I am a self-taught guitarist, learning to play mostly by ear. When I was 10 years old my dad gave me a chord chart and a few John Denver songs to learn, and I was off to the races. As long as I had the chords and knew the tune, I could play any song. When I was 15 years old my friend showed me a guitar magazine that had the music for a song we both liked, and it was written in tablature. “What’s this?” I asked.
“Tablature,” he explained. “The lines are the strings, and the numbers are the frets.” I stared at it for a few minutes, and then tried to play a few bars. My friend let me take the magazine home, and I learned how to play the whole song that day. Reading standard music notation has never been easy for me, but tablature is simple to understand because I think of guitar music in terms of where I put my fingers on the fretboard, not in terms of the names of the notes I am playing. Learning about tablature opened up a whole new world of guitar music and playing technique for me. When my garage band broke up I spent a lot of time writing down all of our songs in tablature so that I wouldn’t forget how to play them.
There are two Free software tools which I use for writing guitar tablature on Linux, which I will review here.
I have been using Tux Guitar since at least 2012, when I arranged some music for a Christmas guitar duet with my friend Erik Aagard (who is ten times a better guitarist than I am). It was a simple arrangement, and I needed a simple tool to write it down. Tux Guitar was just what I needed to get the job done, and that splash screen of Tux holding a Les Paul is pretty awesome.
It wasn’t easy to set up, though. Tux Guitar is really just a notation editor and sequencer, and does not include a synthesizer. When you install Tux Guitar you also need a software synthesizer in order to hear any sound output. I connect it to Qsynth, which is a GUI front-end for Fluidsynth. The connection can be made through JACK or directly between the two programs. When I start a Tux Guitar session I have to start Qsynth first, and then make sure the two programs are talking to each other before I can proceed with the notation project I have in mind. If this sounds complicated, then that’s because it can be. On one of my computers I have never been able to get the two programs to successfully talk to one another, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. It can be pretty frustrating to struggle with the Qsynth and Tux Guitar settings when really what I want to do is fire up a piece of software and get my creativity going. Tux Guitar will still work just fine without a synthesizer attached, you just won’t be able to hear any sound output (which kind of defeats the purpose). Note that I have only ever used Tux Guitar on Linux. I have no idea whether the Windows or Mac OS versions have the same issue.
Once you get Tux Guitar up and running it is a very capable program. It can do polyphony up to four voices in a single track, and also has multitrack features. The tablature notation is very rich, and includes all of the standard fretboard techniques such as hammer-on/pull-off, pitch bending, vibrato, muting, etc. If you can’t figure out how to do something using the GUI, the local help files and online documentation are very good.
For most of the last 5 years I have been using Tux Guitar exclusively for my tablature notation projects, most of which are solo fingerstyle guitar pieces. As an example, here is a score for the solo fingerstyle guitar version of Lullabye: [Tux Guitar file | PDF]. As you can see, Tux Guitar outputs a clean but not especially beautiful score, which looks like it was made by a computer. (For the record, I am using Tux Guitar 1.3.1)
I have been overall content to use Tux Guitar, aside from the synthesizer annoyance described above, but I recently discovered a few other limitations. This post was originally conceived as an introduction to Tux Guitar, sort of like my previous post about LMMS, and I set to work on the tablature score for a song I recently recorded called “My Abode,” which was going to be the centerpiece of this blog post. But I found that Tux Guitar’s multitrack tools don’t scale very well, and the interface becomes quite clunky when you have more than one track in a song. It also didn’t handle the vocal track very well, and required me to program it using tablature instead of standard music notation. The interface for copying and pasting in Tux Guitar is horrible, and it is almost easier to just type in all of the notes a second time rather than copying and pasting. These limitations were all potentially tolerable, but the show-stopper came when I tried to export a complete multitrack score, which apparently Tux Guitar cannot do. It also would freeze every time I tried to print a score to file, and Tux Guitar does not have native tools to export to PDF. Here is the Tux Guitar version of “My Abode,” which I didn’t complete: [Tux Guitar file ].
Enter MuseScore, a cross-platform music notation editor. I have been using this program since 2016, when I became the choir director at my church. (No, I don’t conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, just my local congregation’s choir.) It is a fantastic program for music notation, and beats the pants off of Denemo in terms of usability and the visual quality of the scores it generates. Until recently I have been using it only for choral church hymn arrangements, but when I ran into the problems with Tux Guitar I described above, I decided to test out MuseScore’s tablature capabilities. (For the record, I am using MuseScore 2.0.2)
First of all, unlike Tux Guitar, MuseScore has a built-in synthesizer. It is so nice to just fire up your software, and it’s ready to go with no fuss involved. Also, I already knew that MuseScore is a powerful notation editor with great multitrack capabilities, an easy and intuitive copy/paste interface, which produces the most beautiful musical scores you can find in the Free software world, so the Tux Guitar limitations I described above don’t apply to MuseScore.
I was pleasantly surprised at how well MuseScore does with tablature, although its feature set in this arena is not quite as rich as Tux Guitar’s. I couldn’t figure out a way to do pitch bending, hammer-on/pull-off, or slides, and the online documentation pulls up no results when I searched for these terms. The best I could do was put a slur between notes. Fortunately “My Abode” only has a few hammer-ons and pull-offs, so I was able to fudge it with slurs. The mandolin solo has a few slides, which I just glossed over. I’m glad there wasn’t any pitch bending in the song.
But the overall strength and ease of use, not to mention the aesthetics of the final product, more than overcame these minor limitations. Here is the final version of “My Abode” as programmed in MuseScore: [MuseScore file | PDF].
Linux has capable tools for guitar tablature. Tux Guitar is a specialized tablature editor with a rich palette for this type of notation. MuseScore is a general purpose musical notation editor with a capable though somewhat limited tablature tool set. At this point in time I think Tux Guitar is the better tool for notating complex guitar work, especially for solo guitar. But MuseScore clearly shines when you are trying to write longer multitrack scores, with mixed instruments. If MuseScore would fill in some of the blanks in its tablature notation palette then it would be the clear winner.