Bass tablature (bass tab) is a system of music notation for writing, reading, and playing songs on the bass. It is the preferred notation method for many because of it’s simplicity. While learning to read music in a traditional sense is a valuable skill, it is complicated and takes time to learn. Bass tab is an easier system to learn, and provides a way for bass players to read and understand song structure regardless of experience or playing ability. It is today the most popular music notation system for bass and guitar players, and is used by beginners and accomplished bassists alike.
How to Read Bass Tab:
Read Bass Tab While Listening to a Song
First off, bass tab is meant to be used while listening to a song to help understand the notes and structure of the song. It is meant to be more of a guide for understanding what notes are to be played while you are listening to and learning a song. It would be difficult to use just bass tab to learn a song, without listening to the song while also viewing the tablature.
Bass Tab Strings
The bass strings are indicated by horizontal lines that represent each string. Bass tab written for a 4 string bass in standard tuning looks like this:
The lowest pitched E string is on the bottom and highest pitched G string is on top.
Bass tab written for 5 string basses in standard tuning look like this:
The lowest toned string is always on the bottom.
When songs are written with any altered tuning this is usually indicated at the beginning of the song at the top of the page. For example, “Song is in Drop D”. Songs written with altered tuning should also have the strings marked to indicate any altered tuning. For example, a song that is played in “drop D” will be written to show the E string tuned to low D like this:
Bass Tab Fret Numbers
In bass tab, numbers are written on the strings to indicate which fret number to play on any given string. For example, if a note is to be played on the 4th fret of the A string it is written like this:
Numbers are written from left to write and should be played in that order. For example, a song with the 1st note on 5th fret A string, 2nd note on 4th fret D string, 3rd note on 7th fret D string, and 4th note on 7th fret G string – is written like this:
Always written to be played from left to right.
Bass Tab Bars
Bars are marked in bass tab with a vertical line. Bars represent music measures – the point at which one part of a song stops and new section starts, or the same count or section is played again. Bars in bass tab look like this:
Below is an example of a bar indicating the stop and start of a new measure:
Bass Tab Rhythm
When rhythm is indicated it is written underneath the strings. For example, the following shows a rhythm with an eight note count:
Often a legend will indicate timing. Other symbols or letters are sometimes used to represent various types of timing and rhythm. However timing is often not indicated on tabs. Bass tab is meant to accompany listening to a song when learning the notes. It is up to the player to determine rhythm by listening to the song.
Other Common Bass Tab Markings
There are several other marking that are common to bass tabs. However some markings are unique to whoever has written the tab. In these cases, the author will indicate what the markings mean usually written in a key at the beginning of the song.
Here are several of the most common additional markings for bass tab:
These markings are usually indicated on the strings:
- (h) hammer-on
- (p) pull-off
- ( / ) slide up
- ( \ ) slide down
- (^) bend
- (x) ghost note
These marks are usually indicated below the strings:
- S – thumb slap.
- P – pop
- T – tap (TL – tap left, TR – tap right hand)
Bass Tabs for Beginners
Here are a couple of bass tabs of songs that are relatively easy to learn and play. These would be good tabs to get started with and give you a little practice with reading tabs…