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Open Letter About Notation to Guitarists

Here is the Open Letter I first posted in around 1996, presenting the idea that both standard notation and TAB when transcribing partial capo guitar pieces are tricky issues and need to be discussed publicly, because there is more than one way to do it.

I usually plead the case here that TAB should be counted from the capo and not the nut, since it is certainly more intuitive to do it that way when you use most of the capo devices out there. Because computer software isn't set up for partial capos, a number of people have published music that counts TAB from the nut. In 2009 I started using a Woodie's G-Band capo in some of my music, and it throws a wrench into this thinking because it only capos 1 or 2 strings, and it does not really become the new nut for the guitar like other partial capos do. I will leave the article below in place, but will also let you know before you read it that I am now uncertain if there is any reasonable way to universally notate partial capo music so that one method will make sense to all people. If you are planning to publish some written music yourself, at least take the time to read this carefully-- it is surprisingly tricky to understand the issues. Do your best to make an informed decision, rather than just doing the first thing that occurs to you. We really need to have a convention and a public debate & discussion, but I don't have high hopes this will happen any time soon.

The purpose of this web page is now to try to alert people that there is a problem that needs to be solved by the community of guitarists and not just by me or some other individual. People have now published things 3 different ways, and that is too confusing, and there must be a better solution than anarchy. The partial capo idea is just starting to really take off in popularity, and it would be nice to establish some conventions before it gets too messy. The first step would be to convince makers of publishing software to allow for partial capos, since none of them currently do this. They are all easily able to handle different tunings, and it would only take a good programmer a little while to make a plug-in or a modification.


I am asking you to try to understand and possibly to vote on a deceptively tricky issue of guitar notation/TAB that has arisen as a result of the use of a partial capo on the guitar. I believe I am the first modern person to record and publish music for the partially capoed guitar, and I have been exploring this issue for 35 years now. I have published several books on my own, co-authored a college textbook for Knopf (1984) that has a chapter on the subject, and published in the Journal of Research in Music Education on the subject of partial capos in guitar education.

Recently, the first pieces of music for partially capoed guitar were printed in national magazines. They were transcriptions of my playing, and I have a problem with how they were done, and before I completely rewrite all the TAB I have done to date or launch a campaign, I would like to request a discussion among those who may be involved or affected by it, and see if we can reach a consensus as to what the best method is. I will be glad to send you a copy of an arrangement I have done, or of a Finale file I have made (Macintosh) of the same tune to show you the problem.The world should not have to endure inconsistent systems of TAB for this. It would be a triumph of civilization over barbarism if we reach a consensus on how this should be done, and I would like to hear opposing arguments and engage in a friendly discussion of this issue. We are at a point in history where this notational convention needs to be properly established, and I suggest we discuss it, and make a decision to all do it the clearest and most intelligent way, and not just the easiest or simplest way or the first way it occurs to us.


It seems almost trivial at first glance, but it is deceptively confusing. I am in complete agreement with the idea that it is best to notate guitar music with both a standard notation staff and a TAB staff below it, and have done all my work to date this way. It was my conclusion in 1983 that it is essential to:

1) make sure the standard notation reads as it sounds... This is unlike the way classical guitar people sometimes deal with non-standard tunings, (primarily Dropped D tuning) where some things have been written as they feel, so that you play as if you were in standard, and thus the notes do not read as they sound. The widespread use of altered tunings plus this new issue of partial capos, combined with the vast number of people who do not actually read music on the guitar make this a pretty easy choice to make, though sticking to this decision complicates other choices we have to make. The fact that the standard notation people and the classical guitar community cannot really use their notation system for non-standard tunings underscores the seriousness of this issue, and also brings up the thorny issue of who is going to decide how to notate partially capoed guitar music.

2) count TAB numbers from the capo and not from the nut. In the case of the popular Esus capo configuration on fret 2 it is not obvious which is better, but there are many other ways of partial capoing where the issue is clearer. Imagine capoing at the 5th, 7th or even 10th fret and leaving one open string. It would not make sense to the player to think that a G chord there was 10-9-0-0-0-10. Your instincts as TAB reader would make it 3-2-0-0-0-3 just like you always play it. Same thing when you capo at 1st fret and capo all except the G string, which I do a lot. There is no question that as a player you think of the capo as the nut. Which you do whenever you use a capo, partial or not. We also use a partial capo a great deal to teach beginners and intermediate players, and when they play, they are playing G chords and C chords, and they are thinking the capo is the nut even more than do us more advanced players. The Third Hand Capo has been used steadily by hundreds of trained music educators for more than decade at many universities, hospitals, and therapy applications, and its use in education is one of its greatest assets.

