TAB or tablature is a method of writing down music played on guitar or bass. Instead of using symbols like in standard musical notation,
it uses ordinary ASCII characters and numbers, making it ideal for places like the internet where anybody with any computer can link up,
copy a TAB file, and read it.
What TAB will tell you
- TAB will tell you what notes to play it will tell you which string to hit
and which fret to fret it at;
- TAB will tell you where hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends,
slides, harmonics and vibrato are used.;
- TAB will tell you what tuning the piece is in. If this isn't given
explicitly, assume normal tuning.
TAB should also give you information on use of capos etc.
- TAB will give you an indication of the ryhthm of the piece.
i.e it will tell you which are the long notes
and which are the short notes.
What TAB won't tell you
- TAB will (usually) not tell you the note lengths of the notes
so in most cases you will have to listen to the song yourself,
with the TAB in front of you to work out the ryhthm of the notes.;
- TAB will not tell you which fingers you use to fret which note.;
- TAB will (usually) not tell you anything about picking and strumming
you will have to decide for yourself where to use
upstrokes/downstrokes and so on.
TAB notation - the basics
TAB is simple to read, and should be simple to write if you want to submit
a song you have worked out yourself. The idea is this:
You start out with 6 lines (or four for bass). These correspond to the strings
of the instrument. The top line is the highest pitch string, and the bottom
line is the lowest pitch string. Below is a blank bit of TAB with the string
names at the left.
Numbers are written on the lines to show you where to fret the string
with the left hand. If a zero appears , this means play the open string.
Like standard musical notation, you read from left to right to find
out what order to play the notes. The following piece of TAB would mean
play the sequence of notes (E F F# G G# A) on the bottom E string by
moving up a fret at a time, starting with the open string.
Which would mean strum the same shape starting at the bottom string, so
that each string is hit slightly later than the last string, but all notes
will ring together. Below is am example of the same shape again, but now
the gaps between the notes are bigger - so you would probably pick the
strings separately instead of slowly strumming the shape.
You might ask - How do I know how fast or slow to play this ?
Are all the notes supposed to be the same length ?
This is where TAB differs from standard notation. Most often TAB
will not give you any information on the note lengths. It is usually
left up to you to listen to the song to pick up the rhythm.
However - don't despair. TAB should give you some indications of
timing. In the example above all the notes are evenly spaced so you
can reasonably assume that the notes are the same length (maybe all
eighth notes or quavers) but this may not always be true - it depends on
who wrote the TAB.
As a general rule, the spacing of the notes on the TAB should tell you
which notes are the long ones, and which are the short and fast ones, but
obviously it won't tell you if a note is a triplet or anything like
that. Again, this will depend strongly on the person who wrote the
As an example, here are the first few notes of the American National
Anthem in TAB. You should see fairly clearly that the different spacing
corresponds to the different note lengths.
Obviously it will be a lot easier to play the TAB for a song you
know well than for a song you've never heard of because you will
already be familiar with the ryhthms of the familiar song.
Other symbols used in TAB
So far I've looked at what notes to play : which string to hit, and
where to fret it. I've mentioned how to get an idea of note lengths
by looking at the spaces between notes on the TAB, but this can only
be a rough guide. You will always have to check with the original track
to work out details of the rhythm.
A lot of other imprtant information can be included in a piece of TAB.
This includes hammer-ons, pull offs, slides, bends, vibrato and so on.
The standard practice is to write extra letters or symbols between notes
to indicate how to play them. Here are the letters/symbols most
h - hammer-on
p - pull-off
b - bend string up (bow a string, so it sounds higher)
r - release bend (a bowed string return to starting position)
/ - slide up
\ - slide down
v - vibrato (sometimes written as ~)
t - right hand tap
x - play 'note' with heavy dampingt
For slides, s is sometimes used to indicate either an up or down slide.
That last one, the x, is used to get a choppy, percussive sound.
You usually use your fretting hand to lightly damp the strings so
that when you pick the note it sounds dead.
