Tab can tell you where to pull off or hammer, or slide, but it can't tell you how to do these things. Scruggs style banjo is rich in technique. It's what makes the difference between noise and music. An example is the "Scruggs slide." Tab has never figured out just how to indicate what happens on the third string, and that's because you can't describe it, at least not in less than 20 words. You have to see it, hear it, and try it. 

The logical product of tablature is a generation of banjo players who play Foggy Mountain Breakdown exactly as Bill Keith tabbed it in the Scruggs book, and yet we have wonderful interpretations done by hundreds of banjo players who follow the general form of the song, but who express their own feelings in their own interpretations.

Earl didn't have tab around when he was coming up with this stuff. I don't suppose J D Crowe, or any of a dozen other banjo greats relied much on tab to learn anything. But we are all the product of an educational system that teaches language from books read left to right top to bottom in linear fashion, and that teaches music as the product of a bunch of dead old white guys from Europe. Bluegrass is folk music. It is interpreted by the player who imparts his feelings into his playing, and plays the song as he hears it, or wants to hear it.

Trust your ear. I've yet to come across a single student in years of teaching who has no sense of time or tone. Cripple Creek is a folk song. It is not copywritten. You can interpret the song anyway you want. 80 years ago, you could go from one hollow to the next throughout the Appalachians and find that each musical community played the song slightly differently, very often using completely different methods of picking. There is no wrong way to play Cripple Creek.

Thow out your tab and start to play the banjo. 


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