Tablature is the most popular method of learning music on a fretted stringed instrument.
It's an intuitive way for people to practice their favorite songs without the need to learn how to read music on a staff (this is still a good skill to have though). The ability to know how to read tabs is also a skill and this article will teach you how to interpret them.
Bass Tabs For Beginners: An Overview
This segment will give you a brief preview of what actually goes into making tabs. These are the main parts of modern tablature:
- String Lines with Fret-fingerings
- Rhythmic Notation for Timing
These principles give you the information to read and understand a piece of music without the need to learn the musical pitches on a staff. The frets do that for you, and quite frankly, a lot of people find it so much easier, especially new players.
The Fundamentals of Tablature
Tabs have all of the characteristics mentioned earlier; however, they may look slightly different from one another based on the strings. Most of the time, bass guitar tabs will have fewer strings than a regular guitar. For all intents and purposes, 5-string basses are widely available, but this tutorial will be based on a 4-stringed one.
String Lines and Fret-fingerings
Back in the day, before amazing software, online tabs used to only consist of these two main aspects. These were more confusing because those earlier types neglected crucial musical information, primarily related to timing.
For instance, check out this short excerpt from the intro to Peace Sells by Megadeth:
Even though this example doesn't tell us how it's supposed to groove or how to count the riff, the lines and frets are the most crucial parts of all of it. When learning how to read bass tabs, these horizontal lines represent the strings, and the numbers are the frets.
To break it down, we have 4 strings here in standard tuning; G is your top string, followed by the D-string, then A, and finally, the lowest string which is E.
The first note in this sequence is a 7. This translates to the seventh fret on string A. Since the subsequent two notes are still on the A-string, you'd play the 5th fret and then back to the 7th one again. After that, you'd shift up to the D-string and hit the 5th fret on that string.
Without totally dissecting this riff, this is the gist of how bass tabs for beginners work. Tabs like this are still around, but nowadays popular programs such as Guitar Pro, have stuff written with a lot more information which helps with accuracy.
Guitar Pro is also neat in that it also plays the tab out for you, using midi instruments, so you can hear how something is supposed to sound. You can check out the latest version of Guitar Pro at Amazon.
Rhythm and timing are extremely vital parts of any instrument, not just the bass guitar. If you can't play a riff accurately and on-time, it just won't sound right or not good at all. However, rhythmic and timing are parts of music that should be emphasized when teaching any new bassist.
Let's take a look at the previous example, but with rhythmic notation included:
The added notation tells us a lot about how this riff is supposed to sound. However, it's still meaningless to someone who doesn't know how to interpret and count the notation when trying to learn how to read bass tabs.
The reason this riff was chosen is that it contains some of the most common notations and patterns you will see.
Let's break down how to count beats and subdivisions by looking at this chart:
A whole note consists of 4 beats, assuming you are in 4/4 time, this would be the entire measure.
A half note makes up 2 beats; you'd be able to fit 2 of these in a measure.
Quarter notes are literally 1/4th of a whole note; you can have 4 of these in a measure of 4/4 time. The quarter note would be the beat in this instance.
Eighth notes break quarter notes in half. The example above includes “+” as a way to count the 8th note. The plus sign can be read as the word “and.” Therefore, in the sequence of all 8th notes, it would be counted as 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.
Sixteenth notes continue the trend of splitting note values in half. One 8th note is worth two 16th notes. You can fit four 16th notes in a quarter note beat. If you had a bass guitar tab sequence of all 16th notes, like in the tree above, you'd count it as 1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a-4-e-and-a.
You can continue to create more subdivisions, but these aren't as commonly notated, such as 32nd notes and beyond.
However, dotted notes and triplets are worth mentioning because they come up frequently, even if they aren't shown in the riff example from earlier.
Dotted notes increase the duration of a note by half. In the Peace Sells excerpt, there is a dotted 8th note. Since an 8th is worth two 16ths, a dotted 8th would be worth three 16th notes total.
