In the sixties, Stephan Grossman amongst others produced a kind of musical notation for guitar that was particular to those times. Many of the important blues men were gone by that time, but a noteworthy few were still around, like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Reverend Gary Davis. It was Grossman’s encounter with the singing reverend that was the spark that started the quest for old style blues picking. Many students in those years yearned to learn and pick the old acoustic blues in the original old style, just like the blues masters. Blues guitar tabs were the foundation of this revival.
Blues songs have a traditional root, and many variations have been created using an original piece. Listen to Robert Johnson’s ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, for example. It was originally named ‘Kokomo Blues’ and was authored by Scrapper Blackwell. As well as the countless permutations around a theme, new pieces were produced in many different finger picking styles peculiar to a particular region. Within those regional styles you can likewise see considerable differences between artists, so producing a great variety of blues guitar music.
Of course, in the past, blues men ‘borrow’ each others material and also transformed traditional music to their own individual style which added to the richness of this music. How could this material be transcribed in a manner that guitarists in future years can learn to play in the same way? We can listen to the records, but there’s so much music it’s not enough.
Many years ago, musical notation was much the same for all instruments, and consisted of a stave, notes and some indication of the tempo. If we wanted to stick with this standard musical notation, then we have to know how to understand it – this is not particularly easy! Actually, all we have to do is to know where the fingers of each hand should go. If there was some way of knowing this, and listen to the recorded originals, it would be a huge fast track to learning the old finger picking techniques. As a matter of fact, Stephan created a form of notation known as ‘tablature’, which speeds up the learning process.
The strings of the guitar are represented by 6 lines, and a number could be written on one of those lines. This means that the string should be picked on the fret indicated by that number. A line extending upwards from the side of the number indicates that we should pick with a finger, and a line extending downwards indicates a thumb stroke. The chords can also be shown over the tablature as well. Other symbols can also be used, which help in defining the timing, slide or kind of stroke.The method is simple and very simple to understand. Even if it seems a little clumsy when first used, most people are reading it within a few of weeks.