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.