Dotted quarter notes are super common in music as well. A quarter note is worth two 8th notes, so increasing it by half, would value a dotted quarter note at three 8th notes.
Triplets are always worth mentioning. Triplets are three equally spaced notes within a beat. Here's how triplets are notated:
The first measure shows quarter note triplets. These fit equally within a half note or two beats. 8th note triplets as shown in the second common are extremely common. You can count these as Tri-pl-et for each beat, but knowing how they are supposed to feel and sound like is the most important thing here.
By understanding the basics of rhythm notation and counting, you will be able to play in time and have an easier time learning new music. Practice bass tabs with rhythm by using a metronome and play riffs slowly, in order to get them down correctly.
To count the Peace Sells riff by applying what we've just learned. It can be counted as:
It might seem convoluted and overwhelming at first, but practice learning some easy patterns that are written out so you can get the hang of rhythm and timing. It will click with you sooner or later.
It's an essential skill for any musician to have. It's possible to practice rhythm notation on its own; this book gives you a vast amount of examples to practice with, even if you don't have your bass with you.
Having rhythm notation when trying to learn how to read bass guitar tabs is extremely valuable because it takes out a lot of ambiguity. Theoretically, you can pick one up without ever hearing the song and play with a decent degree of accuracy if it has rhythmic information. You can find Guitar Pro bass tabs that contain rhythmic notation over at Ultimate-Guitar.com.
Time signatures are closely related to rhythmic notation, but it warrants its own section.
You may have noticed the 4/4 on the left side of most of these examples in this article. This is a time signature and dictates how many beats are in a bar (the top number) as well as the value of the beat (the bottom number)
In 4/4, which is also known as common-time, this means that there are four beats that are quarter notes.
Let's give you a harder one. If you were trying to learn how to read bass tabs and you stumbled across a song with a 7/8 time signature, how would you interpret this?
If you said that it consists of seven 8th note beats, you'd be correct. Here are some examples:
In these measures, you can fit seven 8th notes in each of them. These types of time signatures are called odd-time, and there are many examples of it. 5/4, 3/2, 9/8 are just a few more possible cases of odd-time signatures.
If you're trying to understand bass tabs for beginners, it's not likely you'll run into these yet. Nonetheless, it's still useful information to know, and it makes understanding 4/4 look like a cinch.
Another part about tabs that you may see is the tempo marker. This is the speed at which the song is played at. Sometimes there may be no tempo indicator at all, but if it's there it will look something like this:
This means that the beats are quarter notes and it is 140 beats per minute. If you wanted to play bass tabs with rhythm at a designated speed, you'd set a metronome to whatever tempo is specified.
The final section regarding tablature pertains to tuning. If you aren't in the right tuning, the song won't sound right.
Despite being the last section in this article, bass guitar tabs will usually have the tuning listed right before getting to the main content.
Technically, you can still follow one and ignore the tuning, but you might be a half or even a whole step off. If you want to have the most accurate sound and play true to the song, it's best to tune to what the tablature suggests. Check out some of the possible tunings you can run into.
Summary & Conclusion
Hopefully, this guide has been helpful in explaining to you how to read bass tabs. If you're trying to learn music on a fretted stringed instrument, like the bass, it will be the least frustrating and most practical way to do that for new players.
Tabs normally consist of five main characteristics:
- String Lines with Fret-fingerings
- Rhythmic Notation
- Time Signatures
All of these are essential to giving you the most amount of information to play something accurately.
The rhythmic notation will take the most practice to get used to, but by studying it, you will automatically become a better musician.
The other aspects don't take nearly as much work to understand but still, have an integral part in a complete tab. You can't have one without strings and frets, right?
That being said, practice your rhythm by finding some easy bass tabs for beginners, and you will continue to grow as a player. Check out great tab pages, learn some songs, and improve.