Harp Guitar Tablature: In Search of A Standard

By Nate Blaustein
Edited by Gregg Miner

For those lucky enough to have been at HGG3 in Oregon over Labor Day, one of the lectures discussed how to write and annotate for the harp guitar.  The topic brought up several problems: different tunings, different numbers of strings, treble banks, sub-basses, etc.  I will attempt to re-cap what was discussed.

First and foremost: why would one want to write down music?  I can think of two general reasons.  One is to share with others and the second is for one to remember what they wrote.

If we are to compose music for others to study and perform the only logical answer is to use standard notation.  One could argue for a form of tab but that does not translate to non-stringed instruments.  Below I have my introduction for Amazing Grace.  Although I play on a 5-sub-bass harp guitar tuned to D modal, it does not matter since it is all lost in translation to standard tuning.  We also have a secure way of documenting timing, which is difficult using tab.

Ex. 1

You may want to play around with this for a minute before continuing and think about how you would annotate for yourself.  Bennett and Doan swear by standard form yet not all of us are as proficient in reading music.  Furthermore, there are multiple places on the neck of a guitar to play the same note lending itself to different fingering and inadvertently different interpretations of the same body of music.

This is how I notate my music in tab form (same piece):
(Note: Nate's sub-bass notes are written along the top. -GM)

Ex. 2

This method addresses tuning, tab as well as allowing for different number of sub-bass strings and sub-bass tuning.  It is a rapid way of writing, conducive to quick documentation on the go.  Downsides are that most would look for sub-bass notes where a bass clef would be located below the treble/tab.  Also the letters above a treble/tab often refer to chords or sections (A,B,C etc).

Next variant is one that Miner and McKee use:
(Also Bennett and Stropes, among others. -GM)

Ex. 3

Now we have placed the sub-basses in the appropriate location by using a sub-bass tab clef.  With the tuning on the left all you do is strike to appropriate string. But all those zeros can be difficult especially as you near the bottom of the line...

After listening to the lecture Nancy Conescu scribbled on a piece of paper for me the ideas she had by making an amalgam of the above styles

Ex. 4

In this case we still have the tuning to the left of the sub-bass tab but what she proposed was to add the string number for further ease of sight-reading.

I hope that this will simply be the beginning of the discussion.  I welcome feedback in the forum as well as additional ideas on how people accomplish this task.  When I get to it, I will try to discuss possibilities for treble bank notation.

- Nate Blaustein         

In Search of A Standard continued...

by Gregg Miner

Thanks for that great start Nate!  I have a couple other options that we tossed around, and came up with further variations and observations regarding the above, if I may...

To address some basics first: 

At right is a section from Acoustic Guitar's Music Notation Guide.  

Note how the staff music and tab are stacked together.  This seems to be the norm for everyone (Nate omitted it in his examples for sake of discussion).  When it gets to the point of having two staves for harp guitar and two tab clefs (three for Hedges-style 2-handed techniques on the neck), one ends up with just 4 or 8 bars of music on a page!  

I can think of at least two solutions for this problem.  One is to eliminate the space-consuming sub-bass portion of the tab (as in Nate's first example using letters above, and additional examples following).  Another would be to simply separate the written music from the tab, letting each stand alone on their own separate pages, start to finish.  If the two must be stacked for learning, that could be an additional "study version."


Note that in the example above, no time value is given to the tab.  In Acoustic Guitar's second example, they show the common option of combining the note values of written music with the tab fret numbers.  To me, this would seem to reduce the need to have the written music stacked immediately above, but I see that in the harp guitar tab of Stephen Bennett and Michael Hedges (Stropes) they still utilize both versions in one large stacked "super-bar." Ex.6

Ex. 5 also shows A.G.'s standard method of notating the tuning across the top of the page.
I like to avoid confusion and write the notes at the left of each "string" of the tab (both treble and sub-bass) as Nate did above.

Now I'd like to revisit Nate's above Ex. 4 from Nancy Conescu. 

It's an interesting option that essentially doubles the ease of identification of the sub-bass to be played, by showing the string visually and numbering it.  My guess is that Nancy chose instinctually to number the strings starting with the one closest to her as she looked down.  To me (and others, I'm sure) this is backwards - only because the guitar's six strings are always numbered in the reverse, the furthest string being #1.  This being the historical case, it seems only logical to continue this order, ending on the lowest sub-bass string.

Nancy also used #1-5 for her sub-basses.  My inclination (following arch-lute tab) would be to number them as a continuation of the six neck strings, i.e.: #7-11.  I have shown both options in the examples at right.

One additional issue with this concept is when some of us want to notate harmonics on the sub-bass strings. For example, in place of my "0," I write a number 12, 5, or 3 in a circle to denote an octave, fifth or third open harmonic.  Using either method at right would only confound the issue for me, I'm sure!

Ex. 7
Ex. 8
Finally, I illustrate three examples that combines ideas from Nate's Ex. 2 and the Conescu examples.  In this series, I remove the sub-bass string stave and simply write the sub-bass string to be played.  Three options are shown here: Using #7-11 (myself), #1-5 (Nancy) and Nate's note letter. 

Obviously, I prefer Ex. 9, and, in fact, use this whenever I have more than six sub-bass strings.  I also find it more logical to have the numbers or letters below the neck stave as this replaces the sub-bass stave and is where the strings are actually located in relationship.  In Nate's letters example, it removes the problem of being mistaken for chord symbols also.

Perhaps some symbol, such as a circle, or a graphic line through or around these sub-bass values would help visually as well.

Additional aspects to bear in mind: In the first two examples, the sub-bass tuning would need to be provided, as in Ex. 5.  In the last, the letter system works for most of us only if the tuning is consistent and the notes are memorized.

Remember - the goal of the HGG3 workshop was to explore not just tab options, but the possibility of actually creating a standard.  Ignoring for the moment that we haven't even begun to address treble or other string banks, it would seem that we should collect votes and additional ideas and comments on all the options.  Then we can start paring down the examples to fewer choices for easier "second phase" discussion.  This will not happen unless all you players and composers weigh in!  I am merely your scribe, throwing out a few ideas while I'm at it.

- Gregg Miner 

Ex. 9
Ex. 10
Ex. 11

Harpguitars.net member Steve Sjuggerud kindly provided this free tab that includes three of his bare bones, easy-to-play Bach and Velasco arrangements.  He opted for the the format in Ex. 11, with lines connecting the lettered bass to the timing of the corresponding neck notes.

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