Learning Music: A Discussion on Bass Tab, Notation and Ears

Q: I have been interested in music all my life, but never played an instrument. Now that I’m retired, I have taken up playing the bass for the last six months from an instructor. I started out learning the notes on the bass itself and one song using notes. But since then, all of my learning has been by the tablature method. I can play the songs using tabs, but feel I really don’t know the song without the notes that really make up the song. I take the tab home and transcribe it into notes, but I’m just not sure tabs is the way to go. The tabs do get one playing very quickly, but I feel there is something missing. Your thoughts on learning via tabs?

A: Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of tab. I think it’s a shortcut that becomes a crutch and ultimately hinders one’s ability to become a functional musician.

That being said, I also firmly believe that circumstances alter cases. There are always exceptions to the rule.

You mentioned that you are retired and just getting going. To me this implies that you are less concerned with fostering a career in music so much as enjoying it for its own sake. Tab is a great way to get to playing a song quickly and without much fuss. It doesn’t teach you anything about your instrument or how music works (as you’re discovering), but it gets you playing along to recordings almost immediately.

I think tab is great for folks who just want to learn how to play a tune in an afternoon without agonizing over it.

I got a guitar in college and immediately grabbed my roommate’s Guitar Player mags and learned how to play “Stairway to Heaven” and a Randy Rhodes solo (“Dee”, I think) using the included tab, in about two hours. I can still remember them and play them, but I can’t play a lick of anything else to this day unless I just play it like a bass.

I get the impression that you are wanting a little musical muscle development for your efforts. Tab won’t get you there. Learning to read notation is rewarding, but it’s also time consuming and challenging. I would explore regular notation (Bach cello suites, or beginning bass books focusing on reading, for example).

But if you don’t want to have to go through the agony (for some) of trudging through notes on the staff daily and just really want to learn your instrument while also learning some tunes, I would start developing your ear.

Simply plucking through tunes (start simply) and finding the notes teaches us a lot about our instrument as we try to figure out how to get the right tone. It also teaches us the shapes of common patterns and how they relate to the sound (pentatonic patterns, blues lines, and so one), and it helps us discover how to really listen deeply.

We also develop the ability to better jam with people because we develop a sense of how things move on the fretboard and what they sound like as well as working our ears and becoming better listeners. You will also learn a lot about what goes into a great bass line. Things will sink in and stick in a more meaningful and functional way, I think.

If you are series about becoming a better player, developing your ears and learning to pick out lines is an enormous and crucial exercise, regardless of whether or not you have your sights set on being a “professional” player.

How about the rest of you readers? Anyone have any stories or thoughts on tab vs. notation vs. ear – or a combo? Has anybody made the transition from one to the other? What are your experiences? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Leave a Reply to John Dryden Cancel reply

  1. Very Similar to my status, when i start to learn bass, i didn’t trust my ears and work always with tabs, now after 4-5 years later I am playing in a instrumental rock band, where most of the songs are complex, then i can’t learn these by ear as i missed the point where i should develop it with the learning curve. I think it would help a lot to most of the people afraid to start learn by ear, to have a list of songs by levels, like easy to learn by ear. only root notes. med-easy, med, med-hard, hard. very-hard.
    Now, i need to learn the song Opeth – Ending Credits, but there is no correct tab, and don’t know what to do. The feeling of, if i can’t learn killing all your enthusiasm. You afraid that you will fail, but if you don’t try you will not get there also.

    • Ben Heartland

      Yes! I think bad tabs are worse than no tab at all. Unless you know that the transcription is good, you need to use your ear to check it, in which case you might as well work it out yourself.

      Even in professional transcriptions I see a lot of tabs that make me think “there’s no way I’d play it like that”. I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s pressure from publishers to make the tabs *look* easy so their books sell better; for example, using open strings and lower positions even where it’s not appropriate or even makes it harder to play in practice.

  2. Very well stated. Good article and sound advice.

  3. I started off with piano at age 4, so regular notation is no stranger to me 45 years later. But it does seem like a skill that’s fading. Few rockers I’ve met are comfortable using standard notation, although some do know it.

    I can tolerate tabs when the incorporate rhythmic notation – because face it, sometimes the exact note don’t matter than much, but the rhythms absolutely do. And in reality, sight “reading” is really sight “interpolation”, especially if there are a lot of ledger lines.

