How to Read Ukulele Tabs

Last week, I posted 3 Easy Songs You Can Fingerpick on Ukulele Today.

When you download the sheet music for these songs, you are presented with a musical staff and tablature.

After a couple emails, I realize we’ve looked at how to read music, but one thing we haven’t looked at yet is how to read tabs.

Music tablature, or tab, is a simplified form of musical notation used for stringed instruments like the ukulele.

Most people learn a new piece of music by using tab. Unlike a regular piece of music, tabs show you exactly where to play the notes on the fretboard.

Let’s take a look at some examples of tablature.

Music Tablature Basics

For the ukulele, in a piece of tablature, you will see four lines:

A -----------------------------------------
E -----------------------------------------
C -----------------------------------------
g -----------------------------------------

Each line represents a string on the ukulele. The top line represents the bottom string of the ukulele where the bottom line represents the top string of the ukulele.

When you look at a piece of tab, you’ll see numbers scattered across the different “strings” or lines:

-----3-----------------------------------
-----------0-----------------------0-----
-----------------0-----------0-----------
-----------------------0-----------------

Each number refers to a fret number.

For example, in the piece of tab above, you would pluck the 3rd fret of the bottom string on the ukulele. As we read across the piece of tab, we see that we would then pluck the open E string, the second to bottom string. Then, we would pluck the open C string, the second to top string. Then, we would pluck the open G string, the top string. And so on…

How to Write Chords in Music Tablature

In a piece of tab, you might see all the numbers line up vertically:

-----0-----2-----3-----0-----3-----2-----
-----1-----3-----0-----0-----2-----1-----
-----0-----2-----0-----0-----2-----2-----
-----2-----0-----0-----2-----2-----0-----

When you see this, this means you play a chord. In other words, you play all the notes vertically aligned together.

In the above example, we see the chords played from left to right: F, G, C, Am, D7, and G7.

Other Important Music Tablature Symbols

At this point, you should be able to read tab like a pro, but there are a couple more symbols that we will see on occasion.

Hammer-ons

Hammer-ons are designated by an “h” symbol that separates the two notes.

-----1-------------------
-----1-------------------
-----------2h3-----------
-------------------3-----

In this example, you would pluck the 2nd fret of the second to top string, and then “hammer-on” to the 3rd fret.

Pull-offs

Pull-offs are designated by a “p” symbol that separates the two notes.

-----3p2-----------------
-------------3-----------
-------------------2-----
-------------------0-----

In this example, you would pluck the 3rd fret of the bottom string, and then “pull-off” to the 2nd fret.

Alternative Symbol for Hammer-ons and Pull-offs

Hammer-ons and pull-offs can also be designated by using the “^” symbol.

-----0---------------------
-----------0^3^0-----------
---------------------0-----
---------------------2-----

In this example, you would pluck the open E string, then hammer-on to the 3rd fret, and then pull-off back to the open E string.

Slides

Ascending slides are represented by the “/” symbol, while descending slides are represented by the “\” symbol.

----2/5-----------------
------------3\2---------
-------------------4----
------------------------

In this example, you would pluck the 2nd fret of the bottom string and slide up to the 5th fret. Then, you would pluck the 3rd fret of the second to bottom string and slide down to the 2nd fret.

Bends

Bends are represented by the “b” symbol. An “r” symbol will be used to indicate a bend that returns back to the original plucked note.

----5b6----3-----------------------
----------------3----5b6r5----3----
-----------------------------------
-----------------------------------

In this example, you pluck the 5th fret of the bottom string and bend it to the 6th fret and hold the bend. Then, you would pluck the 3rd fret of the bottom string, and then, the 3rd fret of the second to bottom string.

Next, on the same string, you would pluck the 5th fret of the second, bend up to the 6th fret, and then, return the bend back to the 5th fret. Lastly, you would pluck the 3rd fret.

The Big Downside to Using Tab

As you can see, reading tab is a very intuitive way to learn a song.

