Pros & Cons Of Guitar TABS – Using Them To Your Advantage
There’s an abundance of guitar TABS in books and scattered throughout the internet for transcribed guitar solos and they can be a great source for learning new ideas or just purely for learning a song but many guitarists actually learn very little from them. To an extent it’s arguable that they are slowing down your progress as a lead guitarist.
This does of course depend on what your goals are and what you are trying to achieve from them, if all you want to do is learn a song purely for the enjoyment of playing it or if you are learning a composed piece of music that is supposed to be played exactly as written then this might not relate to you but there is no doubt the most common use for guitar TABS is to learn either the chords to a song or a guitar solo.
Using TABS to learn chords for a song is okay if you are in a hurry or have tried to figure them out yourself and failed, but if you rely on this method too often then you are doing nothing to help yourself become a better guitarist. Most popular rock and blues songs should give you little difficulty trying to figure out chords by listening to the record. It really is quite easy and very few should give you any problem. All it takes is a reasonably well trained ear (not necessarily a great one) and the only way you get better at this is by keep trying. It gets easier once you start realising many songs use common chord progressions and the more often you do it the quicker you will get it.
Let’s presume I have been playing lead guitar for a while using the usual pentatonic scales and ideas but all of my solos are predictable and lack excitement. I aspire to become as good as my guitar hero Garry Moore and so I find every TAB I can get for all of his solos and then spend the next six months learning them all note for note. So what new ideas might I have actually learnt by doing this and what have I learnt about Moore’s style of playing?. Well, if I’m anything like many amateur lead guitar players then I have probably learnt nothing, other than adding a few songs to my repertoire.
If my goal is to improve as a lead guitarist then I need to find and practice as many ideas as I can find or think of myself. If I use a TAB to learn a Gary Moore solo note for note then I will most likely be achieving nothing towards this goal, notes are just notes, I have twelve to choose from and they are already in front of me ready to do what I like with them. One of my biggest problems is I just don’t know what to do with them other than running up and down pentatonic scales. So how should I go about improving and learning things that help me in this area.
Here is where TABS can be really useful because playing lead guitar and improvising solos is all about having ideas and one of the best ways to really get comfortable with an idea is experiment with it outside of it’s original source. This could mean playing a part of it over a different chord or another key for instance and by doing so you will not only be improving your skills, you will also be extending your ideas and getting closer to understanding the methods used by your guitar hero. If you don’t experiment in this way then you are more likely investing all of your valuable time learning something that can’t be of any use to you outside of the particular song you learnt it from.
Something else to take into consideration is my guitar hero himself has probably played this solo completely on the fly (other than the obvious hooks and phrases) or maybe built up some ideas after playing along a few times himself to get a kind of foundation for the solo. Many of the notes he played were just notes that happened for no other reason than “they just did” and depending on the actual take that got used in the mixing session it may have just as easily turned out to be a very different solo in the final track that made it to the album.
With this in mind you should hopefully realise that learning to become a good lead guitarist is a lot more involved than learning someone else’s random note choices. What we are looking for to improve is ideas that we can re-use and manipulate for use in different chord progressions, not ideas that have no use outside of the place you learnt them. The bottom line is it’s possible you might learn from just one TAB much much more than you might learn from a hundred purely in the way that you make use of it.
So how do you go about pulling this kind of information out of a TAB?. Depending on your experience this could be a very lengthy topic so instead I’ll just give you a few ideas.
Experimenting with TABS
Firstly, experience comes from playing with many many ideas and you should not limit yourself to TABS of just one particular guitarist, secondly don’t waste your time learning every single note for a solo unless you really have a desire to play it exactly as it was recorded. If you do this then bear in mind as mentioned above, this solo could have turned out very different than the one you eventually got to hear on the record, also when this guitarist plays live it is very likely his solo will be very different every time he plays it so think about what are you really achieving. If you are planning to play this song live then what will you do if the rest of the band happens to cock up the backing during your solo or you suddenly have a mind blank, how will you get out of a situation like this.
Obviously a hook is a hook, it is a melodic line that is intended to be played as it was written so there isn’t much room for improvisation on something like this and to be honest it is not something that really has anything to do with this article, what we are looking for is ideas that we can put into our trick bag and pull them out whenever inspiration tells us to. This will often involve manipulating them on the fly.
When you look at a TAB concentrate only on the parts that interest you and try to work out if anything is obvious. Is it just a lick, is it a scale run, a scale sequence, just noodling, an arpeggio, is it the rhythmic elements that make it sound great, does a certain lick only sound right over a certain chord? etc..
Find a backing track for the song you are working on or better still make your own and try to put some of these ideas in different places, chop some of them in halve and mix them with others, try them out over the backing track. What scale will also work over this backing track, will one scale alone work or does it sound like it needs to change scales in certain places. If so go back and analyse the TAB and see if you can work out where the scales change and why.
Make a new backing track using the same chords but this time try them in a different order, now apply what you have learnt so far and see if you can make it still fit and sound good.
Make another backing track but this time alter the tempo and the rhythm as much as you can, give it a completely different feel. Now try to use these same ideas create a solo, you should find this the hardest to do, you might find the licks or scale runs you’ve so far learnt might no longer fit or need to be made shorter with less notes or vice versa.
Make a backing track that sounds nothing like the original and only use one or two chords from it, find some different chords to add, see if you can make any of these ideas still work over this backing track.
The above is just an outline of various ideas, the possibilities are almost endless. If you don’t understand something then don’t worry about it but don’t to let that stop you playing around with it anyway. I know this sounds stupid but we usually learn more about something purely by not understanding it in the first place because we are forced to do a little thinking. If you spend some time analysing something and feel like you aren’t getting anywhere then don’t brush it off as a waste of time, the brain has a strange way of working like this and you have probably progressed somewhat without realising.
Those Eureka moments don’t just suddenly happen, for instance you may look at something (not necessarily music related) and don’t understand it, you do the same another day and still don’t understand it, you think about it in bed when you can’t sleep and still don’t understand it. This goes on for a while and suddenly one day Eureka! it all makes sense. These moments don’t come out of the blue, nothing has changed all of a sudden, all that happened is over the course of time you was learning something and building your understanding even if it was only going on subconsciously.
With that said, don’t spend too long analysing something you don’t understand because it might not even need to make any sense, all that’s required is for you to use as many ideas in as many variations as you can think of. Experience will do the rest all on it’s own, if you waste [I]too[/I] much time getting nowhere then you are slowing down your progress.
When you play with an idea don’t worry how bad it sounds, this is in your own time and only you need to hear it, if it sounds terrible then consider that a great thing because if nothing ever sounded bad then there would be no need to learn how to make it sound good, trying to make something bad sound good is a perfect way to learn and improve, consider this your greatest source of education because only when something sounds bad will you be forced to think and experiment, don’t worry about music theory at this stage, if you can use theory to figure out why something sounds bad then great but if you cant then it does not matter. This will still result in progress even if you can’t describe why right now.