Note that the use of 'x' is totally different from the use of
an 'x' when giving chord shapes. For example if you wrote the chord of D, you would see:
where the 'x's mean do not play this string.
In tab it is implicitly assumed that a string is not played if it is not
marked. So the same chord in TAB would be:
There are a number of other symbols for things like whammy bar bends,
pick scrapes and so on. There seems to be no particular standard
way of writing these - details should be given in the TAB to explain
what the symbols mean.
Bass TAB will probably need a few extra symbols to cope with the
different techniques used in bass playing - for example slapping
and 'popping' the string with thumb or middle finger.
You could use 's' for slap and 'p' for pop as long as you wrote
them underneath the lines of tab to distinguish them from slide
and pull off which would be written on the lines of tab.
Hammer-ons and Pull-offs
With hammer-ons and pull-offs can be a piece of TAB notation there
will look like this:
For each pull off you only pick the first note of the pair
with the right hand - so in this example you would pick all the
notes on the 3rd and 2nd frets, and the open strings would be
sounded by pulling off.
Because you give the string an extra bit of energy when you hammer on
and pull off, you only need to hit the first note with the picking hand.
You could even have a long string of hammer-ons and pull-offs like
In this case you only pick the first note.
Note: Other symbols can also be used to indicate hammer-ons and pull-offs. The ^ symbol can be used, for example, to indicate a hammer-on or a pull-off.
It says here: "Strike the note at the second position of the G string.
Hammer-on to fourth position. Pull-off to the second position ".
It would be very handy if everyone used the same symbols and letters.
Therefore, use the standard notation as much as possible, unless you have good reason to refrain from using h and p.
In any case, for each TAB you make you have to explain your symbols when you use an 'unconventional' spelling.
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:
It means strike the B string at the 7th fret, then bend the note up
two semitones (one whole step) so that it sounds the same pitch as
a note fretted at the 9th fret would do. (Sometimes the bend is
written with the second part in brackets, like this:
where the exact start or finish of a slide is not given. Here you
have to know whether you're sliding up or down. In these cases use
your judgement to choose the starting or finishing fret. The effect
usually desired is to have a note 'swooping in' from a lower pitch
or dropping suddenly in pitch as the note fades.
You could have a whole series of slides running together, like this:
This is'nt exactly where the slides start or end.
So here you must know whether you have to slide up or down.
In these cases you have to estimate yourself at which position you should start or stop the slide.
The effect that is usually meant by this is that the note played is deployed from the depth and
that it suddenly falls in pitch when it sounds.
You can also come across a whole series of slides one after the other:
This means that only the first tone at the 7th position of the
B string is struck and that the remaining tones are played
by sliding from position to position.
Note length information
Occasionally you will find TAB which includes information on all
of the note lengths. There seems to be no particular 'standard'
way of doing this, but it usually involves a line of letters or
symbols above the TAB.
If the explanation of the timing symbols is not given in the TAB
then you've got a problem !
In this case a quick email to the author to ask for enlightenment
is the only way forward.
Perhaps one of the most important things to do before you start
typing up a piece of TAB is to decide exactly how much information
to include in it. The trick is to convey the right amount of
information in a clear, easily readable form.
Questions you can ask yourself are:
- Is the song played using mostly chords?
- Are there a number of riffs which appear throughout the song?
- Is there a clear verse/chorus/middle bit structure?
By planning ahead a little you should be able to produce a clearly
structured TAB which will not only be easier for others to read, but
also easier for you to type in.
There are also choices to be made when deciding what package to use
when typing the TAB in. All you really need is a simple text editor,
however a mouse-driven editor will probably make things easier.
When you start typing in it saves time if you draw out one blank stave
and then make 8 or 10 copies of these before you start typing in
the fret numbers etc.
If you use a more complicated package like Microsoft Word then
make sure that the characters you use are all the same length.
If an 'm' character is wider than an 'i' character then your TAB
is going to look very strange on another text editor. Choose a font
where all charcters get the same width - Courier usually does the
There are also a number of programs available by ftp which were written
specifically to make TAB writing easier. Details of these programs
including ftp addresses are in the 'TABBING MADE EASY' FAQ by John Kean,
along with other useful hints for writing TAB.