However, the big problem is that with tab you don’t get a sense of the rhythm. Meaning, you don’t know when to play the notes written on a piece of tab or how long to hold them in relation to the other notes.

The best way to use tab is in combination with your ear. For example, you’ve heard a song you want to learn how to play on ukulele, and because you know how it sounds, you can use the tab as an aid.

Using tab in combination with reading music is extremely powerful. This is the format in which I posted the fingerpicking songs last week. Be sure to check those out if you want some real practical application for using tabs.

How the Ukulele Strumming Tricks Video Course Makes You a Better Ukulele Player

If you feel like you've hit a wall with your ukulele playing, you're in luck.

With online ukulele lessons, you're able to learn how to play the ukulele from the comfort of your own home. However, as you've probably found, it can be hard to know where to start.

As you'll see in a moment, the Ukulele Strumming Tricks video lesson course is more than just a couple of lessons that were thrown together. It's a step-by-step, comprehensive course that gives you a complete roadmap towards ukulele success.

Let's take a look at how the Ukulele Strumming Tricks course is organized to take your playing to the next level…

30 Comments

  1. Anton Tsenov

    Hi, Brett! I went through your email regarding the “3 Easy Songs…” and understood there should have been a previous mail with the topic “How to read music” – strange but I didn´t get it. Doesn´t matter, I found the link then in the “3 Easy Songs…”. I must say this is very well done by you to have the possibility to go back to some topics, which someone could ever have not received before.
    At the last weeks I´ve seen a lot of tabs in internet, and wanted to write to you asking to explaine them to us. I see, you have telepathy :-). Yesterday you posted it. TNANK YOU very much for all your marvelouse work by teaching us – all your lessons are compact, clear, easy understandable and making people happy by learning playing music on such a pleasant way! Greetings from Vienna, AUT.

  2. Anton Tsenov

    Hi, Brett! It´s me again. Could you please show by video file how to practice all these hammer-ons, pull-offs and so on. Thank you

    • Hey Anton! Thanks for the comments. It makes really happy to hear that these lessons have been helpful.

      I think you are now reading my mind, because eventually, I want to do a post that looks at hammer-ons, pull-offs, etc. That’s an excellent idea. :) Stay tuned…

  3. bernie caine

    tks very informative but i prefer to see the finger dots myself much more easier to read

  4. Anton Tsenov

    Yes, for me as a beginner is also much more easier to use finger dots for now, but I see everywere in internet the songs are given by tabs as they give much more information how a song to be played, right?
    I think, Bernie, that Brett will teach us well how to get used to the tabs, right Brett :-)? Thanks a lot!

  5. Dave Dodd

    Hi Brett,
    Thanks for the lesson on tabs. I found it really useful. However, while I can understand what a slide is, I hope you can explain hammer ons, pull offs and bends
    Thanks,
    Dave

    • Dave, thanks for your comment! I’ll be sure to do a lesson in the future explaining hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bends.

  6. Clyde Ortego

    Hey Brett:

    Are tabs any different from GCEA to DGBE Ukuleles?

    Thanks

    Clyde

    • Hey Clyde, tabs can be specific to either GCEA or DGBE tuning. Usually at the top of a tab it will indicate what tuning the tab is in.

  7. Clyde Ortego

    Hey Brett:

    Just watched your video on finger position for picking of a GCEA uku.

    My queation is does the finger position change between the two different tunings and which is easier to use on a baritone uku?

    Thanks

    Clyde

    • Hey Clyde, the finger position doesn’t really change between the two ukuleles. I like to use my thumb for the top two strings and then my index finger for the second to bottom and my middle finger for the bottom. I’ll use this on any four string ukulele.

    • sophie

      hi this is greaT STUFF THANX

  8. Alaina

    Hey Brett,
    I noticed on one of the sites I use for “tabs” (ukulele-tabs.com) that they use the lyrics with x’s and chords above them.

    I was wondering what the x’s mean? Do they stand for a rhythm or are they just there for the sake of being there?

