MUSICAL NOTATION -- A tutorial for beginners (and anyone else)

There are several different ways to represent music. In the material on this page, I will use two predominantly, and I'll explain them here for those who are unfamiliar. Both are designed specifically for guitar notation. I will refer to them as "pictorial" ("chord chart"), and "tablature" (or "tab").

As examples, I'll use the chords that accompany the "Mojo Pin" intro, basically a C major (denoted C) and an A minor (denoted Am). A variation on the Am here would be A minor 7th, denoted Am7, which you can look up for yourselves in a guitar book like Ralph Denyer's excellent "Guitar Handbook".


To represent these two chords using pictorial notation is as follows:

C major

E |---|---|---|---|
B |-1-|---|---|---|
G |---|---|---|---|
D |---|-2-|---|---|
A |---|---|-3-|---|
E |---|---|---|---|
    1   2   3   4 (frets)

A minor

E |---|---|---|---|
B |-1-|---|---|---|
G |---|-3-|---|---|
D |---|-2-|---|---|
A |---|---|---|---|
E |---|---|---|---|
    1   2   3   4

How does this work? The "horizontal lines" (with capital letters at the beginning) represent the six guitar strings, from top E (highest or thinnest) to bottom E (lowest or thickest). The "vertical lines", drawn as well as the computer will let me, represent frets on the neck of the guitar. The numbers drawn on the neck of the guitar indicate where your fingers go, with each number representing which finger (usually left hand). 1 means index, 4 means pinky, and the rest is obvious. The numbers below the diagram indicate the number of each fret, where the first fret is the one furthest away from the body of the guitar, closest to the tuning heads.

So, to play the C major according to the diagram, press the first fret of the 2nd string with the index finger, the 2nd fret of the 4th string with the 2nd finger, and the 3rd fret of the 5th string with the 3rd (ring) finger.

What about the open strings (the ones without fingers pressed on them)? In this case, all the open strings are compatible with the C chord and can be played although it is often customary here to mute the bottom E string. In other cases, it is often vital to mute one or more open strings as they will clash with the rest of the notes in an undesirable way.

In terms of notation, a muted string is often represented with an "X" at the top of the neck of the guitar in the diagram. So if we were to mute the bottom E string of the C chord, it would be written as:

C major

E |---|---|---|---|
B |-1-|---|---|---|
G |---|---|---|---|
D |---|-2-|---|---|
A |---|---|-3-|---|
E X---|---|---|---|
    1   2    3   4

In practice, muting can be done in a variety of ways. It can even mean not playing the string at all. You could "mute" the bottom string here by simply strumming from the A string in a downward motion. More generally, one can use the fingers--or thumb--of the left (fretting) hand, or the fingers or palm of the right (picking) hand to dampen vibrations of unwanted strings. This takes practice and patience. (Jeff has been known to use his thumb to dampen the bottom string, or even to play notes with it. He did this in the "Mojo" intro.)

The reason I call this method of representation "pictorial" (anyone call it anything else?) is because it is as though someone took a picture of the neck of the guitar with your fingers on it. (Just imagine the guitar is on your lap looking up at you!)


Tablature also shows the 6 strings of the guitar but not the frets. Instead, the numbers shown in tab now represent the frets (rather than fingers). So a C chord and an Am chord become respectively:


Again, the X's denote muted or unplayed strings.

You can use tab (unlike the pictorial method) to denote sequences of played notes, like:


which means, play these notes in the order they occur from left to right. (Is it starting to sound like "Mojo" yet? If you're not convinced, try tuning the bottom E down to a low D, stretching your fingers and playing the following while singing "to keep me whole"):


The way I think about these, the pictorial approach is like a straightforward map, and books like Ralph Denyer's "The Guitar Handbook" utilise this method a lot so it is worth familiarising yourself with it. The tab approach is more like a kind of graphical code -- it has some visual content, but not as directly as the pictorial. Actual formal musical notation is another thing altogether, like a secret language with no logical content whatsoever as far as guitars go.

But, once again, "horses for courses" -- these things have different strengths. The pictorial method is easiest to understand (probably) and most useful for chords. Tab is still easy, and better for sequences of notes as well as chords, but it isn't good at telling you which fingers are best employed on which frets. Proper notation is much more difficult but more universal in that it is not confined to guitar music -- it can be employed for pretty well any melodic instrument using the 12-step octave. It also has notation for timing (rhythm), which tab is not so good for.

Any musicians out there with better reading skills than mine who want to take my tabs (or anyone else's) and transcribe them into proper notation would probably be doing a service to other musicians and getting some good practice themselves.


When I started tabbing, I didn't really go off and consult tab sites or tab books or any other source of "official" notation for all those guitary things like bends, taps, hammers, slides, pull-offs and whatever. (Maybe I should have....but I didn't. You'll see many tabs, though, if you go looking for them, that use all sorts of letters and symbols for this sort of stuff. Like "b" for bend, and "h" for hammer ... personally, I hate having letters all over my tabs.)

Instead, I decided that for what I wanted to do (mostly, notating hammer-ons, pull-offs, and finger slides), and with the tools I had available (the standard keyboard characters available in text editors and e-mail packages), I could just invent my own notation as follows. So I did.

Basically, for sliding up and down, I just use ">", while for hammers and pull-offs, I use "^". It's that simple.

As examples, we could use some bits from "Mojo Pin" again.


Here, the first bit represents a double-stop slide two frets up the neck, and then we have the reverse slide down again. (The slide up occurs in the "Mojo" tab, as you will see if you haven't already.)

After that, we have a hammer-on from the 1st to the 3rd frets of the B string, followed by a pull-off, then a hammer-on-and-pull-off in succession.

Easy, huh??

There's another convention that I've apparently bucked (no pun intended). When people tab songs which involve a capo being used on the guitar's neck, they indicate the fret where the capo goes, and then tab as if that was "fret zero". So if you stuck a capo on the 5th fret, the 6th fret would then be written as "1".

Yuck. Sorry, but that just confuses me. I like knowing that the 5th fret is the 5th fret, the 12th fret is the 12th fret etc. So when you consult my "Hallelujah" tab, you'll see that I tell you to stick a capo on the 5th fret, then I tab away, still referring to the capoed fret as number 5.

So sue me. :o)


So, anyway, as I said before, I'm going to do (or in some cases, reproduce) chord charts for Jeff's songs which don't rely on fancy tunings or unconventional chord voicings. They will sound a little less than the real thing since they won't have the fiddly parts which (on the album) are supplied by the guitars, the bass and the string arrangements. The chord charts will be simply for having some fun and playing along.

After that, I will also provide, as best I can, blow-by-blow tabs for every damn part I can figure out of every damn song on the Grace album. Some bits I am convinced will be pretty close to authoritative, other bits I'm just guessing. I've seen Jeff play twice and I've seen him on TV and I have recently been the recipient of some video footage of a few songs, but otherwise I am doing this from ear and from memory. In some cases I will present more than one way of tackling some parts of his songs.

The other note I should emphasise (again!) is that it is just dandy to play his songs the way that suits you, even if they are not how Jeff plays them. Use his voice to find your own. In that sense, the chord charts are almost more important than the tabs because they provide a simpler blueprint for your own excursions through the songs. But having said that, I know what fun I've had as I've gradually (over a longish period) uncovered the various secrets contained within the songs, and that's where the tabs play their role.

Hope you have fun with it all.

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