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AN AMATEUR EAR FOR MUSIC LEARN TO PLAY THE GUITAR ON THE INTERNET.

Byline: Fred Shuster Music Writer

Sheet music? To increasing numbers of amateur musicians, it's as obsolete as the player piano.

In the old days, if you wanted to learn to play a favorite song on the guitar, you had to trot down to the neighborhood music store with fingers crossed, hoping the sheet music was still on the shelf. And even if it was, chances are you'd end up singing the blues due to the wide gap between what you heard on the radio and the official printed page, because sheet music is often notoriously inaccurate.

Today, of course, with the incredible, exploding Internet gobbling up so much printed material, learning to play a hit single - or an obscure number by a cult artist - has never been easier. Just click onto a directory site like the online guitar archives the Jungle or Olga. There you can look up a song or artist. You'll then be linked to a page of tablature or tab (transcribed music for guitar). The next step: Grab the guitar and play.

``Tab is hacker music notation produced for hacker guitar players - an identity we embrace,'' says Toronto-based guitarist Michael Shaye, 25, who runs a tab site devoted to Britpop. ``It's musical notation for guitar players that can't read music - which is probably around 95 percent.''

What he's referring to is a growing community of guitarists brought together through cyberspace in the name of the artists they love. Because guitar is a portable, ubiquitous and relatively easy-to-play instrument - unlike piano - it can be taken outside or strummed while sitting in front of a computer screen.

Even today, learning guitar on an amateur level resembles received wisdom. Before the online explosion, college kids learned licks from each other by running down the hall to visit that infamous dorm-room guitarist who knew a few more blues riffs than anyone else.

Or you watched other players at gigs, then rushed home to approximate what you just heard.

Now, you can trade chords or finger-picking methods with people you've never met all over the world.

And it's being done out of love, not cash. Nobody gets paid for interpreting a Bob Dylan tune for guitar and posting it on the Internet. They do it because they admire the music and swapping chords brings them closer to the artist.

``It can take anywhere from five minutes to five hours to transcribe a song - depending on the complexity of the music and your attention to detail,'' Shaye says. ``Tablature on the Internet makes the world of musical education smaller. Tabs are rough musical interpretations to help bedroom guitar players learn songs quickly - the `can and string' of musical communication in the digital age.''

The tab on these sites ranges from cult artists like Richard Thompson to arena acts such as Pearl Jam to the classical compositions of Bach. By- ear transcriptions, though, depend on the musical ability and organizational skills of the person putting the music online.

But even mistakes can sometimes be helpful.

``When I find tab that isn't correct, I can figure out what the right chords are, which is easy if you know the song to begin with,'' says bassist-guitarist Spencer Robinson, 22, of Hollywood. ``About 70 percent of sites are accurate. But you can use incorrect tab as a framework to learn the right way to do things.''

Today, free tab has become so commonplace, in fact, that music companies now try and sell the official stuff over the Internet.

While there have been a few border skirmishes between tab sites and music publishers, it's probably precisely because amateur tab is merely an interpretation of a song that it hasn't become an issue to rival the onetime all-out war over MP3, which takes an actual piece of music and places it on the Internet.

``Tab sites are not accurate often due to the fact that many artists use different tunings, and that throws most people off right away,'' says guitarist Josh Jordan, 20, a sophomore at Eastern Illinois University who runs a tab site devoted to the music of Pearl Jam. ``Also, it's easy to miss chords if they are anything other than major or minor. I've found the actual sheet music is always more accurate than tab because professionals do it, rather than college students like myself. However, most sheet music is not overseen by the artists themselves, so it can be off as well.''

The Olga archive of more than 1,000 files - ranging from Fatboy Slim to Bach - begun in 1992 at the University of Las Vegas (UNLV). In 1996, UNLV was contacted by EMI Publishing, who alleged copyright breach. The university responded by kicking Olga off its server, but no threat was made against the site itself.

A second threat from music publishers two years ago resulted in Olga's brief closure and the site's incorporation, a maneuver designed so Olga's owners can raise funds to pursue a resolution to the question of the legality of by-ear transcriptions.

Legality aside, there's still the question of quality. And it's a big one.

For basic guitar students, tab sites are generally fine as long as they break songs down to basic chord patterns. Some even offer intricate fingering and tuning suggestions.

Some fan-produced tab sites are not only complex, they're conceptual. For example, there's Shaye's well-designed Britpop site, which pulls together surprisingly accurate-sounding transcriptions of songs by Oasis, Blur and more.

Or consider the Lyle Lovett sites, which explain how to mimic the eccentric songwriter's distinctive approach to fingerpicking.

Ultimately, the tab community helps each other. The bigger sites, like Olga and the Jungle, have swollen to include many thousands of examples of song tab precisely because fans contribute their own transcriptions.

``I wouldn't say I've become close friends with anyone through posting tab,'' Robinson explains. ``But I've added my two cents when I've found something interesting or entirely wrong. That's the great thing about this stuff - everybody has a say.''

TAB INTO THIS ON THE WEB

It's incredibly easy to find tab - by-ear transcriptions of music - on the World Wide Web. Basically, all you have to do is point and click.

To get a sense of the wide range of tab available, check out the Jungle or Olga sites that archive thousands of songs simply transcribed.

The Jungle, for example, offers tab sorted alphabetically for guitar and bass, covering country, pop and even classical music. Olga operates as a specialty search engine where visitors simply type in the title of the song they are looking for. Both sites offer links to other sites.

Of course, there are other ways to link to tab. You can also go to any standard search engine like Alta Vista or Yahoo and type in the name of an artist and the word ``tab'' or ``tablature,'' and you will get a list of sites that you can link to for that songwriter.

< Here are a few of the tab sites we came across while researching the accompanying story:

1. guitar(at)olga.net

2. thejungle.hypermart.net/tabarc.htm

3. britpoptabs.com

4. geocities.com/TimesSquare/Portal/6383

5. geocities.com/(TILDE)josh/tab.html

- Fred Shuster

CAPTION(S):

2 photos, box

Photo: (1 -- color -- cover) Internet ax-cess - Guitar players around the world reach out and teach each other.

(2) Spencer Robinson, 22, of Hollywood, learns to play songs on his guitar from Web sites that offer transcripts of songs. Music sites range from country to pop.

Eric Grigorian/Special to the Daily News

Box: Tab into this on the Web (see text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 29, 2000
Words:1261
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