The Three Cardinal Sins of the Pop Music Songbook

I like to play music.  I play guitar and, once in a while, piano.  Playing songs I like by some of my favorite bands and elsewhere is one of my favorite things to do.  I have a good ear and can figure out easy-to-moderate things on my own, but that gets stressful and frustrating pretty quickly.  Eleven years ago, in less than an hour, I figured out nine of the twelve songs on Blink 182’s “Enema of the State” by putting the CD in my DVD player and sitting on my coffee table, hovering over the TV speakers, hitting “back” on the remote over and over.  A couple years ago I took a single evening and figured out the primary melody to the Top Man Theme from Mega Man 3.  So I’m capable of doing that, but I much prefer to have it already written out in front of me.  It’s likely going to be stressful enough trying to learn it, I don’t need to add to that by not knowing what I’m supposed to do to start.

So I buy songbooks.  Right off the bat, let me insist to you that publisher Hal Leonard’s series “Recorded Guitar Versions” is SPECTACULAR!!!!  As of Saturday I have five of them.  I have them for Weezer’s first two albums, Coheed & Cambria’s Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, the best of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and 18 Singles by U2.  The tab is perfect to every last detail.  So perfect it’s almost as if the artists themselves wrote those things.

But where those books are like manna from heaven, there are some that burn fire in me and make my eye twitch.  I recently bought a songbook sight-unseen (not recommended unless you know the publishing series, like the one mentioned above) and opened it up after a week of anticipation of its arrival to have my heart crushed.  It was committing all of the three major cardinal sins that a a songbook can commit.  And I can’t return it.

Pop music songbook sin #1:  not admitting up front that its notation is simplified or altered from the original.

I demand that someone explain to me why the exact recorded version of the song or songs in question not be the default when it comes to a songbook or published sheet music.  That’s why people buy them in the first place–they heard the song or songs, liked them, want to learn how to play them.  Am I wrong?  So why is finding the actual recorded version’s notation or tablature so difficult?  If you can look at sheet music and have a general idea of what it sounds like, go to your local music store and look through some of the songbooks of artists you know.  Parts are missing, the complexity is turned down . . . it’s frustrating.

I first learned this was the case when I dropped $4 (during my very poor college days) on some sheet music for “Piano Man.”  The jazzy intro was gone, the solo was gone, it was in a different key from the original, and whole verses were altered and shortened.  What fool is going to want to learn THAT version?  If you listen to the actual song, it’s not really all that complex save a couple small places.  Why alter it?  Is it a licensing thing?

Well, let’s say it IS  a licensing thing.  Is it against the rules to make it explicitly clear that it’s not identical to the original?  The very first songbook I ever picked up on my own was Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits for EASY Guitar.  Emphasis mine.  See–I picked that up knowing full well that these versions are not what Paul Simon was actually playing, but that they’re similar.  Never once did I try to listen to the recorded versions of the songs and read along with the tablature because I knew better.  So these days I’m nervous about what I pick up, and being loyal to only one brand is limiting.  But I’ve recently been reminded that you can’t trust them–you can’t give them an inch, or they’ll take your $12, make you wait a week, and laugh in your face as you flip through the pages hoping for some recognizable structure.

Pop music songbook sin #2: Not grasping what “For Piano and Vocals” implies.

What do you think “For Piano and Vocals” implies?  How about, “This is the vocal line and lyrics, plus the piano accompaniment to go with the lyrics, so that someone can play the music and they or someone else can sing the lyrics–two parts making a whole.”

Well if you thought that you would be wrong.  What “For Piano and Vocals” actually means is that you have the vocal line in notation and lyrics on their own staff, and then you have the grand staff for piano below that and the piano part has been altered to incorporate the vocal line into its own notation.  So if you play what’s written and sing along, you’ll be playing on the piano note-for-note what you’re singing on top of the chords and other parts already present.  This presents two major problems.  The first is that it makes the piano part way harder to play than it should be–the original artist didn’t work that hard to play it, why should you?  The second is that having the vocal melody squeezed into the music for the piano defeats the purpose of having the vocal melody on its own staff (or there at all) in the first place.  That is “For Piano OR Vocals.”  Not “and.”

If I wanted to play the vocal line and the piano part as one, I would search for a piano-only book.  The reason people buy songbooks that are for both is because they intend to, in some version, play and sing together.  My most recent purchase has something like 60 songs in it with this problem.  This means if I intend to continue with my goal of playing some of these songs and singing them as well, I have to write out the notation in my music program and remove that melody line, then listen to that notation next to the recording and add back in the notes they removed to make room for the melody.  I’d say it’s more work than it’s worth . . . but I think being able to play and sing “Saturday in the Park” is worth anything, it’s just a lot more frustrating to get there this way.

pop music songbook sin #3: thinking that including some generic guitar chord grids means you can sell your book to guitarists.

Well, I fell for it, that’s for sure.  This is flat-out false advertising, and I should have been smart enough to catch it.  I feared it when I hit “submit” for my purchase, but I deluded myself into thinking it wouldn’t be true . . . it couldn’t be true.  But it was.  The cover says the book I got is also for guitar.  All it includes is the chord names and generic chord grids for said chords.  If you don’t know, this is an example of a chord grid:

That’s all the “guitar” information they provide.  What’s worse is that it, too, is largely inaccurate.  Sure, the chords themselves are technically correct, but where the actual song would have, say, a C chord played in third position, the book shows only what you see above.  So yeah, technically you’re playing the right chord, but there’s a tonal quality that’s lost when you don’t play the chords in the right places.  The order of the notes are switched around; it feels different.  That’s not even to mention the embellishments and lead riffs and solos that are part of the songs that are completely ignored.

If my recent purchase were the only case of this, I wouldn’t include it.  But I’ve stood in music stores and looked through books and seen this before.  The cover says it’s for guitar, so I look, and all I see is piano and vocal notation plus chord grids.  That’s not what a guitarist wants or needs.  At most it should say, “Plus chord grids for guitar!”  At least then you know you’re not really going to be able to play the actual song.

As you can imagine, not too many people care too much about this issue.  Not many people even notice.  This is something I’m destined to gripe about alone for the rest of my days.  But mark my words–if I ever end up in a place where I can publish songbooks and sheet music, I’ll keep mine accurate!  I’ll keep the vocal lines out of the piano part unless it’s meant for piano only!  I’ll not try to fool guitarists into buying it if I’m not giving them anything of substance!

And it will be a grand day.

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