Now the hard part...

This notation problem is greatly aggravated by the fact that Finale and other notation/publishing programs for the computer cannot handle the partial capo situation gracefully. They are generally set up so the TAB is inextricably linked to the notes on the staff. Here is an example-- the opening section of my free arrangement of Frere Jacques:

The first note is an open 3rd string (here shown in "Half-Open A configuration) with capo 2 would notate on the staff as the real A note that it is, and a TAB value of 0, and the second note B is 2 frest above the capo so it gets a TAB value of 2... Notice in measure 3, the first pair of TAB ZERO'S that you play as "open strings," an A bass note which is a true open string, and the "open string" 2nd string playing the C#. That note "feels" like an open string because it is clamped by the capo.

If you do not tell the computer that the guitar is retuned and let the computer generate the TAB, the 2nd note being a B will cause the computer to put a 4 into the TAB on the 3rd string, not the 2 that is shown here. (To me it feels like it should be a 2 and not a 4).

If you tell the computer your guitar was actually tuned to E-A-E-A-C#-F#, which is what the capo makes your open strings with the capo 002222, it solves one problem and causes another. The 2nd fret above the capo on the G string will either be generated by your TAB software as a 2 if you tell the computer it has been retuned, or a 4 if you don't. Telling the TAB software you retuned would make the unfretted and fretted notes on the capoed strings come out "right," but for fretted notes on the uncapoed strings the TAB wlll feel "wrong" to many people. This would happen in measure 3 in this example: when you played the low A note (open 5th string) and the C# on the 2nd string feels like an open string but has TAB value 2. In this example the middle two bass string notes have TAB numbers 5 -7 in the above example, but here the computer TAB would call it a 7-9. See the issue? Here is the same example as above notated this way, counting from the nut, so you can compare the TAB. The first quarter notes in measure 3 seem counter-intuitive and really should be both zeros because you don't fret with your left hand on either note.

The "workaround" of telling the computer you are in a different tuning when you are just using a partial capo gets your TAB right on some strings, but it really blows up when you use an altered tuning and a partial capo at the same time, which many of us do.

If you instead count TAB from the nut, essentially by telling the computer that you don't have either a capo or an open tuning, then all the TAB numbers come out "right" except the capoed open strings. The first 2 notes of this arrangement would be 2-4. It's deeply intuitive to use a zero "0" TAB for an "unfretted" note, whether it is a "true" open string or clamped by a capo. Because the partial capo is all about celebrating those new capoed open strings, it feels "extra right" to notate them as TAB zero notes. There could be a new notation invented that puts a box around any TAB number that was fretted by the capo. This would essentially mean "open string"

And there is also the even-thornier issue of how to notate under and behind-the-capo frettings, and what to do if the capo is moved in the middle of a song. It is not common, but I do this from time to time, and a negative number is the obvious choice, except that in sloppy printouts and photocopies the minus sign can vanish or merge with the string line. Even trickier is the issue of how to notate things fretted at the same fret as the capo. It is not a 0, since that means the nut. I like to call notes fretted behind the capo as negative numbers -1, -2, and I use a zero with a slash for the notes at the same fret as the capo. This is done as a "theta" (option-O on Mac keybards) ø, which is somewhere in all computer keyboards and all common fonts. In some typefaces, though, it gets confused with a zero which programmers have put a slightly different slash through for years to distinguish it from a capital O. There is no way to avoid some confusion.

I recommend that everyone draw the partial capo on the TAB, which makes it clearer, and which would solve the problem of the moving capo also. (Some spring-clamp capo users who use Kyser partial capos take advantage of the quick action of the capo and move the capo in the middle of a song..) Notating this would not be much more confusing than a key change in standard notation. Just draw a new capo diagram on the TAB line and keep going.

I am getting ready to publish some new things, as are some other publishers, and a quick consensus from some body of guitar thinkers would be helpful. I am beginning to think of surrendering, and accept that overall the simplest way to do it is to count TAB from the nut, (or from the lowest full capo) thus avoiding negative numbers, making the computers happy, and only confusing beginners and veterans like me.

Thank you for trying to read this,

Harvey Reid