TIME TO COMPLETE: 10 minutes
WHAT YOU NEED: Paper and pen, Blank TAB printout
SKILL LEVEL: Beginner to intermediate
Have you ever tried writing your own TAB (or tablature) for song ideas or riffs? Being able to write your own TAB is a key skill for guitarists. Once you get used to understanding how to write TAB properly you will be able to write ideas and riffs down without even playing them on guitar. By learning to write your own TAB you will also be able to transcribing songs by ear (although that’s another lesson all together).
Imagine sitting on a train and having this idea for a song riff. You could use your phone to record yourself hum or sing the part – but you may get a few weird looks from other passengers. The alternative is to write down what you think the TAB would be. At first it can be quite hard to find the right notes and you will probably find that your TAB doesn’t sound like it should. But the more you practice this skill the closer you will get to getting it right. Eventually you will be able to think up of an idea and straight away write down the exact TAB so when you get home to your guitar you will be able to play it perfectly. This is a powerful skill many guitarists don’t have, but the truth is it can be learned just like any other skill on guitar.
FIRST STEP: BEING ABLE TO READ TAB
It should be obvious but to be able to write your own TAB you need to be able to read TAB with ease. If you still struggle to figure out whether the low E string is the bottom or top line in TAB then the first step is to brush up on your understanding (Answer: it’s the bottom line). If you haven’t learned TAB yet you will be glad to hear that it’s incredibly simple. Guitarists have it easy compared to other musicians who don’t use TAB. Learning how to read standard notation on the other hand is much more difficult (but worthwhile). You should learn standard notation too because TAB has it’s own limitations that standard notation can fix. But to start off it’s completely fine to learn TAB.
If you can comfortably read TAB, move on to the second step. If not, keep learning – it’s easier than it looks. Have a search for lessons on the Internet that explain how to read TAB and read more than one lesson on it as every person will explain it in different ways. Here’s a lesson on TAB basics.
SECOND STEP: TRANSCRIBING SIMPLE PARTS
Once you fully understand how to read TAB, you can start trying to write down simple parts you play on guitar. Start out very simple and play one note at a time. Only play a few notes to begin with or it will be too hard to remember it all. Once you play your simple part, have a go writing it down. If you think the TAB looks right then play it back on guitar and listen if there are any mistakes. If it ends up being completely wrong and confusing, try a simpler part. On the other hand if you found that incredibly easy, try a longer or more complicated part.
This is an incredibly easy skill to learn. All you need to do is try it again and again. Start by writing down simple parts then work your way to more complicated parts.
Try out these simple ideas and write the TAB down for each part you come up with.
- Play four random notes
- Play four random power chords
- Play four notes and use two hammer-ons
- Play four notes and use a slide and a hammer-on
- Play six notes and use a slide, a hammer-on and a pull-off
- Play: a power chord, a slide, a hammer-on, a pull-off then a bend with a note in between each
Do the above examples make sense? The idea is to start with very simple parts (eg: four random notes) then slowly work your way to playing more complicated parts (like example 6). You don’t have to follow these examples; they just give you ideas to start on.
If you find the above exercises simple, then it’s time to move on to the next step.
THIRD STEP: WRITING THE TAB FIRST
Once you feel comfortable playing a part on guitar then writing it down on TAB it’s time to do the opposite. Writing down a TAB part then playing it on guitar is a fantastic way to really understand how notes and chords work together. At first it may be frustrating because the parts won’t sound very musical, but of course with practice they will slowly sound better and better.
It is actually quite simple to write down any TAB without playing something first. Give it a go. Write out a full line of notes, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, etc. Now play it. How does it sound? Hmm.
The challenge in this step isn’t to write down the TAB first, which is quite simple. The challenge is to write down parts that will sound good when you play them on guitar. It’s pretty tricky writing a part off the top of your head that will sound good without even hearing the notes! But imagine how powerful that skill will be once you can actually do it. Many composers are able to write down songs without even touching an instrument.
Here are a few things to think about when writing out your TAB:
- Do the notes follow any key or scale you know?
- Do any notes stand out or look like they don’t fit in with the others?
- Are all the notes within a range my hand can easily play (Eg: not jumping up and down the neck)
- Are there large jumps between the notes that don’t look right
These types of questions will eventually become second nature as you learn what works and what doesn’t. As soon as you try to play the parts you have written down you will clearly hear which notes don’t work and can change them. The more often you try this the easier it gets.
Being able to read and write TAB is a crucial skill for guitarists. Luckily it’s quite easy to do both. The first two steps in this lesson should be simple for most people. Once you can read TAB without any doubts you can begin to write down parts you play on guitar. The hard part begins when you try to write down the TAB first.
Being able to write down TAB for melodies and riffs you come up with in your head is a skill not many players have mastered. It’s a hard skill to develop but it’s completely worth the effort. Imagine thinking a melody or song idea in your head and being able to scribble down the exact TAB so you don’t forget it. So many guitarists have missed out on writing amazing songs simply because they couldn’t properly write their ideas down. Work through the suggestions in this lesson and you will eventually develop this skill.