  4. I can say tabs helped me in the beginning when it came to certain fingerings and being able to build up speed. Ultimately, it was reading music that really moved my playing forward, giving me something to visualize harmony, rhythm, melody, form, etc.

    There’s a few instances were tabs are super helpful, and Bela Fleck mentions this in his documentary “Throw Down Your Heart”: if you’re talking about being able to play multiple strings simultaneously, you really need to know where things fall on the instrument (as is the case with the Banjo) before you try to execute it in a live setting. Which I suppose means it’s a great practice tool.

    There’s a tune by Avishai Cohen (the bassist) called “Continuo” off of his album of the same name. It’s performed on a six-string bass a lot like a classical guitar player would. I worked for about two weeks learning it by ear before I had all the individual notes down, but the fingerings were killing me, especially with all of the shifts and leaving certain notes ringing while plucking a different melodic line (multiple voices on the same instrument). I found meticulously detailed tabs online (including which left hand fingers to use for each note) which made the tune more accessible.

  5. I typical use tab for music I learn from ear. If I get stuck on a lick, Tabs are useful. YouTube tutorials are a quick fix too. The problem reading charts for me is to know the best place to play the tune on the neck. I haven’t really read for over 20 years, but love Chord Charts. Just my opinion. Reading is important overall. I came from that to the current Tabs and YouTube fixes. Ear training is a must. Peace all. Just my two cents.

  6. Rob

    I was fortunate enough to start with piano. Although piano never stuck for me I went into the bass already reading. I can also read well in treble clef which has been a great help over the years. As Damian said, it all depends on what you want to do, but I can’t imagine being on this musical journey without knowing how to read.

  7. that bass guy

    Using tabs to play music is akin to a dancer painting numbered footprints on the floor, inho. If music is the country that you find yourself in, then learn to speak the language spoken there. Having said all that, one concession that I do allow is the Nashville Number System. Much more than tabs, it allows for someone with music knowledge to quickly pickup a basic arrangement. My personal choice is still to learn notes…

  8. Ted

    Excellent response and spot on! I am a semi professional bass player and way back in college when I first picked up a bass, tabs came in handy. I quickly progressed to playing in a band, the development of my ear then became paramount to my success moving forward. Playing live music with others is an excellent way to get your ears used to doing the heavy lifting for you. For the better part of the last twenty years, I have learned to play songs by listening to them alone (although every once in a blue moon, if I get stuck on a really tough part in a song, I will seek a tab for clarification. Don’t judge me!!!). Trust your ears folks, Damian speaks the truth…

  9. Barry Irwin

    Personally I don’t think tab has anything to do with learning music but rather a method to facilitate a way of getting information on an instrument.
    It has been noted that learning and studying music is a wonderful way of keeping the brain functional and in good shape.
    To someone coming to music at a late age may I suggest….. The blues.
    The 12 bar blues form is something simple and one that the ear can easily pick out.
    Go out and buy a bunch of blues albums and study the blues. Listen to the bass lines which are imperative to the music,also,most often,not too difficult, and fun to play.
    Try to hear the key.
    Try to hear the bass line.
    Try to hear when the chord changes occur.
    Pick out the notes on the bass.
    When you have this down and can play a few songs and feel comfortable with the form go to the next step….
    Buy a book on basic music theory and try to digest the information given, independently of the above.
    When the confusion sets in as to how the two things fit together, go and find a music teacher to set you straight.
    You don’t need a bass teacher to do that but a bass teacher will correct you on any practical issues you might have on the bass and be able to explain the music theory.
    What I,m suggesting here,is a study with the right side of the brain, and then the left.
    Then combining them. How you do that is up to you,and at your own pace.
    I think this will be the least confusing way to go about understanding how to play bass parts and learning to play music on the bass. Also
    giving you the ability to understand music in both an intellectual and emotional way.
    If this doesn’t work I would suggest growing roses. A friend of mine who was a good bass player and went on to be a great producer found this to be a very rewarding experience.

