Learning fiddle tab is so intuitive and so easy that a student picks it up in five minutes. This is true even for five-year-olds.
Before starting this examination of fiddle tab, let's recall what standard musical notation looks like. The familiar dot-shaped notes on or between the five lines of the musical staff represent exact pitches of musical notes.
The dots show the pitch. Sharp signs or flat signs influence that pitch. The clef sign also has an effect.
Rhythm symbols that show the relative duration of the notes. Other musical terminology, often Italian, indicates the speed of the rhythm. Allegro con brio, for example, means "lively, with enthusiasm."
Musical notation tells nothing about how to play the music on any given musical instrument. It is designed to be used with all musical instruments.
Fiddle tab, on the other hand, tells exactly what string to play and what finger to use. It's intuitive and easy to learn.
But it shows the information in a form that only fiddle players can use. It is not universal. Because it is so focused, it is simpler.
On the fiddle tab staff each space represents a string. The top space represents the E-string, the next one, the A-string--and so on.
If you placed a violin with its side, with the neck extending to the left of the body, you would see the strings in exactly the same relationship. If you then reached both hands to pick up the violin, with your left hand under the neck, you would be in position to finger the strings the normal way.
Numbers indicate what finger to use. The number 1 is the first finger--the pointing finger, 2 is the middle finger, 3 the ring finger and 4 the pinkie. An 0 means use no finger. Leave the string open.
The only question remaining is placement of the fingers. We begin with the placement that would produce a major scale. This is the most common tradition in Western music. It's common to all the melody instruments that I'm aware of, and to singing as well.
All music teachers start with this basic instruction: the do-re-mi of music. These first three notes of the scale are found in countless children's songs: Are You Sleeping, Brother John?, Row, Row, Row your Boat, and, in the inverse order, Hot Cross Buns, Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridge is Falling Down, Three Blind Mice.
That sound, and the relationship of the fingers that produce that sound, underlies fiddle tablature, as I teach it. Any variation from that finger placement will be indicated by the letter L or H. These letters guide the student to place the finger lower or higher than usual.
Rhythm indication in fiddle tab is similar to musical notation, but simplified.
A simple line under a number is called a stem, just as in music notation. It shows the same thing, one beat of rhythm. Two numbers that have stems joined by another line (called a "beam" in music notation) would be played in one beat.
The development of standard musical notation in Western music was a great achievement. It led to the richly complex beauty, power and mystery of great music.
Learning this system is no easy matter. In Europe, a hundred years ago, kids going into music learned to sing solfeggio. This meant translating musical notation into do-re-mi.
In current practice, the difficulty of learning to read music is overcome by fingering notation over the particular note. This is true for keyboard, violin, or brass and woodwinds. Numbers over certain notes aid the student in translating the symbolism of the notational pitch into physical actions.
The American Suzuki Method also uses finger notations over every note. The student has only to intuit when to change string. In this respect it differs not at all from classical violin pedagogy.
In the method that I use, which we may call the fiddle tab method, I show the student tab charts after the initial stage of learning to play a scale. I have never had a student fail to learn how to read tab charts in one lesson. It is intuitive, natural and easy.
Making the transition to reading music later has, likewise, been no great challenge. Some students simply begin Suzuki Violin Book One, with its easy pieces. They quickly learn to read.
Students who prefer fiddling can use Beginning Old-Time Fiddle, by Alan Kaufman. It has both fiddle tab and musical notation. It's an excellent resource for the transition from tab to music notation.
For more information about learning how to play fiddle using tab charts, set your web browser to Learn to Play Fiddle. You will find an abundance of information and free tab charts.
Elan Chalford, Fiddle Coach
Learn to Play Fiddle without Reading Music