Professional & Amateur Guitar Tablature

     There are two types of guitar tablature ("tab") available for Leo Kottke tunes:  amateur tab and professional tab.

     Amateur tab is usually developed by guitarists who are trying to figure out a guitar tune for themselves; once they unlock its secrets, they often want to share their accomplishment with other guitarists.  In fact, one of the first repositories of information on the internet was that of guitar tab, contained within the On-Line Guitar Archive (OLGA), which was originally established in 1992 and now contains almost 25,000 pieces of tab and other information.   Amateur tab is usually called "ASCII tab" because it is written in an text-file format that can be easily distributed across the net without requiring any special software to read.

Sample measure of ASCII tab for "Taxco Steps"
ASCII tab sample
     Amateur tab definitely has its benefits.  First of all, it's free!  By definition, nobody makes money from amateur tab.  That means that anyone with access to a computer can download an ASCII tab for their favourite artist.  Also, although it may be incomplete or even inaccurate, amateur tab can often help a guitarist to understand at least the basic structure of a tune.  And some of us guitarists need all the help we can get.

     One of the biggest drawbacks to amateur tab is that accuracy is inconsistent or sometimes entirely lacking.  A guitarist could spend many months learning a tune using amateur tab, only to discover later (e.g., if or when professional tab becomes available) that the amateur tab was in the wrong key, used the wrong tuning, etc.  The choice for the guitarist is then to continue to play the song incorrectly, or to to relearn the tune from scratch. 

     Another big problem with amateur tab is that it is difficult to show very much musical information using ASCII characters.  In contrast to standard musical notation, amateur tab usually contains little direction as to duration of notes or tempo.  Professional tab is often accompanied by standard notation to address these shortcomings; many amateur tabbers have neither the time, inclination nor musical knowledge to provide standard notation.

     The final problem with amateur tab is that it perpetuates an almost abortion-like debate among pro-amateur-tabbers and anti-amateur-tabbers.  The main question is whether the creation and distribution of amateur tab infringes upon copyright or detracts from commercial benefit to the artist and/or the professional tabber.  In fact, this debate -- brought to a head by lawyers for EMI publishing -- forced OLGA to close its cyber-doors in early 1996.  Of course, in the best tradition of the internet, many OLGA mirror sites sprang up around the world so amateur tab continues to be available for those who want it (do I hear cheers?).

     I'm not going to dwell at length upon the debate about amateur tab.  My opinion is that as long as someone is not illegally making money from the amateur tab (or taking away money from someone else because authorized professional tab of that tune already exists), there's no real legal or ethical dilemma.  It appears that Leo Kottke also shares this view, although this is third-hand information and as far as I know Leo has never given anyone explicit permission to produce amateur tab of his tunes.  In the end, it's the artist's call, and if Leo called me up tomorrow and asked me to remove all amateur tab from this side I would comply.

     In any case, the only amateur tab that is available on the Unofficial Leo Kottke Web Site is tab that does not have a professional version available.  So, for instance, although I myself have created ASCII tab for Leo's tune "Airproofing II," I will not make it available because John Stropes has released a professional and authorized -- and not to mention more accurate -- version.  By making my version available, someone could improbably decide to use my version instead of buying the Stropes version, taking away income from John Stropes and Leo Kottke who presumably gets a cut.

Sample measure of pro tab by J. Stropes for "Easter and the Sargasso Sea"
Pro tab sample

      If you are a guitarist and you want to learn some of Leo Kottke tunes, I strongly recommend that you check out all professional transcriptions that are currently available.  These transcriptions have been developed with the participation and authorization of Leo Kottke and their accuracy is much better than most amateur tab that is available. You should seek out pro tab before resorting to amateur tab if you are concerned about authenticity.

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