‘Ukulele Chord Shapes eBook
“If you have questions about ukulele chords, Chord Shapes has the answers.” ~ James Hill

How to Read ‘Ukulele Tab

Ukulele tablature (tab) is an easy and fast way to write out music for the ‘ukulele and other stringed instruments. It is tedious to express timing with tab, so it is most practical when you know the song well. If you don’t know the song it’s going to be frustrating. To make things easy on yourself, employ the “hum it” rule: if you can hum the tune then you can learn from the tab, if not, then put the song on repeat and get it in your head better.

‘Ukulele tab looks like this:

A|-----3-5-5/7\5-3-3h5p3-|
E|-3/5-------------------|
C|-----------------------|
G|-----------------------|

The four horizontal lines on a bar of tab represent the four strings of an ‘ukulele. The G-string is on the bottom and the A-string is on the top. It’s as if you set your ‘ukulele up against the tab with the headstock on the left.

The numbers on the lines show which fret should be fingered and played. If there is more than one fret number in a vertical line, play the notes simultaneously. You read the fret numbers left to right.

A “C” note and then a “D” note:

A |-3-5---------|
E |-------------|
C |-------------|
G |-------------|

A “C” chord:

A |-3--------|
E |-0--------|
C |-0--------|
G |-0--------|

The “C” scale backwards:

A |-3-2-0-----------|
E |-------3-1-0-----|
C |-------------2-0-|
G |-----------------|

There are two main ‘ukulele tab formats that you will see. One is a simple text document that uses a mono-space font (like Courier New). The examples above are in text format. A legend is below.

The other format is a union between tab and a treble staff and revolves a bit more around music symbols. These higher-end tabs are made with programs like Powertab, Guitar Pro or Tab-Edit and are usually “printed” to a PDF for easy web viewing. With this Powertab format it is possible to show the timing of notes, more precise articulations, rhythm slashes, a more. All in all, it’s a much more professional looking tab. But because of the extra details, it is a little more tedious to make a Powertab. Although most notation symbols in Powertab are quite similar to text tab, there are some differences. Check out the Powertab Legend to get up to speed.

Tab legend for text document:

Here are all of the notation symbols you might see in a text ‘ukulele tab.

p

Pull-off: place one finger on the note to be played, and place a second finger behind the first finger. Pick the higher note and lift the first finger off the fret to transfer sound to the lower note.

A |-7p5-|-----|
E |-----|-----|
C |-----|-2p0-|
G |-----|-----|

h

Hammer-on: Place your first finger on the lower fretted note, then hammer a second finger onto the higher fretted note.

A |-5h7-|-----|
E |-----|-----|
C |-----|-0h2-|
G |-----|-----|

/ or \

Slide: keeping your finger on the fretboard, slide up or down to the designated fret.

A |-5/7-|-7\5-|-------|
E |-----|-----|-------|
C |-----|-----|-2/4\2-|
G |-----|-----|-------|

b

Bend: bend the string up so that it equals the pitch of the second note shown. You also release a bend back down with: r

A |------|-7b8r7-|
E |-8b10-|-------|
C |------|-------|
G |------|-------|

~

Vibrato: Vary the pitch of the note with the vibrato technique.

A |-----|
E |-~8~-|
C |-----|
G |-----|

( )

Ghost note: play note very softly.

A |-(3)-----|
E |-----(3)-|
C |---------|
G |---------|

<#>

Natural harmonics: place your finger over the number in brackets so that it barely touches the string and pick to produce a “chime” like sound.

A |-<12>-----|
E |----------|
C |------<7>-|
G |----------|

#<#>

Artificial harmonics: fret the first note shown then place your index finger over the fret shown in parentheses and pick behind the finger with your thumb. Using this technique you can make any note into a “chime” like sound.

A |-------------|
E |-------0<12>-|
C |-2<14>-------|
G |-------------|

Note Duration in Text Tab

Sometimes people who want to express the timing for a song will put special notation on top of the text ‘ukulele tab to show note duration. This notation is closely based around the way timing is written for standard sheet music. So in addition to learning the symbols below, you must also be familiar with traditional piano-style music notation. At this point tab starts to be very impractical in my opinion.

Duration Legend:

  • W – whole
  • H – half
  • Q – quarter
  • E – 8th
  • S – 16th
  • T – 32nd
  • X – 64th
  • a – acciaccatura
  • + – note tied to previous
  • . – dotted note
  • .. – double dotted note
  • Uncapitalized letters represent notes that are staccato (1/2 duration)
  • Irregular groupings are notated above the duration line
  • Duration letters will always appear directly above the note/fret number it represents the duration for.
  • Duration letters with no fret number below them represent rests. Multi-bar rests are notated in the form Wxn, where n is the number of bars to rest for.
  • Low melody durations appear below the staff

For example, here’s the intro to “Black Magic Woman” by Santana:
  a W          +H.      E E   E H..         +W           a a W
|------------|--------------|-------------|------------|----------|
|-3s1--------|-(1)----------|-------------|------------|-1h3p1----|
|------------|------------2s|=4s2---------|-(2)--------|----------|
|------------|--------------|-------------|------------|----------|