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A man playing a very, very small bass guitar

Tablature (or tab) is a method of writing down music played on stringed instruments. Instead of using symbols as in standard musical notation, it uses ordinary typed letters and numbers, making it great for usage on the Internet or writing by hand where anyone can easily read it. Tablatures can be written for any stringed instrument with frets - specifically guitar and bass. Although drums aren't string instruments, even they have tablatures. Tablature was first used for keyboard music over 650 years ago. For fretted instruments it is greatly preferable to staff notation, since it gives all the information in much fewer symbols. The first fretted-instrument tablatures were invented over 500 years ago, for the lute. They use the same signs for time values as were already established in staff notation, written above the tab lines. For contrapuntal music (fantasias and fugues and the like) the system works particularly well, giving the player a single line of time values to read. This contrasts with staff notation where concurrent time systems try to keep the different voices visually separate (like a vocal score reduced to one stave) which is always problematic, often inaccurate, and utterly unnecessary.

What Tabs Will Tell You:

  • Which string(s) to play.
  • Which frets to push.
  • Chords to play.
  • String tunings and number of strings.
  • Styles of playing: hammer-ons, pull-offs, etc.

What Tabs Will Not Tell You:

  • Durations of the notes. The player will have to listen to the song and find out the note durations for themselves1.
  • Which fingers to use to play the notes with.
  • Whether to use an upstroke or downstroke.

Most of the time the tab will have text among the lines denoting things like multiple repeats, time at which to play the part, and author comments.

How To Read Tabs

Tabs are quite easy to read. They are laid out as follows with the lowest string (in pitch) at the bottom and the highest string at the top:

E |---------|---------| B |---------|---------| G |---------|---------| D |---------|---------| A |---------|---------| E |---------|---------|

Sometimes tabs will include barlines as shown above; usually they will not. Obviously for different instruments the tab lettering will vary: for bass guitar just the bottom four are shown, etc. It all depends on the instrument that is being tabbed2.

Numbers are placed on the lines to indicate what fret to press on and what string to play it on. If a zero is written, the string is played open. The following tab indicates a chromatic scale on the low E - E, F, F#, G, G#, A:

E |------------------| B |------------------| G |------------------| D |------------------| A |------------------| E |0-1-2-3-4-5-------|

Alternately, this can be written as:

E |------------------| B |------------------| G |------------------| D |------------------| A |----------0-------| E |0-1-2-3-4---------|

Now for something a bit harder. The following tab shows a simple E chord:

E |--------| B |0-------| G |1-------| D |2-------| A |--------| E |--------|

This means to place a finger on the second fret of the D string and the first fret of the G string. Play the D, G, and B strings while not touching the E, A, and high E strings.

Of course, any number of strings may be involved in a chord. This chord, F7, uses all strings:

E |1-------| B |1-------| G |2-------| D |1-------| A |3-------| E |1-------|

Sometimes, chords may be written as follows:

E |--------| B |--0-----| G |-1------| D |2-------| A |--------| E |--------|

This means to play the D string, then after a very short delay play the G string, then the B string while letting the notes ring. This generates a small arpeggio. However, if the note numbers are placed farther apart, like below, then play each note individually:

E |--------| B |----0---| G |--1-----| D |2-------| A |--------| E |--------|

When notes are this far apart, they are usually not played in a chord. However, it is best to listen to the song and judge how to play the notes based on a recording.


There are many different ways to play notes on a guitar. Each different way has a special symbol to make playing easier and to generate a specific sound. REMEMBER! These symbols are not necessarily consistent with all tabs! Usually the tab header will indicate symbols: if not, assume the ones below are correct, or listen to the song and judge for yourself3.


The number by itself means no special methods, simply pluck the string with the pick4(or finger it on a fingered bass).