To TAB or not to TAB
If a song can be described well with just chords, then it will be
a lot easier to read and write if you just use the chord shapes, rather
than tab out the chords.
BUT - if you do just send in the chords it makes things much clearer if you give the chord shapes as well.
A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A
A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A
A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A G D
A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A
(You should really have the words underneath as well, but I can't
remember them at the moment !)
Now this is OK, but how many people actually know how to play Dadd4/A
off the top of their heads?
What you need to do is include some chord shapes like this:
EADGBE EADGBE EADGBE EADGBE EADGBE EADGBE
x02020 x02010 x04035 320033 xx0232 x0000x
A7 Am7 Dadd4/A G D G/A
To TAB out these chords will take a lot longer to type in, and
will probably take people a lot longer to read and understand.
Where a song is based around chords like this, it makes things
much easier if you just give chord shapes and names, then show
where the chords go in relation to the words.
Things to do when writing TABS
One of the most important considerations when typing in TAB is to make
it clear and easily readable.
There are a few simple things you can do to make things work.
- Use spaces!
It's amazing the difference it can make if you insert a few blank lines
in the right place. If you are used to writing the words above or below
the lines of TAB make sure you leave a few lines free so that it's clear
whether the words belong to the line of TAB above or below.
Space out the individual lines of TAB and the whole thing will be a lot
easier for others to understand.
- Define the symbols you use
It would make everybody's life a lot easier if everyone used the same
symbols for hammer ons, bends etc.
BUT - if you are convinced that your particular way of writing bends
and slides makes much more sense than anyone else's, that's OK as long
dan is dat geen probleem. Zolang je er maar voor zorgt dat je
as you tell everybody what system you use. It makes very good sense to
start your TAB file with a list of symbols used.
h - hammer-on
p - pull-off
b - bend
r - release bend
/ - slide up
\ - slide down
v - vibrato (sometimes written as ~)
t - tap (with strumming hand)
x - muted, struck string
When you get on to harmonics , you might see a variety of symbols
used. Even in standard music notation, an accepted way of writing
natural and artificial harmonics has neverbeen agreed !
However, using brackets is the standard way of writing harmonics,
so a natural harmonic at the 12th fret would be:
Normal brackets () are sometimes used for grace notes or optional
notes so 'pointy' brackets <> is the usual choice for harmonics.
Because there are no standards (in written music or tablature) to
distinguish between natural and artificial harmonics, some confusion
sometimes arises. If you are writing out some tab with harmonics, it's
best to add a note to say whether they are natural harmonics (most
commonly at the 5th, 7th and 12th frets) or artificial (pinched)
harmonics. With artificial harmonics, you have to fret a note with
the left hand (say at the 2nd fret) and pinch the harmonic an octave
above (at the 14th fret) so you should make it clear whether the number
you write in the tab is the fretted or pinched note. It is more common
to tab out the pinched notes, so if you see tab like this:
It will usually mean fret notes at the 2nd, 4th and 5th frets, and
play the artificial harmonics at the frets shown in the tab.
- Label bits of the TAB
It makes things a lot easier if you can see where the 'verse' and
'chorus' parts of a song are, so put a few labels in certain places
to guide people through it.
Many songs will have clear 'verse' and 'chorus' structures - so you
can tab out the riffs/chords or whatever for these just once, and then
indicate where these are repeated. Or there maybe a couple of
important riffs which are used - so TAB these out and label them
'Riff One' and 'Riff Two' - then when they come up later in the song
you can just say 'repeat Riff One four times' instead of tabbing
the whole thing again.
As long as it's clear which bits of TAB go with which label, you
will save yourself time this way as well as making it easier to
read for others.
- Include Artist and album
It's useful for others to know where to find the original song,
so at the beginning of each TAB include some information on
the artists who recorded the original, and the album on which
the song can be found.
- General comments
It's also useful to include a few lines at the beginning of the
TAB to explain the style of the song, or to point out important
features such as alternative tunings, use of capos etc.
