How to Read Ukulele TAB: A Simple Guide ✅

Ukulele tablature (also known as “TAB”) is an easy and fast way to write out how to play the notes of a song. You don’t need to have any previous musical knowledge.

How long does it take to learn to read ukulele TAB?

Only a couple minutes to understand the basics!

If you’re really in a rush, or need a quick refresher, try this sheet. Otherwise, read on!

Crash-course, single-page TAB reading reference sheet

Understanding the System

Ukulele tab is built with a simple line grid that looks like this:

A |-----------------------|
E |-----------------------|
C |-----------------------|
G |-----------------------|
If you’re looking at a high-quality PDF TAB, like the snippet below, the lines might be smoothed out and much prettier.

There also might be an extra staff of standard notation above the TAB. You can just ignore this.

The text version and the “pretty” version TABs function in almost exactly the same way. 👍

low g ukulele tuning shown on musical staff

The Strings:

The four horizontal lines on a bar of tab represent the four strings of an ukulele.

A |-----------------------| > A-string
E |-----------------------| > E-string
C |-----------------------| > C-string
G |-----------------------| > G-string

The G-string is on the bottom and the A-string is on the top.

Here’s another visual:

ukulele tab strings infographic

To visualize it better, imagine you set your ukulele down flat on a table, strings facing up and headstock to your left. If you compare the TAB to the fretboard in this way, the strings will match the TAB orientation. 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 C major chord strum:

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

Or you could show three notes played simultaneously (don’t play the A-string):

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

Or just two (don’t play the A-string or the E-string):

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

Bar Lines

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

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

Since tab by itself can’t show timing, it’s hard to place these precisely enough to stand in for traditional measure lines when working with TAB-only notation. It’s a lot easier to organize the measures when you make properly-notated “pretty” TAB that includes the standard notation for rhythm.

Formatting

The above examples are created in a plain-text text document. You can do the same yourself. Just use a monospace font (I like Courier New) in any word editing software.

  • I highly recommend copy/pasting one of my examples to use as a starting point.

The tab-reading concepts you’ve learned can also be applied to “pretty” TABs like you’ll find on my page of PDF 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 how to read all the additional symbols you might find when reading ukulele tabs.

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 |---------|---------|

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

(Shown above each fret number.)

  • W – whole note
  • H – half note
  • Q – quarter note
  • E – 8th note
  • S – 16th note
  • T – 32nd note
  • X – 64th note
  • a – acciaccatura
  • + – note tied to previous
  • . – dotted note
  • .. – double dotted note
  • Lowercase letters are played staccato
  • Irregular groupings are notated above the duration line
  • Rests are shown above an empty space

There are ways to notate more complex parts, but at a certain point, ask yourself, “Should I just be using Musescore instead?” To me, this style sort of defeats the point of a simple text tab.

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