  10. Kirk Bolas

    I started in music by playing guitar about 35 years ago and added bass to my skills about 25 years ago. I can sight read standard notation some and that’s a recent acquisition… maybe in the last five years. I started back in a day when there was no You Tube and there weren’t a ton of tabs out there, at least good ones. I learned to play by ear and by having other guys I jammed with show me things. The combination of the two really helped solidify my listening skills. I picked up some music theory early on, Circle of Fifths, chord and scale construction and the related patterns and again listened to what that all sounded like when I played. I use tab occasionally when I have to learn some songs for a pick-up gig in someone else’s cover band because their bassist is sick or their guitarist is in rehab. The most important skill imoho is ear training. I’m pretty much self-taught and did so by listening and figuring out what I heard on my instrument. Rhythm, melody and harmony picked up by ear had been my pathway. I have a family member who is a fantastic keyboardist and sight reader. The only problem is that if you want this person to learn to play something, they have to have written music. They don’t have the skills to learn by listening and can’t improvise on the fly…not yet but I’m working with them. I look at it this way. Music is an art that is sensed by hearing for most of the human race. Until about 600 years ago, there wasn’t much written music…at least what we recognize as written music. Scoring music was invented do that one musician could transmit a song over distance and over time for posterity. We have other technologies that accomplish that now and they lead back to the listening thing. I think sight reading is important and I want to increase my skill in that area, but not having any proficiency at it for most of my musical journey hasn’t really hurt me any. Listening skills aka playing by ear is king in my book.

  11. Rodney Spiers

    TAB has its place, it has actually been around for centuries. It was how music for lutes etc was notated.
    The biggest issue with TAB is that it doesn’t give enough information (no details on note length, rhythms etc). There is no way that you could learn a piece from TAB without being able to hear it as well.

    • If you have Guitar Pro tab, than it has the durations and all the information, but if its plain ascii/text then there is no information as you mentioned.

    • Jeanette Welch

      Some tabs are notated rhythmically.

  12. Ernie McDaniel

    Interesting article. So…how does a deaf bassist like me “develop an ear” for music if I can’t tell the difference between two notes? I can read standard notation and bass tablature but cannot identify notes, chords or key by ear. I have to hear the actual song along with the sheet music/chart or tab to learn how to play it. It’s been interesting so far and the wealth of information online has been a big help in speeding up the learning process even if the tabs are not always accurate. After 11 years of music lessons I’ve learned a lot but at the same time I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface.

    • Claudio Hohagen

      Learning music is like learning a language. Babies learn to speak before learning to read. The thing is that we are no Babies anymore, our brains don’t get to recognize pitch so easily. But it can be done anyway even if it is at a slower pace. Babies repeat words thousands of times before they can pronounce things right. This is what I do : pick a sequence of notes, starting with few notes (sometimes just two notes if it’s a difficult interval to sing) then alternate between singing it, playing it and imagining the sound in my mind the same way you can imagine a word. Close your eyes and say mentally the word ‘cat’, you’ll see that you can hear exactly how it sounds in your mind and you can also see how it’s written.
      It takes time, it takes thousands of repetitions but it works. I can sight read rhythm and have being able to read standard notation with my instrument for for 30+ years but is only now after a few months forcing myself to mentally hear what I want to play before actually playong it that my hearing have started to really improve.

      Start with a simple interval like root to fifth and play-sing-imagine it’s sound untill you can hear it, see it on your fretboard and visualise it’s notation. At the beggining it can seem difficult but if you stick to it you’ll get there.

      If you do it for a few minutes twice a day everyday, let’s say that you’ll be mentally hearing the first intervall in a month ( it goes faster and faster as you use this method, what takes you a month today will take a week pretty soon). From root to octave there are only twelve different intervals, if takes you a month to internally hear each interval in a year you’ll be able to hear all the intervals within an octave.

      Become a music geek, learn all the math (theory) you can learn and you’ll see that your fretboard knowledge, standard notation understanding and inner ear will develop incredibly.

      We that are not geniuses can do i too. I just takes time, patience and the ability to stick to it.

      Baby steps for sure but what if in two years you were hearing whole mesures in your mind and knowing what are the shapes on your fretboard that correspond to what you are hearing ?

      Be brave, practice smart, you’ll get a lot of joy

  13. I started out differently, I’d played piano for years so I knew my way round notation reasonably well. Then I tried playing guitar for a month with tabs, and then somehow was called to play bass for a band at school – I’d never played a bass and didn’t even own one at the time. The music I was given was horrifically complicated (at the time), Crazy Little Thing Called Love – Queen and I was struggling to play ANY notes. I could read the notes and sing them back but I couldn’t put them onto the bass very quickly. Luckily, I was given copies of the music to take home and learn, which had the notation and the tab underneath. That really helped me learn fast where the notes were and how they all fitted together on the neck.

