Free? Yeah right.

No one believes you when you say something is free. ColorTab is free and because you don’t believe me either I think I need to explain that. So read on, it costs you nothing except your time, and you are free to stop reading anytime. In fact, go play your guitar, that’s a much better use of your time.

If you’re still reading because your fingers are sore or you’re curious or bored or don’t play guitar but think you might someday, thanks, here’s what I have to say about free. It is regrettable that one word is not enough.

Free means free. You can download the App now or later, it’s just a file that works in a web browser anywhere, anytime, no Internet, no login, no subscription, no registration, no trial period, no advertisements, no crapware, no donate button, no tracking, no cloud, no tricks, no upsell, no clickbait, no premium version, no bullshit, it’s yours, now and forever, free. If you don’t want to download it, you can use it on this website, that may not last forever but it’s free too.

And if you don’t like the way it works or the way it looks, you can change the software to do anything you want, it is open source, free. The source code is readable in the app itself, it is published on GitHub, and licensed in a most permissive way. Because it is free. Really free. I am giving it to you and anyone else who might want it. No warranty, it might suck, if you don’t like it you are free to delete it and dis it too, but it’s free. Some software that is “free” tries to control what you can do with it, this does not.

It is free for ten million of your closest friends too. It copies itself anytime you want, with or without including the song that you wrote in the copy, or that your friend wrote, or that you copied and pasted from somebody you don’t know. Is that legal? I have no idea, you can decide for yourself. All I can say is you can have the ColorTab app, it is free. Send it in an email, put it on your website, share it, show it on YouTube, whatever.

Free means it isn’t worth anything right? If it was good it would cost money. If it was really good it would cost a lot of money. So it must be crap. Well I don’t think so or I wouldn’t have spent a year of my life creating it. I can’t say that you will like it, but I do, I think it was worth doing. It is very different from what people are used to, so it might not fit your needs or expectations, but it is free so you can’t lose.

I think you invite bad karma if you sell it, bundle it with advertisements, modify it to do evil things, pretend you invented it, or use it to make music that sucks. But I can’t stop any of that because it’s free. If I wanted to stop any of that I’d need a lawyer, that would cost money and because it is free there is no money for that. So do what you want with it. If you have trouble sleeping or looking in a mirror maybe you made some bad choices.

Why is it free? Simple. Because I know what it’s like to be a young musician trying to learn and having to decide whether to buy a record or new strings instead because I can’t do both this week. So if you read this far maybe you believe me now, thanks for that, go play, practice, learn or make some noise.

Legal Stuff

Legal Stuff

As the ColorTab app and website get closer to the elusive state called “done” I’ve had to make a lot of decisions about things that a lawyer would be happy to give advice about, for a fee. That’s not happening but after making those decisions myself, it seems like a good idea to put them in writing in case anyone wants to know. On the other hand lawyers will often tell you to keep it secret, privileged, burn before reading. But this idea is no secret, it’s public, open and I am setting it free, yet that isn’t enough to keep lawyers happy. How free is it? Who can do what with it? Do they need permission? It’s very complicated but here’s the deal.

The app, the ColorTab editor, player software code, is now published as open source on GitHub. You can go there, read the all of the code and find the MIT license that tells you what you can do with it. The short version is “anything you want.” With a warranty that says “AS IS” in uppercase lawyer quotes because that makes somebody happy. That’s called a permissive license because it doesn’t stop anyone from using my idea, and getting rich selling it instead of giving it away like I am. And they could decide not to be so nice and not keep it free and open, unlike what some less permissive licenses require. Maybe my free version and free derivatives can be alternatives that slow down such nonsense. Apologies to Stallman, I’m going down without a fight.

The new font that I created makes ColorTab into something much more than just a different way to display tab. The font is now published on GitHub with the very permissive SIL Open Font License that mostly just says my name “Freebrat” is a Reserved Font Name. Otherwise you can do “anything you want” (my non-lawyer words, read the license). I would like to give a hat tip to Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH, for choosing the open license, making it possible for me to create this derivative of the Bravura font. The new font also includes modified portions of the FreeMono font, presumably that is allowed under the GPL font exception. For the curious, the Freebrat name comes from Free+Bra+T; that is FreeMono plus Bravura adapted for plain Text use.

Another legal matter is the EU law General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR. It would be nice if that well-intentioned law had an exception for the little guy like me, it does not. So for now, I have decided to bypass it entirely by doing none of the things it prohibits, regardless of whether I have permission of the users that the law tries to protect. That decision is reflected in the privacy notice in the footer of the website. It unfortunately prevents having subscribers with the ability to comment and contribute to this website. Doing that isn’t possible without collecting and “processing” personal data like names and email addresses and then complying with managing that data in a burdensome fashion. Too bad. Instead I’ll have to let Google do that with YouTube comments and use Facebook posts and such, they can afford the huge fines for non compliance, I cannot.

Finally, there is the matter of music copyrights, with publishing companies that have caused the demise of many free tab websites and software creations looming large. Claims of fair use have not stopped them and I do not want to be on the casualty list. So I’m trying to tread very carefully, even though I know it would make musicians happy to see and hear more complete examples of songs they know and love in the new notation. I will try to be quick to respond to any cease and desist letters.

So I’ve made a sincere effort to do “due diligence” and comply with the laws and principles we call civilization. I wish it wasn’t so difficult to be generous and good. World peace would be nice too.

Is it Done Yet?

Ha! No it isn’t but it keeps getting better. What started as a simple conversion from ASCII tab to a new format has evolved with feature creep into a full blown software tool with custom editing, then lyrics and chord names, then a new font for inline music symbols and the big one, playback with audio and full control over note timing and duration, still working on details like volta brackets and D.S. al Coda.

