Farewell, Tablature: A Break Up Story

I learned how to read music in third grade. Violin was the instrument of choice since the public school system wouldn’t let you play the sax until 4th grade. After perfecting ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’ and other classic notation mnemonics, I spent a lot of time figuring out how to read bass clef so I could play the piano. Over the next 20 years I played piano concerto’s, sight read as an accompanist, taught several instruments, wrote full scale orchestral pieces, and transcribed complex jazz piano solos. Reading notation hasn’t been a problem since elementary school…until now.

When I was 15, I became infatuated with Béla Fleck and his 5 string banjo stylings. My parents bought me a cheap Asian import banjo and I immediately started digging into bluegrass classics like Cripple Creek, Foggy Mountain Breakdown and more modern Fleck compositions like Sunset Road, and Sinister Minister.

*If you don’t know what I am talking about, you need to get this album immediately…
Live Art

Learning these pieces was relatively quick and easy thanks to one seemingly wonderful tool. Tablature! Any guitar player, and most other fretted instrument players are familiar with the magical numeric system that simply tells you what finger to place on what string. How do you think so many guitar players know how to play stairway to heaven?

About a year ago I dusted off the ol’ banjo and started to play again. Having given advice about the importance of not relying on tablature to hundreds of students, I knew it was time to practice what I preach. Little did I know, learning to read musical notation on a different instrument involved a complete rewiring of my brain. It is not easy.

Here is my plan of attack…

Learn all chords and inversions – Simply knowing how to play a D chord is not enough. If I am playing a D chord on the 7th fret, I want to think about which notes are ringing on each string. Low D string 7th fret = A, G string 7th fret = D, B string 7th fret = F#, High D string 7th fret = A. This means that this chord is a D 2nd inversion. Learning that the 7th fret on either D string is an A will help greatly when reading notation.

Learn scales – Much like chords, you can start a scale at several different places in the fretboard. You can also find common patterns that help you as you go up and down the neck. Although it can be tough on the ear, you don’t have to start with the root. Learning the 12 major scales up and down the neck can be accomplished with just 3 patterns. Look for these patterns and make note of which notes are on which frets.

Play all the D’s, B’s, C#’s, etc. – There are 8 D’s on a 5 string Banjo. Learn where they all are. You can cross reference the location of these notes with the chords and scales you are working on.

*Banjo notation sounds an octave lower than written
**Shortened 5th String is not represented in this tab

Banjo D's

Play lots of songs – Pick easy songs, short songs, songs in keys like G, C, D, or others with limited sharps and flats. If you want to start off with a song in Bb minor, more power to you but you may be fighting an uphill battle. I personally like fiddle tunes, nursery rhymes, and easier classical pieces like selections from Mozart piano sonatas. You can find a ton of notation just by googling. Pick one song per day and find the notes in the lowest position possible. Once you have them down, play along with a metronome. To make things more difficult, start the song on a different string/fret or play it up an octave. It is important to pick a new tune every day or so. Otherwise, you may find yourself subconsciously memorizing tunes instead of really thinking about what notes you are reading. If you spend 30 minutes a day doing this, you will notice a genuine change. To test yourself, go back to a piece you sight read a week or two ago and start over. The difference is amazing.

Why is it important to read music? This is a whole other blog post but in the meantime, ask Stefan Lessard or any of the other Berklee Online student artists how getting back to education has helped their playing.


Levon Helm Wanted You to Learn Music Theory: Exhibit A

The music community recently lost my favorite drummer/lead vocalist of all time (sorry Phil Collins). Levon Helm of “The Band” passed away a few weeks ago but not after teaching the world some classic tunes like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up On Cripple Creek”, and of course “The Weight”. These songs are known and revered by many a music lover, plenty of whom play and sing solely by ear. I play/sing with a choir group in South Boston led by a prodigious gospel/rock pianist by the name of Pastor Burns Stanfield. He has a knack for hearing progressions in his head and laying them down like a thunderous hailstorm of harmony and rhythm. I remember one occasion where the sustain pedal actually broke off due to his driving foot stomping. Many of the other highly talented choir members are a bunch of city folk to whom music is still very much an oral tradition. Lyrics are scribbled on pieces of paper, SATB parts are hashed out on the fly, and a song will (almost) never sound the same twice. The music is very accessible for all who want to perform, and the lack of polished music theory rigidness creates an arguably more emotional experience for both the listeners and performers.

Now, onto the other side of the coin. This choir group doesn’t stick to Hymns. Pastor Burns loves “The Band” and we often play some of their tunes for special events. After several years of listening to the chorus of “The Weight” performed incorrectly, I hit my breaking point and decided to lay some knowledge on the choir. The part that always gets everyone flustered is after the last “Take the load off Fanny” line where the singers rest on the first beat, then have an arpeggiated “And, And, And…..” followed by two singing “You put the load right on me” staggered by a beat. That is a tough enough sentence to write, so you can imagine how difficult it was to try and explain it verbally. The concept of a time signature is the missing link here. You need to understand how 4/4 time and 3/4 time works to hear this accurately, and perform it as The Band intended. The “You put the load right on me” measure switch to 3/4 time is quite significant.

To explain the concept, I transcribed “The Weight” …

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 4.53.06 PM

Notice measure 5 is in 3/4, meaning there are only 3 quarter notes in the measure. Try playing the file while counting out loud and see how it goes. The little numbers on the top are beat numbers so you can count, clap, stomp along with the tune. I am not going to get into what time signatures are in this post but we do cover rhythm in the Berklee Online Music Theory courses. If you are interested in learning about notation, rhythmic dictation, and harmony, you should check out the Music Theory 101 course.

An interesting Berklee-related footnote: In 1972 while the band were on a hiatus, Levon decided to enrolled for a semester at Berklee. In his book This Wheel’s on Fire Levon explains: “I’d always had a complex about my total lack of musical training—beyond several million hours of field work.” Levon shaved off his beard and enrolled under his real name Mark L. Helm, so he could sit in class incognito!

RIP Levon Helm

Levon Helm