14. About Songbooks And Internet “tabs”

If you have been playing some guitar already, you may have purchased one or more songbooks, or downloaded tablature or other charts from the internet. If you haven’t, but perhaps are looking forward to playing through some of your favorite tunes, you might consider getting some. If you do, however, BEWARE! In my experience, many transcriptions of popular music from the internet are so filled with errors that they confuse the average beginner. Here is but one example of an erroneous “tab”:


“Leslie Anne Levine” (The Decemberists)


E                                                Cmaj7      D

My name is Leslie Anne Levine.

E                                                            Cmaj7             D

My mother birthed me down a dry ravine.

E                                            CM7                 D

My mother birthed me far to soon.

E                                                  A            D

Born at nine and dead at noon.



Fifteen years gone now, I still wander this


parapet and shake my rattle bone.


Fifteen years gone now, I still cling to the

C#                             C              Bb            E

petticoats of the girl who died with me.


Never mind the grammatical errors in the lyric. I have placed the wrong chords in bold type.  As you can see, there are quite a few, and this is only through the first verse and chorus!


Even more experienced players who find such errors can be at a loss when trying to fix them, for if they can’t hear them properly, or miss them altogether, then it becomes a case of the blind leading the blind. Songbooks are generally of better quality, but not always, and they are not cheap. Unfortunately, many of these books are of the “fake book” variety. In reality they are not fake books anyway. “Fake book” was originally a term used to describe a book of songs, usually jazz, that professionals would use to have a general outline of a piece if they needed to play something on short notice. Today’s fake books are often of the “easy for beginner” variety, which means partial chords, keys changed for ease of playing (sometimes effective, sometimes not), missing chords, use of capo ignored, etc., either for supposed ease of playing or sheer ignorance. Worse, sometimes chords are added where they don’t belong to further “harmonize” the melody.


Rarely are these songbooks written by the artists themselves, but instead by professional employees of the publisher. Traditionally, the artists themselves have not been involved with these books. For years, they were predominantly piano scores, with chord charts printed above the staff for guitar, although many now have tablature.


Generally speaking, I trust them more than I once did, but not by much. Too many of these books contain music that is transcribed by people who do not play the guitar and are unfamiliar with it.

The internet, on the other hand, is the most popular source of transcriptions, and almost all of them are free, but your chances of getting an accurate one are not good. Of course, anybody can post one, so it is expected. Still, the preponderance of wrong scores, and their content, tells me what is getting lost in translation. I am not referring to stylistic changes. Many songs are covered nicely with alterations in key, rhythm, production, even melody, but rarely the chord structure. And if one decides to alter that, it should be deliberate, with stylistic purpose, not by the default of a bad ear.


Good working knowledge of diatonic harmony and training the ear takes practice, but it’s worth it.  With it we can easily transcribe what we hear. When sitting down to play someone else’s music, deep appreciation of it (which we must have, otherwise we wouldn’t emulate it) begets conscience. From my beginner days, I felt that if I was going to play something, I wanted to play it correctly, it seemed like the least I could do. I made plenty of mistakes, but less as time went by.


The real payoff, however, comes when we analyze songs using the theory concepts that we learn as we go along. In doing so, we get a wide angle view of the composer. These concepts, which you will hopefully explore, tell us the details of how songwriters work, and when we analyze them, it is almost like having a private conversation with the writer. Songwriting is often characterized as a mysterious process. To me, what makes a song magical, or popular, or compelling, can be indeed almost ethereal. But the musical elements are common to all, and can be disseminated in a way that is educational and inspiring.

©2012 Jim Greenfield