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Quick Tips: A Guide To Reading TAB For Fretted Instruments

We are now into our third week of the new academic year and it is so brilliant to see so many new young musicians in our classrooms! We have been working tirelessly throughout the summer to continue to strive for excellence and continue to offer the most comprehensive and cutting edge music education to our students.

Learning a new instrument is always exciting and fun, but it can also be challenging. It teaches us discipline and perseverance. As we face new challenges and we learn to overcome them, we prove to ourselves that anything is possible if we put our minds to it! I am so excited to see the progress that all our new learners are going to make this year - both on their instrument but also in the wider context of their education. All of the skills we gain whilst learning an instrument are transferable into all contexts of our lives.

One such challenge that students have to overcome is learning to understand and read music. This is particularly difficult as quite often it’s not something that all non-musical adults can help their child with. I’ve put together this quick and easy guide to reading a particular type of music which I get asked about a lot - TAB.

What’s a TAB?

Reading music is one of the key skills that all students should learn as they progress into talented musicians. It allows you to be given any piece of music and understand not only its melodic and rhythmic content, but also its mood and dynamics.

Quite often we can use ‘standardised notation’ to express music in written form. However, on fretted, stringed instruments such as the guitar, bass and ukulele, we can also use tablature, or TAB for short. This actually pre-dated standardised notation and can be traced back to medieval and tribal instruments such as the lute.

For students that have just started learning to play the guitar, ukulele or bass, TAB music is a quick and accessible way to write down music that we have been studying. TAB is also very useful as on the guitar, there can be up to 5 different ways to play the exact same note. Standardised notation would not tell you which of the 5 options to use, whereas TAB does!

So, how does it work?

TAB features 6 lines going across the page. Each line represents 1 string. The lowest sounding string is at the bottom and the highest is at the top. On a standard guitar, the strings are named E A D G B E.

The numbers on the lines (or strings) tell us which fret to play. For example, a number 2 on the ‘E’ string means we have to play fret number 2 on the E string. A 0 on the ‘B’ string means we play that string open (without pushing down any frets). A number 8 on the ‘G’ string means we play fret number 8 on the G string and so-forth. If you’re not sure what a fret is, click here.

Who, What, Where, When, How?

The TAB tells us what to play and where to play it, but it does not tell us when to play it. For that, we must look at the rhythms written in the stave above. More on this below!

If you are reading TAB for bass guitar, as you only have 4 strings, the TAB will only have 4 lines and would be labelled E A D G (The notes of the strings on a standard bass guitar). Likewise, if you are reading for ukulele, the 4 lines would be labelled G C E A.

Reading Rhythms

To recognise rhythms, we use different shapes to express different note lengths. We measure these in beats. When you hear a drummer count “1,2,3,4” at the start of a song, he/she is counting the beats so that everyone in the band knows how fast or slow to play the music.

The speed of a song is called the tempo and we measure it in beats per minute. For example, 60BPM means that there are 60 beats in a minute, or 1 per second.

Here are some of the most commonly used shapes to express different note values:

Sometimes we are presented with both the TAB and the standardised notation so we can choose which we would prefer to read. It can be a great idea to read the TAB to tell us specifically which frets to use, but then use the standardised notation to tell us the rhythm of the piece!

As you, or as your child continues their learning journey with us, they will naturally grow more confident reading and understanding TAB music, but as you know, we are always more than happy to help with any questions you or your child may have so please don’t hesitate to pop us an email at

Thanks for reading and I hope you found this useful. I am very happy to say that I will be sharing some very exciting news with you again in the coming weeks. Until then, Have fun!



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