A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Ukulele Tabs

A tablature is essentially: “a form of music sheets for stringed instruments,” like the ukulele. For short, they are commonly called tabs.

Ukulele tabs are significantly more straightforward to read than other types of music sheets because they’re more descriptive on where you should put your fingers and what you should do in each step. Piano sheets, for example, take years to learn, and therefore, you become a professional in a longer time.

That’s why, once you learn the basics of a ukulele and get used to reading its tabs, it won’t take you a lot of time to master it and play new songs. We’re here to set you on the right path and introduce you to the essentials you need to know.

The Main Contents of the Tab you Need to Be Familiar With:

1. The Strings

The ukulele has four strings, so in turn, the basics of the tab would be four horizontal dashed lines. Each one represents a particular string.

To know which line represents what, imagine that you’re putting the uke on a flat surface where its headstock is on the left. The strings arrangement you see is the same as the tab. It starts with the A string on the top followed by E and C, then G at the bottom.

A | ——————————————————— |

E | ——————————————————— |

C | ——————————————————— |

G | ——————————————————— |

Note that when you hold the uke properly, the strings will be upside down where the top string on the uke corresponds to the bottom line on the tab.

2. The Frets

Numbers on the dashed lines represent the frets on the ukulele tabs. Each number expresses which fret you should push down, and on which string.

For example, they can look something like this:

A | ————–3——————————————- |

E | —————–0—————————————- |

C | ———————0——0—————————- |

G | ———————————2———————— |

As you can see, there’s a number 3 on the top line of the tab. That means that you should push the third fret on the bottom string of the uke. The 0 represents an open string, which means no pushing down on any of the frets.

In the example above, you’ll have to pull on the open E string, then pull on the open C string. Then pull on it again. Then push on the second fret, while pulling the G string.

3. The Chords

If you see two or more numbers above 0 below each other in a vertical line, that means it’s a chord.

For example, this is what G major chord looks like:

A |—2—|

E |—3—|

C |—2—|

G |—0—|

Play the chord by pushing the aligned four notes together at the same time. The presence of the chords mostly gives you a sense of the rhythm that the song is played with.

4. The Bar Lines

Tabs don’t have timing, so bar lines aren’t significant for the rhythm. Usually, they’re just used to separate the song parts.

Other Important Symbols:

Like any other musical sheet, the tabs have different symbols that add more directions to the way you play the notes. But don’t worry, almost all of them are easy to catch on.  

1. Hammer-ons

As shown below, sometimes you’ll find the letter “h” between two frets on the string; this implies a hammer on.

A | ——5h7—— |

E | —————– |

C | —————– |

G | —————– |

Play this note by pushing a finger on the fifth fret of string A, while pulling the string. Then, place a finger on the seventh fret of string A, while withdrawing the finger on the fifth one.

This is how you get a higher secondary pitch.

2. Pull-offs

The letter “p” between two frets, as in the following example, shows a pull-off, which is the opposite of the hammer on.

It gives you a lower secondary pitch.

A | —————– |

E | ——-3p2—– |

C | —————– |

G | —————– |

Play this note by pushing a finger on the third fret of string E, and another on the second fret of the same string. Then, lift a finger on the second fret.

Note that in some tabs, the hammer-ons and pull-offs symbols differ. They can be expressed as a “^” symbol.

3. Slides

A slide is used when you want to ascend or descend from a note to the other.

If we’re descending, we use the symbol “\.” On the other hand, if we’re ascending from a note to the other, we use the symbol “/.”

 A | —————– |

 E | ——-3\2—— |

 C | ————5/7- |

 G | —————– |

In the example above, you would push on the third fret on the E string and go down to the second fret. Afterward, you would push on the fifth fret on the C string and ascend to the seventh one.

4. Parenthesis

The parenthesis around a number implies that we should play this note very softly. That’s what we call a ghost note.

.

 A | —2—————- |

 E | ——-5———— |

 C | ————(6)—– |

 G | —–7————– |

5. Vibrato

Vibrato is when you add a vibrating sound to the tone.

It’s shown in the tab in the form of a “~” symbol and created by moving the string slightly.

  A | ——————- |

  E | ——————- |

  C | ——————- |

  G | —–~4~——— |

6. Bends and Releases

Bends are symbolized by “b” on the tab and are used to reach the sound of the note after. 

This is how they’re written:

 A | —2—————- |

 E | ——-5———— |

 C | ——–8b9r8—– |

 G | —–7————– |

All you have to do is push on the eighth fret on the C string, bend it to the ninth and hold the bend.

If it should be released, then you’ll find the letter “r” written after the note followed by the number of the fret you should return to.

7. Chevrons

Chevrons “<>” are symbols that indicate a natural harmonic at the number between them.

 A | —2—————- |

 E | ——-5———— |

 C | ———-<6>—– |

 G | —–7————– |

The Rhythm

The rhythm may be the only downside to the ukulele tabs. This because if you don’t know the song you’re playing or haven’t heard it before, you’ll find it extremely difficult to play, even if you can read and play all the notes shown in the tab.

That is because the ukulele tabs miss one of the essential characteristics of a musical sheet: timing.

There’s no timing in ukulele tabs, so you’ll have to depend on your memory to play the right tones at the right time.

Final Thoughts

As demonstrated, ukulele tabs don’t need any studying or hard work to understand. All you need to do is memorize these basics and symbols, as shown in the guide, and try to apply them until you get the hang of it.  

Practice makes perfect!

About Noah Theodor

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