My StudyBass

Bass tablature, or bass tab, is a pretty simple system of music notation for bass. You will find it in music books, bass magazines, and all over the internet.

IMPORTANT: Learning to play bass tabs and songs is only a small fraction of what learning to be a bass player is all about. If you haven't already, be sure to read my article on mistakes beginner bass players make in the bass basics section.

On to how to read bass tabs...

Strings in Bass Tab

Bass tab shows the strings of the bass drawn horizontally. Most often bass tab is written for 4-string bass, but you may see it for 5-string and 6-string basses, too. That will depend on whether more strings are required to play the song.

The bass strings are drawn with the lowest-pitched string (the fattest one) at the bottom. Standard bass tuning from lowest to highest is E-A-D-G and looks like this:

G -------------------------------------
D -------------------------------------
A -------------------------------------
E -------------------------------------

Some music will require a different tuning or more strings, but the perspective stays the same with the lowest (fattest) string at the bottom.

Fret Numbers in Bass Tab

In bass tab, notes are indicated by fret number. The fret number is written on the string on which it is played. Most basses have between 20 and 24 frets. You may see fret numbers from 0 (the open string) up to 24.

In this example you are to play the 3rd fret on the E-string followed by the 2nd fret on the A-string, then the 5th fret on the A-string, and finally the 5th fret on the D-string, then back down the same notes.

G ------------------------------------
D ------------------5-----------------
A --------2----5---------5----2-------
E ---3-----------------------------3--

 The above may look and sound like this (click play to see and hear the animated fretboard):

Bars in Bass Tab

Bars are usually marked as they are in standard notation with a vertical barline.

G -------------------|-----------------
D -------------------|-----------------
A -------------------|-----------------
E -------------------|-----------------

Bars tell you when the count starts over: 1, 2, 3, 4 [barline] 1, 2, 3, 4, [barline]...

Rhythm in Bass Tab

Many times rhythm is not indicated in bass tab. All you get is the order of the notes. In this case you are left on your own to listen to the recording and piece it together yourself.

Other times rhythm is marked underneath with the count written under the fret numbers.

In this bass tab example there is an eighth note count written underneath...

G -------------------|--------
D ---------------5---|--------
A -------2---5-------|--------
E ---3---------------|--------
     1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Other Bass Tab Markings

Many of the other markings found in bass tabs indicate the way notes are to be played. These are not standardized. You may see many variations. Often these markings are defined somewhere at the beginning of the bass tab. Some common bass tab markings you may encounter:

For markings on the strings:

  • A forward slash ( / ) indicates a slide moving up in pitch.
  • A back slash ( \ ) indicates a slide moving down in pitch.
  • A caret (^) indicates a bend.
  • An X (x) indicates a ghost note.
  • An H (h) indicates a hammer-on.
  • A P (p) indicates a pull-off.

For markings beneath the strings:

  • An S indicates a thumb slap.
  • A P indicates a pop.
  • A T indicates a tap. Often which hand is used is marked with an L or R and assumes you are right-handed.

Altered Bass Tunings

Another thing you will come across in bass tabs is alternate tunings. At the top of the tab it might specify to change the tuning of your bass for something non-standard (EADG). The tab may specify the exact tuning, like Db-Ab-Db-Gb, or use a common tuning name like "Drop D" (Which means DADG). It is always written from low-string to high-string.

You can read more about standard bass tunings and alternate bass tunings on StudyBass.

How to Read Bass Tab Summary

There’s not too much to reading bass tab. It’s just fret numbers on string lines. Bass tab can be a real aid to beginners before they have learned to read standard music notation or have learned the note names on the fretboard. And, it can be helpful to show complicated fingerings alongside standard notation. You should be at least familiar with bass tab.

Recommended Bass Tabs

If you're looking for some good bass tabs to play, check out my recommendations section for bass tab books. I use songs from these books as theory and playing examples throughout my bass lessons.

Good luck, and I hope you explore the rest of StudyBass!