Does anyone care? Almost no one has heard about it, yet. So no, not really. But I do, and better is better, it’s really pretty cool now I think, maybe someday it will get noticed. After I decide it is done enough to promote it. Coming sooon….

Downstem Duration

Downstem Duration

Guitar can be played with some notes held longer and timed separately from others. Often this is bass notes on lower strings plucked separately from notes played on the higher strings. Staff notation can’t always shows this clearly but accurate playback requires it. A “let ring” instruction is usually all you get with tab. Timing and duration are usually of equal value, so that before the next note begins to sound, the previous note is ended. But duration beyond the start of the following note is often required. Lines with independent timing are called voices. Rather than add additional staves to support more voices, a common technique is to write notes with stems up for a first voice and down stem notes for a second voice. That allows two voices to be combined on a single stave like this:

ColorTab has a similar but much more flexible notation system that allows timing and duration to be separately specified for each note, effectively producing unlimited voices.  Here is the same passage from Bach’s Bourrée in E minor. See and hear it play here. 

There are too many details to fully explain in this blog post but this is called Downstem Duration because the note symbols with stems down are used only for duration. Up stems are the normal timing indication. These can be left out when a default up stem note is shown like the eighth note at the start. All notes are then eighths unless another note symbol changes it.

Gray overbars indicate chords in ColorTab and the low note is the default for the chord, but the timing and duration of each note can be different. A single up stem quarter note on the low string means both notes are quarter notes. A quarter note down stem extends the duration but keeps the default eighth timing. An up stem eighth on the upper chord note resets the duration.

What the Font?

What the Font?

Font is a four letter word that starts with F. What does that have to do with ColorTab? A whole lot, it changes plain text tab into a complete notation system. A new font combines traditional staff notation with text tab in a very powerful way. So let’s see that in action.

Hey that looks like plain ascii text tab, but it has notes, tempo and time signature. How do you do that? Why haven’t I seen this before? 

This wasn’t possible without creating a new kind of font. I’ll explain the details, but first, here’s how it works in ColorTab. The new font is built in to the app so you don’t need to install it. The symbols are all in a table, just click on any symbol to add it to your tab text. This is a screen shot from the Scratch Pad, the same table is in the App. Click the button with the grid pattern to display or hide the table.

OK, so why are these “symbols” so important?

That’s the best part. They add the information that is missing in text tab, making it a complete notation, not just fret numbers on strings. Now it is possible to both read tab and hear it played accurately, all of the timing is included in the text. The text can be saved in a file, sent in a message, copied and pasted, all without the need to install anything, it is just text. But it will only look right with the new font, here’s what happens without it shown in NotePad and Gmail.


That looks broken, so I do need to install this font, right?

No, the music symbols are not lost, they can easily be put into the App with copy/paste or from a text file. The gmail example also shows an important feature of this font, it is monospaced or fixed width. That is essential to keep the tab text lined up for chords and measure bars. But the font is not just for text tab, it’s shown in the ColorTab. Or not if you prefer to hide the timing symbols for simplicity.


The source for this font can be found on GitHub It is free under the SIL Open Font License.

The incredibly great FontForge editor can be found here 


First announcement

ColorTab Guitar Notation 

Hello guitar players, musicians, friends, family, whoever, I’m announcing a new app that I just published. It’s a simple idea, why not use color to greatly condense guitar tablature notation. I was inspired by the colored metal ball ends on D’Addario guitar strings and the ridiculous number of pages or screens conventional tab needs when it is mostly single notes and a whole lot of ———- that just tell you nothing is there. So I created a notation. I created a web page tabconverter, with lots of code and a Help page that explains how to use it. It still has some bugs and room for features to add later but it works right now.

What the web app does is convert plain old ASCII tab into a new format with color that is very compact, making it more convenient on devices or even paper. My elevator pitch is why are we using notation from the Middle Ages with feather quill and black ink on parchment while we carry computers with color screens in our pockets? Even back in 1554 they used red ink for the vocal part.

I have no love for tablature notation but it can be useful for learning, composing and sharing. I don’t expect anything in return for the hours of work it took to transform my invention into functioning software, but it is now real and there must be some players who will like it and actually use it. Like anything new, it takes some effort to learn, and many won’t bother. But there are companies making money with tab web sites and software so this could have a significant audience. There are 19 million views for the Stairway to Heaven tab, with the comment “did you know that it takes 13 pages to print this out?”. And 12 year old prodigies are shredding on YouTube and Instagram, they are quick learners and just might recognize this app as useful..

Anyway, for now I’m giving it away, no strings, no registration, no cookies, no tracking, no advertisements, no monetization, and absolutely no bullshit, free for anyone who wants to try it, as is of course. I might claim copyright if the Russians at Ultimate Guitar pretend they invented it, but hey, who needs lawyers anyway? Just pick up your guitar and play. The music publishers left a lot of scorched earth in the online tab community, but it is far from gone.

Share this with anyone you know who might possibly be even a little interested. I am open to feedback and suggestions, but if guitar notation doesn’t interest you or your friends just ignore this, no worries. If ColorTab actually does get some traction I’ll be happy and inspired to spend even more time on it, such as make demo videos and add more code. Six strings only for now, other instruments is one of the maybe later features. Lyrics and timing text along side is another possible addition. But it is completely usable now for the curious guitar player or bored web surfer.

Check it out! http://colortab.org Try copying the entire Stairway to Heaven page, select all, copy, then paste into the ColorTab page. Click some check boxes and see what happens. Or just try the Help button. It will work on your phone in Chrome or Firefox, but it’s much nicer on a desktop or tablet. And even if you can’t play or don’t like the idea, it makes pretty colors and isn’t contagious.