An Argument Against Tablature

No Tab

“Hey Joe, what are your thoughts on using tablature versus learning to read music?”

Watch out, there’s a rant coming:

Tablature, which is promoted by many teachers as being an easy to follow alternative to reading music, can cause serious problems for the developing bass player as it is set up to create a ‘motor movement’ only response system to playing music. It is for this reason that I present an argument against tablature in modern day music education.

When a bass player (or any musician for that matter) begins to play a musical idea, the ears processing the acoustic picture must always precede the motor reflex, both in performance and while practicing. In other words, the musical idea should be triggering the motor activity- not the other way around. Otherwise, the motor activity (moving your fingers) becomes an end unto itself.

So, with that in mind, tablature provides the bass player with no real musical information other than where the note is on the fingerboard. Please note that there are multiple duplications of the same notes that exist all over the fingerboard, so tablature only provides you with one option. There is no indication of any melodic pitches, harmonic progressions or rhythmic content at all. Because of this, the student relies solely on where the hands are going instead of being able to inwardly hear an idea first before executing the motor movement resulting in creating the notes that are to be played.

Learning to read standard notation provides you with all of the components of music (melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint and form) so that you can follow this paradigm of hearing a musical idea first and then playing it correctly. Rather than looking at numbers on the fingerboard in order to find the corresponding fret number and then playing it; a better musical approach would be to look at the pitch to be played; hear the note inwardly first; anticipate where your fingers need to go; execute the motor reflex needed to sound the actual note, followed up by the acoustic evaluation of what you have played. Remember that the key to success lies in the evaluation of the result of the motor reflex, which is the sound itself.

Finally, tablature has never been used as a skill that is needed in a professional scenario. However, reading standard notation is and always has been part of the professional musician’s toolbox. Learned correctly, reading standard notation should be a secondary system to your ability to play your instrument. You should adopt the paradigm of hearing an idea first; anticipate where your fingers need to go; execution of the motor reflex required and aurally evaluate the end result. When reading standard notation, this formula is preceded by the visual stimulation of note recognition on the score.

For a comprehensive overview of learning to read standard notation, check out my book The Sight Reading Compendium for the Electric Bass!

All the Bass!


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5 Responses to An Argument Against Tablature

  1. Couldn’t agree more!

  2. Benny says:

    It’s a bit like painting by numbers or joining the dots. No ones calling that art. I think it encourages the study of players rather than music. If you want to really play like Hendrix and you don’t have the skill to transcribe, tab will help you a lot but you’re no more of a musician than someone who can win at guitar hero on a playstation. I hope your blog posts will be this regular all year.
    All the bass!

  3. Louis Lefrancois says:

    Totally agree with all the sentiments laid out in your article Joe. Have been teaching myself to read for the last couple of years, and have found that to be much more musically satisfying. Never liked Tab (couldn’t understand it in the first place…).

  4. Mark says:

    Been playing since ’92. I read tabs, but I also listen and jam with as many people as possible doing as many different styles as possible. I also play guitar, drums and keyboards. I learnt so many scales by tab as well and I get around. I can read music enough but not quick enough and since Frank Zappa is dead, I don’t really have any inclination to be honest. Also, Benny, if you could play like Hendrix from painting by numbers, I’ll give you a record contract. If you jam enough with people then you’ll get it. It’s neither here nor there…

    • Joe Hubbard says:

      It depends on what you want to do. Learning to read music broadens your ability as a musician and allows you to work in many diverse scenarios. I have always said that music is an aural experience and you must learn to hear what you are playing first and then translate that through your instrument. Tab does not promote that way of thinking, as it forces the musician to play from a motor-movement paradigm first. I am not saying that musicians who don’t read music are not real musicians; I am saying that tablature is a superfluous skill to learn. Most bass players rely on tab because they think it is a shortcut to reading music and the dirty secret is that it isn’t true!



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