The benefits – and dangers – of tab

What about the “dots and squigglies” in the music?

By Jon Liebman
Week of August 23, 2021  

There’s an old joke that goes, “How do you get a guitar player to turn down?” Answer: Put music in front of him.

I suppose the same joke be made about bass players, though perhaps not to the same degree. Most bass players who can’t read music just “haven’t gotten around to it yet.” 

In the meantime, there’s always tablature.

Ooh, did I hit a nerve there? Is the feeling more or less intense than that in the debate about how many strings a bass should have? Or whether it’s okay to play bass with a pick. I love seeing so much passion among bass players! But I digress…

A couple weeks ago, I had a super enjoyable conversation with my old friend Stu Cook of Creedence Clearwater Revival, published as this week’s FBPO interview. When I asked Stu what advice he had for someone who wants to learn bass, his answered included the usual items, like learning the basics, ear training, etc. Then he opened about his experiences with sight reading. 

And his thoughts on tab.

Boldly rekindling the debate among the bass community, here’s what Stu has to say about tab.

“I would forget tab,” he says, right off the bat. “If you’re going to learn a language, you may as well learn the real language instead of the pigeon language. It doesn’t take any more time, really, to learn to read notation.”

What’s the real reason for tab? I know it sounds like an obvious question, but which of the following scenarios best describes you?

1. I use tab simply merely as a reference when I need clarification on a particular fingering; 

2. I genuinely want to learn to read music and I’m using tab as a head start, sort of like training wheels;

3. I see no reason to put in the time to read music. I get everything I need from tab and I’m perfectly happy with the result;

4. I’m lazy. Tab, schmab. Leave me alone!

“To me, tab is baffling,” says Stu, “and plus, all the expression is gone. You can’t put expression with the dots and the squigglies and all the stuff that’s part of the classical and traditional music pedagogy.”

With trumpet as his first instrument, followed by a stint with piano, Stu already had an introduction to reading music before he hit the big time. Alas, when he picked up the bass, he put that knowledge aside.

“When I got to rock and roll,” he says, “I stopped reading. It’s probably my biggest single regret. And when I did get back into reading, I got all of Carol Kaye’s books, and Creedence was just breaking. I was trying to improve quick, as fast as I could, so I got her books, and so I sightread.” 

In other words, he learned to read out of necessity, to get on the fast track to learning bass.

Stu’s approach to learning music is old school. “Why would you not learn the names of the notes, and where they were?” he asks. “Having come all the way through my career, I believe you’ll get the most out of it for the time invested by doing it the traditional way.”

While tab definitely has its advantages, my hope for you is that your approach is #1 or #2, above. In the long run, it will serve you better.

As always, I’d like to know what you think. Have a thought about the pros and cons of using tab? Leave a comment below and let ‘er rip! In the meantime, check out my interview with Stu here.

Comments on The benefits – and dangers – of tab

  1. Charlie Irwin says:

    I wish I had learned to really read notes back in the day. I’m in my 70’s now – I keep trying to learn to read and I can somewhat but will probably never really get it. It’s like language – yes, you don’t need to be able to read and write to talk & communicate. But not being able to read and write really limits you…

  2. Mark K. says:

    I’ve done hundreds of reading gigs from musical theater, studio sessions to major concerts and not a one was scored in tab. I can’t imagine sight reading tab. If one is serious about a career in music, learning to read notation is a necessity.

  3. Rob Pizapio says:

    I think the entire tabulation thing arouse from not wanting to pay for the sheet music #1, when I was coming up in the mid 70’s if you wanted to learn a song, you bought the sheet music. It was difficult to learn something by ear, because most bass players were deep in the mix and compressed to just a thump. At least that is what you heard coming from your record player. Fast forward to the internet again posting published works got crushed fairly quickly, there used to be bass sites up where you could download the music for free, they are all gone, so people turned to tabs to beat the system. But in doing so they learn without feel and understanding what the creator of the music wanted you get from it IMO. Unless you hear the music first you can, but if you sit in and haven’t heard it you can not play it as you can by sight reading the actual music score. Playing bass guitar for 56 years 🙂

  4. I started on the double bass in the classical tradition.
    Now that I’m just beginning the electric bass I’m playing
    more and more without the notes in front of me.

  5. Al says:

    each one has it’s good side and bad side.
    If you want to play ancient music or midle age music with Lue or viola di gamba, without tabs it4s not possible.
    on this time they all play with tabs
    today there are poeple who can easely read notes, other one not. But all will enjoy to play music, so tabs are the solution.
    With good tabs you can have the rythm and the proper interpretation like with notes
    I work with both when I play and in my teaching
    sorry for my bad english

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.