Tab vs By Ear

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Some of you may be following the thread over on Banjo Hangout about learning by tab versus learning by ear. I sent in a post yesterday offering my two cents worth (guess which side I’m on!) and I thought I might expand on some of those ideas here -- although I realize I’m preaching to the choir.

As I said on BHO, when I started teaching banjo, back about 1975, I was using tab! I quit because it didn’t work. My students weren’t learning to play, and frankly, I was having to listen to some really bad music. Students were playing stuff like “Lonesome Road Blues” from the Scruggs Book and leaving out whole portions of the tune without realizing it. It was painful. And it left me nowhere to go as a teacher—do you just keep throwing songs at a student when they can’t play the earlier and easier ones?

So, as I always say, it was in desperation that I talked my first song “Old Joe Clark” onto a cassette. And the student learned it better than she’d ever learned anything before. It sounded like a tune! Eureka! Soon I was talking “Old Joe” onto cassettes for everyone and doing all the other tunes that way as well. The improvement was dramatic. By ear work; tab didn’t. You think that would be “nuff said.”

But no. After a while I realized (a slow process) that even if you were learning by ear, there is a big difference in learning tunes and playing the banjo. My students could learn tunes all day long and play them well—no problem. But this alone did not make them banjo players. As my book And There You Have It chronicles, I realized students had to learn to hear chord changes and they had to play with other people. Thus the Misfits Jam emerged, where, finally “my people” really began to learn to play.

Could they have done this with tab? I don’t think so.

In addition to that, I offer my own experience: while I did use tab (from the Scruggs Book) to learn a few songs, I think my experience with “Sally Goodwin” set me back for years—I couldn’t “hear” the timing, and played it “wrong” (although not out of time) for a long time. I remember playing it in front of the Flint Hill Flash one time and he was completely bewildered as to how I made it come out “right” in the end. I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t know! (I guess the silver lining to my "Sally Goodwin" experience is that I can now make it easy for students to learn it “right” on our Advanced Earl DVD. You’re welcome!) Then there were many others that I COULDN’T learn from the tab including “Ballad of Jed Clampett” and “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” Not to mention those that made such little sense I didn’t even try them: “Careless Love” and “Little Maggie” come to mind.

So you can see I didn’t just dream up this “by ear” Method. I started it because it works! And thanks to all of you who have used the Murphy Method and who are out there spreading the word!

6 thoughts on “Tab vs By Ear

  1. Mike Larsen

    It saved me that’s for sure. After 8 months i was just about to give up as i still couldnt play a single tune when i found your website and ordered Volume 1. Then, when i could play BITH after one day I knew i found something that worked for me. Having no previous musical experience, i couldnt make heads or tails out of the timing in tab and therefore could never make anything sound right.

    6 years later, i still use the licks i learned in the first two volumes all the time when i am making something up on the fly and all those songs have stuck in my head much better than anything i learned off tab. I think i have learned almost every song on every tape/dvd and done much of the mando, bass and guitar stuff too. Thanks for getting me over the hump!


  2. Martin Bacon

    So can I copy this and post it on BHO for the non Murphy Henryites. I love to see flames come from burning embers.

  3. Tam

    Hi Murphy

    Great to see you take an active participation on the thread about the Murphy Method on the BHO. You should visit more often we are always talking about how much you have helped us realise our goals. I just posted this on the Hangout.

    Hi Guy’s

    Lately I have been learning tunes in the key of C from the Murphy Method Soldiers Joy DVD which is my favourite Murphy DVD. Not sure if it is because all the tunes are in the key of C or because I love the tunes. In any case they are music to my ear.

    For those of you who regularly read my posts it will come as no surprise that I am a great fan of the MM. Working with this DVD these past few weeks has made me realise just how far I have come and how much I have learned since taking up the banjo in April 2008. Ranked as one of Murphy’s Intermediate tutorials I found the lessons on this DVD both challenging yet easy and a whole lot of fun to learn.

    The tunes are Liberty, Soldier’s Joy, Farewell Blues, Old Spinning Wheel and Home Sweet Home and have a host of interesting licks. Some tunes are played in double C tuning so they have a deep rich tone which seems to add an extra dimension. So if all you do is play in open G let me just say tune that forth string down to C fret the second string at the first fret and the first string at the second fret and run your thumb pick across the strings. Does that sound not stir your soul!

    Two day’s ago I started learning Soldiers Joy and today I had one of those eureka moments after I added the vamp chords. I can’t believe I have just spent the last four hours playing Soldiers Joy over and over again with BIAB backing. I even capoed up and played it in double D fairly cleanly with few mistakes and at a good steady tempo of 120 I am pretty pleased with myself.


  4. Tam

    Opps…I forgot to add.

    P.S. Some of the time I played with my eyes closed.. Try that if your a TAB reader

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