A generation learned Nirvana songs on guitar tab Web sites. But now? Nevermind.


Ultimate-Guitar.com in 2003 (left) and today (right). (ultimate-guitar.com)

Kurt Cobain, who died 20 years ago this month, taught a generation of musicians how to play guitar — as The Post’s Chris Richards lays out in this really fascinating story on the Nirvana frontman’s “overlooked legacy.”

But Cobain wasn’t so influential merely because his songs were good. His death coincided, give or take a year, with the advent of the Internet — where a host of guitar tab sites rose like digital monuments to the rock stars of the early ’90s, sharing their music, news and gossip in boxy, mismatched forums that honestly haven’t changed much in the intervening years.

Ultimate-guitar.com. GuitarTabs. MyGuitarTabs. On-Line Guitar Archive. GuitarZone. “Since the Internet’s inception,” ruled a lengthy 2008 paper by Jocelyn Kempema on the legality of guitar tabs, “ … millions of visitors have used these sites to learn to play guitar” — and to learn to play Nirvana, particularly, after Cobain’s death.

But now those sites are slowly, surely, dying out themselves. GuitarTabs and MyGuitarTabs have gone dark. Ultimate-Guitar, founded in 1998 by Russian economics student Eugeny Naidenov, hasn’t seen a substantial design update since 2003. (Hot new tab at the time: The Darkness’s “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.”) Meanwhile, Google search data shows that user interest in guitar tabs has plummeted since January 2004, when the site started tracking it. Those little bumps you see on the graph? They primarily relate to the announcement of new learn-to-play apps.


(Google Trends)

In some ways, actually, the fate of guitar tab sites encapsulates some broader trends and conflicts in the music industry over the past 20 years. Organic and unregulated at the onset, small tab sites flourished into the mid-aughts, when they suddenly found themselves facing off against copyright claims from songwriters and other industry groups. The industry claimed tabs sites profited, unfairly, off protected intellectual property. Defenders countered that tabs were “derivative works” with an educational purpose — that this information, in particular, wanted to be free. (That didn’t exactly work out: Most sites now license tabs from industry organizations, just as lyrics sites pay to get lyrics.)

At the same time, new Web sites and technologies gradually cycled tabs toward obsolescence. You could stare at the minimalist, Courier-New tab page for “About a Girl” until your eyes crust over — or you could click over to YouTube, where 38,000 people have uploaded tutorials for the exact same song. Incidentally, if you search for “About a Girl” tabs, one of the first results was submitted — at some point in the distant past, one hopes — by a user with the quaint e-mail address “hockey1881@aol.com.”

That isn’t to say tabs have completely lost their ’90s glory: Ultimate Guitar claims it’s “ fastest growing guitar community on the net.” (Do people still say “net”?) The site owns several of the most popular tab apps and reaches, according to marketing director Jonathan Kehl, more than 70 percent of online guitar enthusiasts. But it’s less an old-school tab site than a “platform for guitarists to connect with each other.” Mobile use is up. Desktop tabbing is down.

“It is common for UG to be a central part of all aspects of a guitarist’s musical life,” Kehl wrote in an e-mail. That online music community is personal to them, he said — “it is part of who they are.”

So that much hasn’t changed, at least. Even if everything else in the industry has.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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