A few words along the lines of "use a staccato, funky kind
of strumming style for the chords, then change to a sustained
feel for the lead line" will help people to get an idea of
how to approach the playing style.
Information on the type of guitar (electric/acoustic,
6 string/12 string) and effects used would be useful.
One point on the use of capos and alternative tunings:
It's a lot easier for people to understand chord names etc if
they are written as though played without a capo.
For example, if you have a D shape chord played with a capo at
the 2nd fret you should write it as D major even though you will
actually be fretting notes at the 4th and 5th frets.
Also - for TAB using a capo, it's standard practice to write the
numbers of the frets relative to the position of the capo.
So again, if you had a D major chord with a capo at the 2nd fret
the TAB would be:
It makes things a lot easier to understand if the you call the chord
'E' rather than Eb.
- Timing information
You may want to get really serious and include details
giving the precise rhythm of the piece. This will involve
a lot more typing, but it means all the information
necessary to play the piece is given explicitly.
One way to approach this is to write a line of dashes
interspersed with numbers which count the beats.
So in 4-4 time, you would have:
Under this you can write a line of d's and u's to represent
down and upstrokes.
Here is a simple example where the rhythm is 2 crotchets
(quarter notes) followed by 4 quavers (8th notes):
You could expand on this to use upper and lower case letters
to indicate accents and so on.
If you use this method make sure that you clearly separate the
2 lines of rhythm information from the 6 lines of TAB !!!
One other way of including timing information is to use one
letter/symbol for each note type.
For example use e for 8th note (quaver), s for 16th note (semi-
quaver) and so on. The letters you use may well differ depending
on whether you're used to the american system of quarter notes,
8th notes etc or the english system of crotchets and quavers ,
but the method is the same.
If you're not sure of the 'translations' here they are:
Simply write the letters above the corresponding note in the
TAB. (Make sure you define which letters/symbols you use).
Here's an example of what this looks like:
This is the opening riff from the Beatles' Ticket To Ride.
q e e t t t q e e t t t
Here I've used q for quarter note, e for 8th note
and t for triplet quarter note.
If you want to send in a TAB with rhythm information like this
then it's essential to explain the system you use. I've seen
a lot of different systems of letters and numbers of varying
degrees of simplicity and readability. Whichever you choose to
use, you'll have to explain all your symbols to make sure others
can work out what the hell you're on about.
If you want to give a few clues as to the rhythm of the TAB, but
don't want to get too involved, use of bar lines is an effective
way of conveying timing information:
- Tab Wraparound
One of the most common problems in writing TAB is text wraparound.
This makes the TAB almost impossible to read but is very easily
The problem occurs when you write a line of TAB which is maybe 80
or 90 characters long. For a lot of people this is too wide for
their screen, so what should be a single line of tab ends up being
split onto two lines:
Now this will probably look pretty weird when you see it. When I
wrote it, using Windows 'Notepad', it looked fine because I could
fit the whole thing on one screen.
For most newsreaders though, it is too long and you run into
All you have to do is be careful when you type in TAB so that you
the maximum width of line is say 72 characters.
Of course, if TAB does get wrapped around the author might not realise
because it looked fine on his/her screen when they wrote it. It might be
worth letting them know of the problem, so they can be careful in the
- Very squashed TAB
It's amazing how easy it is to ruin an otherwise good piece of TAB by
not spacing it out so that the end result is a mass of cramped TAB,
explanations, labels etc.
When you finish typing up, go back through the TAB and see if you can
insert a few blank lines here and there to separate verse from chorus
or whatever. It really does make it a lot easier for others to read.
It might also be worth considering if you've included too much detail
in the TAB. Usually this will not be the case, but I have seen a few
TABs which go into great details, but are extremely off-putting to
try to read because of the sheer quantity of information.
- Unnecessary repetition
If a line of TAB or a particular riff is repeated a number of times
then save yourself the effort, TAB it once.
That's all I think you need to know about reading and writing TAB.
If there's anything important you think I've left out or if there
are bits of the FAQ which you can't understand then let me know.