How to read German Tablature

Although not an easy tablature to read, German tablature was nonetheless popular owing to its efficient use of paper. Here are set out instructions for reading this tablature. Once you have acquired the knowledge required to interpret it, however, I suggest you use it to translate it into a more palatable form, such as French, as it is not simple to read off quickly.

German tablature was designed by Conrad Paumann (1410-73) for a lute of five courses. When six courses became more common on the lute the tablature was adapted to make it possible to indicate notes on the extra string. This is not an ideal system, as will be seen later.

The system starts by giving the values 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 to the open strings, with lowest toned string (usually C) being 1. The strings first frets are given the values a, b, c, d and e in the same manner as before. The strings second frets are given the values f, g, h, i and k (i and j are deemed too similar in most alphabet based tablatures). Following this method (with a German alphabet), we end up with:


5  |--e--|--k--|--p--|--v--|--9--|-   G
   |     |     |     |     |     |
4  |--d--|--i--|--o--|--t--|--7--|-   D
   |     |     |     |     |     |
3  |--c--|--h--|--n--|--s--|--z--|-   A
   |     |     |     |     |     |
2  |--b--|--g--|--m--|--r--|--y--|-   F
   |     |     |     |     |     |
1  |--a--|--f--|--l--|--q--|--x--|-   C

Note the presence of 7 and 9. These are the most common characters for these positions, but by no means universal. They are often referred to as "et" and "con". Beyond the fifth fret, the lettering sequence is repeated, however, to distinguish these letters from those before, a bar is added above, hence:

                                    _     _     _     _
5  |--e--|--k--|--p--|--v--|--9--|--e--|--k--|--p--|--v--|-   G
   |     |     |     |     |     |  _  |  _  |  _  |  _  |
4  |--d--|--i--|--o--|--t--|--7--|--d--|--i--|--o--|--t--|-   D
   |     |     |     |     |     |  _  |  _  |  _  |  _  |
3  |--c--|--h--|--n--|--s--|--z--|--c--|--h--|--n--|--s--|-   A
   |     |     |     |     |     |  _  |  _  |  _  |  _  |
2  |--b--|--g--|--m--|--r--|--y--|--b--|--g--|--m--|--r--|-   F
   |     |     |     |     |     |  _  |  _  |  _  |  _  |
1  |--a--|--f--|--l--|--q--|--x--|--a--|--f--|--l--|--q--|-   C

In theory, a simple C chord (assuming the tuning indicated above) would be displayed thus:


     5
     i
     n
     g
     1

Usually, however, there are only three notes represented at a time in German tablature. This means that the score takes up much less room than would otherwise be the case. Time indicators are the same as in other tablatures.

The Sixth Course


With the advent of the sixth course German tablature had to be modified. Rather than completely overhalling the system the standard solution was to represent each fret on the sixth course by a capitol letter. The sixth course played open was usually represented by a "1" with a cross through it (represented here by "+"). The entire six courses would therefore be:
5  |--e--|--k--|--p--|--v--|--9--|--e--|--k--|--p--|--v--|-   G
   |     |     |     |     |     |  _  |  _  |  _  |  _  |
4  |--d--|--i--|--o--|--t--|--7--|--d--|--i--|--o--|--t--|-   D
   |     |     |     |     |     |  _  |  _  |  _  |  _  |
3  |--c--|--h--|--n--|--s--|--z--|--c--|--h--|--n--|--s--|-   A
   |     |     |     |     |     |  _  |  _  |  _  |  _  |
2  |--b--|--g--|--m--|--r--|--y--|--b--|--g--|--m--|--r--|-   F
   |     |     |     |     |     |  _  |  _  |  _  |  _  |
1  |--a--|--f--|--l--|--q--|--x--|--a--|--f--|--l--|--q--|-   C
   |     |     |     |     |     |     |     |     |     |
+  |--A--|--B--|--C--|--D--|--E--|--F--|--G--|--H--|--I--|-   G

Document by Conrad Leviston, 1996. Return to Lute Page