    Thanks.
    – Alaina.

    • Hey Alaina, my understanding is that the X’s for the lyrics are substitute for the lyrics. They do not indicate the rhythm of the song.

  9. Eli

    Thank you!!! now i can play ukulele brothers by jake shimabukuro with my little bro!

  10. chagi_uke

    Hey there brah, it’s my first time to visit this site… And i can say “super solid” lol. But the reason i came here is to ask you a question. I can understand most of the symbols on the tabs, but i cant figure out wat the X’s mean after a set of cords is play? Does that mean to mute the cord or something?
    —–0—–0—–0—X—-0—
    —–1—–1—–1—X—-1—
    —–0—–0—–0—X—-0—
    —–2—–2—–2—X—-2—

    • Yep, X’s mean to mute the chord, or they specify notes that you shouldn’t strum in a chord. In the example, it looks like you would perform a muted strum.

  11. David Kim

    I saw tabs that went —c4— what does that mean?

    • Hi David, my guess is that it is referring to ‘C4′ or middle-C on a piano, also the open C-string of the ukulele.

  12. Heather EC

    Hi Brett,
    thanks for the information it explains a problem I had today. I have never played the ukelele and due to poor spatial skills have never really noticed which way people hold stringed instruments. I work as a substitute teacher and today had music. The kids were in groups doing different activities left by their music teacher and one group was playing Mary Had a Little Lamb on the ukelele using Tabs. I’m right handed and so I held the ukelele as felt comfortable, assuming that would be the right way.

    The kids in the first class told me that the top tab showed the note for the top string and so on. I gave it a go and played a tune that sounded right.

    However a girl in the third class I taught realized I was holding the ukelele back to front and upside down! Apparently even though I write and cut right handed and only do things like opening jars or turning taps left handed I also am more comfortable playing ukelele left handed. I tried the right way around which I found awkward but possible, but now the tune didn’t sound right. I checked with a few more kids if the top tab indicated the top string and they insisted it did so I was really confused. Now I realise they must be confused about how to read tabs. I did wonder why their playing was untuneful, but as they were all playing together at different times I didn’t realise they were playing the tune incorrectly. A few kids who take guitar lessons were much more tuneful but were not in the class who I asked about the Tabs.

    Sadly I don’t know when I’ll see them again to correct their misunderstanding and I don’t know if the music teacher taught them incorrectly, or more likely they misunderstood their music teacher’s instructions.

    • How interesting, Heather. I wonder if the kids thought the top line indicated the top string, as in the highest string in pitch – the A-string. It sounds like they must have been confused by their teachers instructions. Feel free to pass this information along if you wish.

      Also, since you are a new ukulele player, I would recommend learning “right handed”. This will make playing and learning with others a lot easier in the long run.

  13. Heather EC

    I’m not sure if I’ll take up playing, but my Mum is learning to play and has two ukeleles now so I might borrow one and have a go. I really enjoyed playing ukelele with the school kids. I think I can manage it right handed though it made me realize how left handers have to adjust to a right handed world! However one of my brothers is left handed and finds it easy to play guitar right handed.

  14. Michael Gutteridge

    Hi Brett , just a question on reading Tabs. you say when you have numbers on each line under each other you play them as a chord . How would you read a tab if there were numbers under each other on only 2 of the line and or 3 lines ?

    • Hi Michael, in the cases where there are numbers under each other on only a couple of the lines, just play the notes on those indicated strings. You might do this by assigning individual fingers to pluck the indicated strings at the same time, or you might strum the chord with your thumb so you are missing one or two of the strings.

  15. Diojean Mendador

    Thank u so much this makes so much sense hahaha

  16. Hannah Randall

    Thanks Brett!
    I have seen Tablatures and had no idea how to read them. Your explanation was very clear and now I get it! Thank you, thank you! Happy Thanksgiving too!

  17. Tiaral

    What does the 0 on the tabs stand for and if the number is only on that certain string do
    We just play that paticular string?

Add Your Comment

*