I’ve been playing the guitar since a very young age. Although I can read music, I prefer to use tablature to help myself work out songs that I can’t figure out by ear. (Tablature, or “tab” as it is colloquially known, is a notational system for guitar and other fretted instruments that shows notes and chords according to where they are positioned on the instrument’s fingerboard rather than using a traditional musical staff.)
Most guitar players are probably familiar with the Ultimate-Guitar Website. Besides containing tons of guitar-related resources, it hosts an extensive database of user-submitted guitar tabs. The $3 Ultimate Guitar Tabs app connects to this online database to view and play along to tablature on your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad (though the app hasn’t been optimized for Apple’s tablet).
The Ultimate Guitar Tabs interface is quite easy to use. The home screen provides a simple search field where you can type in a song or artist and display the results. An Advanced search lets you filter your results further by Type, Difficulty, Tuning and so on, but I found this particular capability somewhat hard to use. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find that the basic search is more than adequate. The Ultimate-Guitar Website allows users to rate each tab that’s been submitted, so those ratings appear within the search results as well.
You can tag tablature files as Favorites, which will copy them to your device for quick retrieval later. But if you log your device into your Ultimate-Guitar online account, then you can save your tabs to your online Favorites. This is handy if you use the app on multiple devices, like I do with my iPhone and iPad, because you can sync your favorites across all your iOS devices.
Another feature called Tab Packs groups songs together in ever-changing, pre-selected bundles. While an interesting idea, whoever catalogues the songs doesn’t have quite the same musical sensibilities as I do. For example, a recent Blues pack included songs by artists as varied as Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and AC/DC. And a “Difficult” pack included Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” which is widely considered to be the easiest-to-play song on the planet.
Perhaps the most interesting feature in Ultimate Guitar Tabs is called Auto-Scroll. Once you’ve loaded a tab, you can turn on Auto-Scroll, and the app will slowly scroll down the screen automatically so that you can play along without having to stop midway and scroll the screen yourself. The scrolling speed is adjustable and works quite well.
As I mentioned above, Ultimate Guitar Tabs hasn’t been optimized for the iPad’s larger screen size. Like other non-iPad-optimized apps, you can tap on the 2x button to expand the app to full screen. While this makes the resolution more grainy, it’s actually not too bad in this case. Still, it definitely strikes me as odd that an app of this nature would not take advantage of a screen size that seems perfect for this kind of use.
While Ultimate-Guitar’s database is quite large, it doesn’t have everything I’m interested in, so it’s disappointing (but not surprising) that the app only works with tabs that are hosted on ultimate-guitar.com. If you want a way to work with any tab file, then you need look no further than Agile Partners’ $10 TabToolkit app.
When you first open TabToolkit on your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, you’ll find a variety of pre-loaded guitar tablature, ranging from Bach to Jonathan Coulton, as well as holiday songs, guitar exercises and so forth. Tab files are indexed by artist name and song title. Adding and removing tablature is very easy. If you already have tablature files saved onto your computer, you can copy them to your device using a direct Wi-Fi connection. If not, then you can use the app’s built-in Web browser to locate tabs online (including the Ultimate-Guitar Website) and import them onto your device that way.
TabToolkit can work with two types of tablature: plain text files and multi-track tabs, such as those built with Guitar Pro or PowerTab. (Multi-track tabs contain a mixture of tab notation, standard staff notation, midi-based accompaniment and an animated fingerboard.)
Standard tablature files show up in the app in plain vanilla format. You can pinch and zoom to make the info fit the size of your device’s screen, but there’s no AutoScroll feature like Ultimate Guitar Tabs provides, so you have to stop playing at some point and scroll the screen manually.
TabToolkit is a hybrid app, so it makes good use of the iPad’s extra screen space. This is handy, not only for having a nice, clear view of the tablature itself, but for browsing sites for new files and managing your tab library.
When you play a multi-track tab, you can choose from the various instruments included in the file, and its notation will appear on the staff. Unlike plain text tabs, the notation and animated fingerboard scroll across the screen automatically while the midi track plays the song. If you want to isolate that instrument, you can reduce the volume of the other instruments or turn them off completely. If you prefer to play without the midi-accompaniment, that option is also available.
At $10, TabToolkit may be a reach for the poor, starving musician. For those whose primary tablature resource is the Ultimate-Guitar Website and who rely primarily on plain text files, then the $3 Ultimate Guitar Tabs app is definitely a better value. However, for the ability to access any tablature site (or your own local files) and copy those to your device, and view both plain text and multi-track tab files using a proper iPad interface, I think that TabToolkit is well worth the extra cost.
[Brian Beam is a musician, Robin Trower fan and partner with BOLD Internet Solutions, living somewhere near Kansas City.]