This means to slam on the string with your finger, NOT pluck the string. Hammering makes playing much easier without having to pluck the string. Several notes in a row can be played easily:

E |--------| B |--------| G |--------| D |3h5-----| A |--------| E |--------|

This means to play the third fret on the D string, then quickly press on the fifth fret with another finger. Pulling off is the opposite of hammering on. It means to play a note and then let go of the string with one finger with or without plucking (depending on the instrument or style of playing) so the open string generates a different note:

E |--------| B |--------| G |--------| D |3p0-----| A |--------| E |--------|

This means to play the third fret on the D string, then quickly let go of the string to let the D ring out. The note pulled down to can be any one, not just an open string; for example from 3 to 2, if there is a finger placed at both positions.


This means to run a finger up or down the string to generate rising or falling tones in a short amount of time. / means to slide up the string and \ means to slide down, although it is actually a bit redundant because the starting and ending notes are written:

E |--------| B |--------| G |--------| D |3/9-----| A |--------| E |--------|

This means to play the D string 3rd fret and then slide up to the 9th fret.

E |--------| B |--------| G |--------| D |9\3-----| A |--------| E |--------|

Similarly, this means to play the D string 9th fret and then slide down to the 3rd fret.


This means to dampen the string with the left hand and then play a note to generate a muffled, percussive tone:

E |--------| B |--------| G |--------| D |3x------| A |--------| E |--------|

This means to touch the string lightly with the left hand to muffle the sound, then play the third fret on the D string.


Harmonics deal with lightly touching a string at a certain fret5 in order to make a pitch higher than that which is normally available by creating a node in the wave of the string's vibration. Harmonics are indicated in brackets:

E |<5>-----| B |--------| G |--------| D |--------| A |--------| E |--------|

This means to touch the string very lightly with the left hand on the fifth fret, then play the E string. So using this, now you can impress your bandmates by making doorbell sounds:

E |-----------------| B |-----------------| G |<5>-<7>-<4>-<5>--| D |<5>-<7>-<4>-<5>--| A |-----------------| E |-----------------|

Bends and Releases

When bends are involved you need to know how much to bend the note up. This is indicated by writing a number after the 'b'. For example, if you see this:

E |-------| B |-------| G |-------| D |7b9----| A |-------| E |-------|

Play a note on the 7th fret of the D string, then bend the string so it sounds as if it were being played on the 9th string. Sometimes it may be written in parentheses like 7b(9). Bending back down is the same, but in reverse. It's written like this:

E |---------| B |---------| G |---------| D |7b9-9r7--| A |---------| E |---------|

This means to play the 7th fret, bend up to the 9th fret pitch, then re-pick the note while the string is bent and release the bend while the note is ringing.

Ring Out

Displayed as an asterisk(*), this symbol simply means to let the note ring. Nothing special.


This symbol can be marked two different ways. Both of the following tabs mean exactly the same thing:

E |---------| B |---------| G |---------| D |9v-------| A |---------| E |---------| E |---------| B |---------| G |---------| D |9~~~~~~~~| A |---------| E |---------|

Repeats and Multiple Endings

Repeats are indicated in a few different ways. Usually they are indicated like this:

E |----------------| B |----------------| G |----------------| x3 D |2--2-22-2--2-22-| A |2--2-22-2--2-22-| E |0--0-00-0--0-00-|

This means play the line three times.

E |-------------------| B |-------------------| G |*-----------------*| D |*-2--2-22-2--2-22-*| A |--2--2-22-2--2-22--| E |--0--0-00-0--0-00--|

This method uses staff-like repeat bars to indicated that the selection is repeated twice. This method is not very frequently used; the first one is more common.

A Simple Bit Of Music

If you think you've got that down, then try to play this piece of music. Here is the tablature for the intro to Led Zeppelin's song Black Dog:



Where Can I Find Tabs?

Tabs are quite easy to find on the Internet, it being one of the only places available to find them, besides popular music books for guitar:

1The spacing of the numbers is a good indicator; see below.2It is important to pay attention to the tuning for instruments like bass guitar; several bands use a dropped D tuning on the E string, or a similar configuration, so it is necessary to tune the instrument beforehand.3Remember to reverse these instructions for people who play guitar left-handed.4Also referred to as a 'plectrum'.5Usually 4, 5, 7, or 12. The other frets either cannot generate harmonics or else make notes that are too high.

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