How to Read ‘Ukulele Tab: A Guide to the Lines & Symbols

‘Ukulele tablature (also known as “tab”) is an easy and fast way to write out songs for the ‘ukulele and other stringed instruments.

Due to its simple nature, learning to read ‘ukulele tab is very straightforward and once you get the concept you can progress quickly.

The disadvantage to reading music via tab is that you cannot express timing values with it. So while you can play a piece you’ve never heard before by looking at piano sheet music, you can’t do the same with tab.

If you don’t know the song it’s going to be frustrating to try and learn it this way. 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, don’t try.

How to Read ‘Ukulele Tab: Understanding the System

‘Ukulele tab looks like this:

A |-----------------------|
E |-----------------------|
C |-----------------------|
G |-----------------------|

The Strings:

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.

To visualize it better, imagine you set your ‘ukulele down flat on a table, strings facing up and headstock to your left. If you hold the tab on top of the fretboard in this way, the strings will match. G is closest to you, A is furthest away.

The Frets

Tab is read left to right. Anytime you see a number it means “pick this fret.” Which string line the number is one tells you what string to play the fret on.

The tab below tells you to pick the 3rd fret on the A-string one time:

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

This next tab tells you to play the 10th fret on the C-string one time:

A |------|
E |------|
C |--10--|
G |------|

Here you would play the 3rd fret, E-string once and then the 5th fret, A-string once:

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

If you want to show two notes picked in a row you would repeat the fret number. This means pick the 3rd fret, E-string two times:

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

Three times:

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

Etc…

Here’s a C major scale in reverse:

A |-3-2-0-----------|
E |-------3-1-0-----|
C |-------------2-0-|
G |-----------------|
Still having trouble getting oriented? There’s a nice guide on the basics of how to read tab over at Ukulele Go. Ukulele Hunt also has one with some pictures and audio examples.

Showing Chords

If there are more than one fret number in a vertical line, play the notes simultaneously. This is how you’d write a chord:

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

Or you could show three notes played simultaneously:

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

Or just two:

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

Bar Lines

Oftentimes it’s nice to break a tab into pieces via vertical bar lines like this:

A |-----|-----|
E |-----|-----|
C |-----|-----|
G |-----|-----|

Since tab can’t show timing, it’s sometimes hard to place these precisely enough to stand in for traditional measure lines.

Instead these are often just used for a bit of separation between parts.

Formatting

The above examples are created in text. You can do the same yourself using a monospace font (I like Courier New).

But the tab-reading concepts you’ve learned can also be applied to fancier presentations like you’ll find on my page of Guitar Pro-made ‘ukulele tabs.

With this high-end format it is possible to show the timing of notes via combo standard notation/tablature layouts, more precise articulations, rhythm slashes, and more.

All in all, it’s a much more professional looking tab. But because of the extra details, it is more tedious to make these tabs and thus, are harder to find.

Notating Articulations

Since single picked notes are rarely the only thing you find in music, here is a breakdown of all the additional symbols you might find when reading a tab.

Multiple examples are shown separated by a bar-line.

“h” – Hammer-on

Use an “h” to show where a hammer-on connects two notes.

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

“p” – Pull-off

This is used to connect two notes like this:

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

and means you pull-off from one to the other.

“/” or “\” – Slide

Move from the first note to the second note via a slide.

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

“b” – Bend and “r” – Release

Bend the string up so that it equals the pitch of the second note shown.

A |------|-7b8-|
E |-8b10-|-----|
C |------|-----|
G |------|-----|

You can also release a bend down to its starting point by adding an “r” to the equation:

A |--------|-7b8r7-|
E |-8b10r8-|-------|
C |--------|-------|
G |--------|-------|

“~” – Vibrato

Vary the pitch of the note with the vibrato technique.

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

“()” – Ghost Note (parenthesis)

Play very softly.

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

“<>” – Harmonic (chevrons)

Chime a natural harmonic at the fret shown in angle brackets.

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

Artificial Harmonic

Fret the first note shown then chime an artificial harmonic over the fret shown in brackets.

A |---------|---------|
E |---------|--3<15>--|
C |--2<14>--|---------|
G |---------|---------|

Fancy Tabs Legend

PDF tabs made with Guitar Pro, or the like, can have their own subtle variations on the above notations.

Check out the Powertab Legend to get up to speed.

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.

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)--------|----------|
|------------|--------------|-------------|------------|----------|
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