Many years back, a few years into my relationship with the electric guitar, I discovered the importance of the ear. Back then, my usual approach to learning a song was the following: 1. Download a tab. 2. Learn the song without any thought of my own, following the instructions down to the last bit of horrible fingering. If I discovered an extremely cool song and could not find a tab for it – well, tough luck. I would have to settle for something someone, somewhere had liked enough to tab.
The tabs in those days were not that great. However, how could I have known any better? Who was I to question the Tabs? They were my lifeblood. Hell, my best and only friend to play with used to be Guitar Pro. The infamous General MIDI would lead me on conquests of brutal glory. I would have literally lived and breathed tabs if only it were possible. Even if you managed to find a tab that had the right notes and rhythms, which would have already made it an exception, it was bound to have dreadful fingerings. I have often had the impression there are a lot of keyboardists out there writing guitar tabs. Such transcriptions may feature insane jumps from one side of the fretboard to the other in the midst of blazing 16th note picking patterns at 200 BPM or, alternatively, placements of as many notes as possible on one string, essentially rendering the guitar into a keyboard. And I swallowed all of it. Every last bit.
I do not remember what prompted me to grow a set of ears. Still, one of my first ventures was to learn a song by the Finnish band Ajattara. I took upon the daunting task of transcription: the act of listening to each sound of a piece and figuring out how to reproduce it with your instrument. I remember great difficulty even with the slow, unholy power chords Ajattara depends on. But I persevered and to my surprise, found myself jamming with a real band. It was only a recording, but still a big leap from getting my kicks in the company of the General M. in the kingdom of GP. They still had a place in my life, but in a different role – that of an archive and communication. I went about writing down what my ear told me and perhaps, if only so seldom, sharing my creations with a friend or two.
Once I got past the first, laborious step of growing a set of ears, I was dumbstruck: what divine freedom I had been blessed with! I understood the prospect of learning any song I could hear. Hell, it didn’t even have to be a song. If I heard a commercial on TV or some inane corporation jingle, I could, through some effort, reproduce that chain of sounds with my guitar. I began play with more bands, such as the ever so lovely black metal acts of Hecate Enthroned and Cradle of Filth, rocking out their tunes in my cramped student apartment to the delight of my flatmates. The world was my oyster; an oystery piece of guitar heaven. Mind you, my interpretations of all those tunes severely from the anti-Christian side of the spectrum were coarse. But interpret I did and, in doing so, developed my ear. Eventually, tabbing simple riffs became a second nature to me. On Saturdays, I would get my kicks by taking a song and learning it in two hours. In that time, I would also perform the song in front of my trusty webcam and upload the cover to YouTube (for those interested, my profile mad00002 still exists). The more I tabbed, the more I could tab. Eventually, I ended up figuring out things such as fear-inducing, semi-improvised bursts of notes emanating from the nimble fingers of Michael Romeo (I dare you to give the last solo of Symphony X’s “The Turning” a try).
Tabbing and developing your ear go hand in hand. As transcribing is an act of figuring out how to reproduce the sounds you hear with your instrument, you are wholly dependent on your ear and its ability of distinguishing sounds from each other. It is as essential to know the instrument you transcribe for. For example, the sounds of an electric guitar are unique and different from those of a violin. In order for you to transcribe a riff accurately, you must have a solid grasp of what different guitar techniques sound like. Also, without insight into playing guitar, there is no way you can produce practical or even playable fingerings of whatever you are tabbing. The chances are, you may end up frustrating someone with as little or less knowledge of the instrument, who then realizes playing guitar is just way too hard for comfort. What it absolutely is. On the other hand, tabbing is an essential exercise for your ear. By creating an accurate transcription, you demonstrate your ability of hearing even the finest details in the music.
Always use your ears. Always question what the tab says. The chances are, it was written by some tremolo picking kid in a cramped student flat, somewhere far away.