    After that I ended up in a Swing Band and was called the best player they’d ever had, sight reading stuff from notation like “The Chicken” for example. It took a few years to get that good, but having notation and tab together at the beginning helped me transfer my knowledge of notation from the piano to the bass without being overly reliant on “cheating” the music and using just tabs – got to combine my musical knowledge. So if you can get hold of music that has notation AND tab, that worked really well for me and it might work for you too

  14. Mike Artz

    I am 53 yrs old and have been playing bass since I was 15. Back when I first learned how to play you had to develop your ear to learn songs as there was no ‘You Tube’ to show you how to play a song. I remember learning Rush’s ‘La Villa Strangiato’ from sheet music and from constantly playing the cassette tape over and over again. I think it took me a month of constant practice to learn the whole song, which I still know from heart today.

  15. John Dryden

    Also depends on where u get your tabs from, If you buy them they will likely be accurate …. if u download them for free … there are often discrepancies …… now you are learning the song incorrectly ….. again that is where u need to apply your ear. On another note …. please don’t imply that people who don’t read off the staff can’t learn and/or be knowledgable about music theory ….. there are lots of gigs in the world where it is just inappropriate to have written music on stage ….

  16. Music has always been my most enjoyable hobby. I picked up the bass 13 years ago this month (having played rhythm guitar for the previous 29 years) to join my first – and current – working band. We are a cover band and none of us, at this stage in ours lives, have realistic aspirations of “making it big”. As a rhythm guitarist, I never needed to be able to read music. When I switched to bass, while it would’ve been nice, it wasn’t a necessity. I learn most everything I play by ear and will absolutely turn to tabs when I can’t figure something out. Having said that – in my opinion – if you plan on making music a career, learning to read music is really something you should do. But if you’re just gonna play covers as a weekend hobby, a combination of ear and tabs should serve you well

  17. Chris A.

    Having played by ear for about thirty years, I decided to actually study music with a teacher as I feel that I know I can play, but to get to where I want to be I need someone to help get me there.

    To that end, I am studying reading, transcribing, harmony, etc… While I’ve never used tab, I only see that as a means of transferring information on a particular fingering rather than actually assisting me musically. By all means, enjoy your retirement, but perhaps taking the time you have and getting as deep into music as you desire is the more proper course for your goals.

  18. As someone who’s taught a lot of entry level players, I feel like tab is only useful if you’re using it to chart out a scale or a chord. Being there’s no way to indicate rhythm, I’ve never had a student be able to play something well they had the tab for. Yesterday at a rehearsal my friend asked me how to play a B minor on guitar. From 2 rooms away (I was in the bathroom) I was able to shout “X24432” and that’s all he needed. Music being a language, you can use that kind of “coding” like a rosetta stone. It would’ve taken forever/my friend would’ve lost interest if I tried to explain that you can build it out of a B, D, and F# with a couple of the voices doubled in the higher register. To borrow an analogy from Victor, you learn to speak before you learn to read, and you learn to listen before you can speak. So listen. Be patient. Be methodical about it. As Jeff Berlin has mentioned, you can’t play something if you can’t hear it. If you can hum or sing the passage of notes you’re working on (melody, rhythm, whatever), you can figure it out. It’s just about how you internalize the music.

  19. Jay

    Hi All – I am the originator of the ‘tab’ question . . . . wow what great advice from everyone! thank you all for taking the time to comment on my question and Damian’s response.
    At 62 I wished I started playing earlier, but this is life!
    The big take away for me is listen to the music and understand what my ear hears and brain interprets.
    I’ve read all of your comments over and over again. Thanks again to everyone.

  20. Larry E. Stewart

    I agree but Tabs are a necessary evil when starting out. To learn to read F Clef takes a lot of time and practice. With clef when you start learning it you use All Cows Eat Grass and All Boys Do Fine Always and it takes a while to get passed this. I fine that even now I will Tab out a song then convert it to Clef.

  21. Tabs are ok but they don’t show the timing like notation does. I started on tabs be t found that unless you had a rough idea of how the bass line should sound they can be next to useless.

    I bit the bullet and found a great teaching aid, clef tutor. It runs on an iPhone or iPad.

    I can now play from notation making it easy to play a bass line I have not played before with the correct timing.