We started off by showing an example of guitar solo music from 1980. In this line from Peter Maxwell Davies' Farewell to Stromness the arranger and editor, guitarist Timothy Walker, has fingered at least one note in every chord. Some notes even have two fingerings for a note, one for the finger and one for the string to play it on, though the string is implicit anywhere he tells you what finger to use.
So you have to think if Timothy Walker thinks that a plucked string player needs that much more information above and beyond the dots and lines of staff notation he, and he would never think this out loud, must think that staff notation is not adequate for notating plucked string music.
One group of people who are not encumbered by the snobbery of having to 'read music' (ie. dots in staff notation), who thus think the 'music' is the sound waves, the performance, not the piece of paper with dots on it which we also call 'music', are classic rock fans. They know that tablature will give you the information you need more efficiently. There are thousands of tablature sites out there with the first bars of this famous piece. This example of Stairway to Heaven is from shredmentor.com. Reading tablature never really went away, Guitar World magazine would have examples in the back, but the new medium of the internets has certainly boosted it.
This tablature has six lines representing the strings of the guitar with the top sounding string nearest the top of the page. The numbers on the lines are the frets of the guitar, 0= open string, 1= first fret 2= second fret, etc.
Modern tab readers though, have not started using the rhythm signs that lutenists and guitarists used from the 16th to the 18th century, maybe because they will always have heard the song they are learning, so they'll know to play the Stairway in four square time, not swung.
The Thibault Manuscript (Blibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Rés. Vmd. Ms. 27), probably started around 1502, has that sense of a lute player jotting down some reminders of pieces he knows already. There are no rhythm signs, but the rhythms can often be reconstructed (click on the link above) from the right hand fingering signs; when there are two thumb plucks in a row followed by a forefinger designated by a dot under the note you know the rhythm is 'taa-ti-ti', because strong beats always get the stronger sounding thumb downward pluck. The rhythm signs in the example of a decorated version of the famous Fortuna desperata are jotted in by me because I don't know the piece as well as the first person who owned the manuscript. Here the top sounding string is nearest the bottom of the page because, obviously, that string is nearest the ground when you are holding a lute or guitar. This is called Italian tablature and was used in Italy, parts of Germany and, mostly, in Spain.
Next I played a piece from the first printed book of specifically instrumental music. Ottaviano Petrucci didn't invent music printing, but was the first successful publisher. In 1507 he printed Intabolatura de lauto libro primo and secondo of music by or arranged by Francesco Spinacino. The technique Petrucci used was to print the lines, then go back and print on the fret numbers and rhythm signs. What a beautiful job he does considering the complexity of that technique and that it is the first time anyone had ever printed lute music. And what an honour for Spinacino to be the first musician to have his instrumental works published. How strange that we know little more about him beyond his name.
But of course, tablature is not telling you about pitches, only about where to put your fingers. I had brought three lutes, one with the top string at E, one at G and one at A. Hallie sang this song, printed in 1509 (Franciscus Bossinensis’s Tenori e contrabassi intabulati col sopran in canto figurato per cantar e sonar col lauto), with each of them. The rubric at the beginning says 'the voice of the soprano is at (ie. starts on) the fifth fret of the canto (top string)'. So, though the staff notation first note in the says she sings a D, so to harmonize with that note the top string of the lute must be an A, I can give her the first note on any of the lutes and put my fingers in the same place and she transposes up or down to where it's comfortable, depending on which lute I am playing. We agreed this song sounds best with the lute in A, but some of the ones which are for a lute in E sound better up. Maybe Petrucci was just avoiding ledger lines. Around 1500 Isabella d'Este, Marchesa of Mantua, wrote to her instrument maker Lorenzo di Pavia 'Make is a lute that is two steps smaller than the viola you made, which we find a little too low for our voice.'
Petrucci does a beautiful job of printing, but still can't compete with the detail that you can include in a manuscript. In 1517 Vidal starts his manuscript, now in the Newberry Library in Chicago and writes this at the beginning:
Considering that several divine works have been lost by the ignorance of their owners, and desiring that this almost divine book written by me will be preserved forever, I, Vidal, have adorned it with such noble paintings, so that if it should be owned by somebody with no knowledge in (the musical field), he would keep it for the beauty of the pictures. Surely, the things written in this book have as much harmony as the art of music may express.
In this example of Capirola you can see where to put ornaments (fret numbers in dots and slashes through fret numbers), signs that tell you where to hold and release notes (not so important on the lute which makes the very short 'plink', and you will need that finger somewhere else soon.) and of course bunnies.