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Introduction to guitar tabs, chords and sheet music

Tablature (like Italian tabular 'tabular order', from Latin tabula 'board', '(game) board') or fingerprint is a type of notation for pieces of music in music. At the beginning of the 14th century, tablatures were invented to write down several voices of polyphonic vocal music for one instrument, to tabulate them.

In the music of Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque, various forms of tablature were used for keyboard instruments such as the organ, harpsichord and virginal, as well as for stringed instruments such as (European) lute, theorbo, vihuela, guitar, viol and harp.

Organ tablatures use tone letters (German), digits (Spanish) or note symbols on lines (Italian) and are tone scripts that can also be played with other instruments.

Tablatures for lute instruments use letters (French) or digits (Spanish, Italian) on lines representing the strings or (as in German tablatures) free letters and digits (see historical lute and guitar tablatures). Lute instruments differ in their number of strings and their tuning; their tablatures are instrument-specific fingerings.

The rhythm is generally indicated above the system of signs with rhythm signs. Bar lines and time signatures were often missing. Volume specifications such as f (orte) and p (iano) and tempo specifications did not exist until after the Renaissance.

Modern guitar tablature (see Modern guitar tablature) serve as a practical alternative to musical notation.

Tablatures and fingerings for harmonica instruments: see accordion school.

Historical lute and guitar tablatures

From the emergence of polyphonic playing on the lute around 1500 until the end of the 18th century, music for lute and lute instruments such as orpharion, theorbo, colascione, angelique, cister, mandora, vihuela and guitar was notated in the form of tablature. The first lute tablatures were probably written before 1473. The oldest surviving printed lute tablature dates from 1507. The oldest lute books contain tablatures with tabulations of vocal pieces such as motets, madrigals or canzons. A distinction can be made between types of tablature that are notated on lines, so-called Romance lute tablatures (Italian, French, Spanish, Neapolitan), and a type that does without lines (German tablature).

In all tablature forms, the rhythm of the music is noted above the relevant tablature characters (numbers or letters). Note symbols are used for this, initially the white mensural notation (in Spanish, some Italian and early German tablatures), and in the 17th century more and more modern notes are used. Reduced forms were also common, namely flags on the stem without a head. In the reduced form of the mensural notes, note stems with two or more flags were often connected to form groups of two or four (16th century, “little ladder”). In detail:
  • Single note stem with a short flag on the left: Brevis (double whole note)
  • Single note stem without a flag: whole note
  • Note stem with a flag on the right: half note
  • Note stem with two flags on the right: quarter note
  • Note stem with three flags on the right: eighth note
  • Note stem with four flags on the right: sixteenth note
However, the rhythm signs do not designate individual tone durations (note values), but rather they mark the duration until the next tone is played. If durations of the same length follow one another, this is usually not noted again.

The following auxiliary symbols are used in French tablature: To identify held notes (tenuto), diagonal lines are used from the notes to be held up to the end of the tone duration. Slashes between the tablature letters of a chord denote the Separée play (to be played in quick succession). Slurs have only been used in lute tablatures since the middle of the 17th century. To designate the fingering of the right hand, one to three points are noted for the index, middle and ring fingers, as well as a small, vertical line under the tablature letter as a symbol for the thumb.