After publishing the first part of this editorial, I received a surprising amount of e-mail, both positive and negative. This is apparently a hot issue out there. I know it's a hot button with my pro-guitarist friends and students. Some of you might possibly have mistaken my closing point in the last installment as my complete position on the issue. Not by a long shot. Let me continue...
As I said last time, I believe that tablature is generally a more logical notation system for fretted instruments (especially guitar). In this installment I want to discuss the limitations of tablature and the advantages of so-called 'standard' notation and finally come to my conclusion on the matter.
To me, the most glaring deficiency in tablature is the lack of any rhythmic notation. The examples presented in the last installment are an exception, but those were for the medeival lute. Modern guitar tablature shows nothing whatsoever about rhythm. That alone renders it nearly useless for sightreading. Other time-related aspects are ignored as well, including ties, phrasing, rests, basically anything other than pitch. The only reason this is overlooked is that most guitarists who rely on tablature use it to help them play tunes they already know by ear. Problem is, what do you do with a tab of a song you've never heard?
Another failing is almost too obvious to notice and that is this: Tablature is used only by guitar players. Why is that a problem? Just show up to a jazz jam and have the trumpet player hand you a chart he just wrote. Did he write it in tab for you? No way. You need to know the lingua franca of music if you're going to survive those situations and tab won't do it.
This situations don't come up with rockers very often, for obvious reasons. Rock is guitar-oriented and chances are slim that a trumpet player will be able to bring in a new tune purely on paper. Jazz is wind instrument-oriented.
The advantages of reading standard notation are becoming apparent. If you intend to be a jazz guitarist, or want to write music for instruments that people blow into, you're going to need to know it. The jazz guitar came into its own when Charlie Christian put it into the front line with the horns and it began to sound like a horn itself. What is the best way to write for horn-oriented instruments? What's the best way to learn horn-oriented music? Do the math. You can't go far in the modern jazz environment without reading standard notation.
A side issue is the inclusion of tablature under standard notation in guitar books and lesson material. I do it in the online lessons and in my book. Why? Firstly, it makes the material accessible to more people, and we in the jazz community certainly need to broaden our appeal. Secondly, it becomes a business issue. My publisher is in the business of selling books and I have to do whatever makes that possible (within the limits of artistic integrity). I don't think adding tab is a sellout, although I'm not happy with it. You'll find a couple of lessons here that omit tab. When people complain to me about it, I tell them that they should simply learn to read music. I use that phrase purposely. Reading tablature is not the same as 'reading music'.
What is my ideal situation? A 'tab free' world. Once you learn this skill, you are free to play and learn music like never before. It's not that hard to learn; I teach little kids to do it all the time. It just takes some determination and discipline. Heck, it takes that to play jazz guitar anyway. So, to summarize my position, while tablature may be more logical for guitar, it's still no substitute for your musical growth (and your career) for learning 'grown-up' notation. So what are you waiting for?