How to Read Bass Tab

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How to Read Bass Tab

The internet is filled with bass parts for songs written out in bass tablature, or "tab" for short. This system of notation might seem confusing at first, but in fact it is quite simple and you can learn how to read bass tab in minutes.

You will see two kinds of bass tab around. In books and magazines, you are likely to see printed tab. It has a staff of four lines, the word TAB written at the left, and many symbols similar to regular sheet music. The other kind is text-based tab, the kind found in web pages and computer documents. It is made out of text characters, using dashes for lines and various letters and punctuation marks for key symbols. This is the kind we will go over in this lesson.

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How to Read Bass Tab - The Basics

Look at the example above. Each of the four lines indicates one of the strings, just like a fretboard diagram. The letters on the left side correspond to the notes that the open strings are tuned to. Any unusual tunings required for a song will be shown here. The top is always the thinnest string, and the bottom is always the thickest string.

The numbers represent frets. The first metal bar down from the nut is fret number one. If you see a 1 in bass tab, it means you should put your finger down just before that fret. They count up as you go towards the bass body. A zero (0) indicates an open string. The example above begins with the open D string, followed by an E on the second fret.

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How to Read Bass Tab - Playing a Song

To play the song above, read from left to right and play the numbered frets on the appropriate strings as you come to them. If you see two numbers at the same place, as at the end of this example, play them both at the same time.

The rhythm of the notes isn't indicated in any precise way. This is the biggest drawback of tab. In some tab, such as this example, the rhythm will be roughly outlined by the placement of the numbers or the presence of vertical lines separating the bars. Occasionally the counting is written out underneath the notes with numbers and other symbols. Usually, you'll just have to listen to a recording and work out the rhythms by ear.

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How to Read Bass Tab - Slides

Slides are represented in bass tab by slashes, or by the letter s.

An up slash / indicates a slide up and a down slash \ indicates a slide down. When found in between two fret numbers, as in the first two instances in the example above, it means you should slide from the first note to the second. The letter s is used in the same way, representing a slide in either direction.

You may also see slashes before or after a number, as in the second two instances in the above example. When before a number, it means you should slide into the note from some arbitrary place. Similarly, a slash after a number indicates you should slide away some amount when you end the note. The type of slash used tells you whether to slide up or down.

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How to Read Bass Tab - Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs

Hammer-ons and pull-offs are represented several ways in bass tab. The first is simply with the letters h and p. In the example above, the "4h6" indicates you should play the fourth fret and than hammer-on to the sixth fret.

Another way is with the "^" character. This can stand for either. If the numbers go up from left to right, it's a hammer-on, and if they go down, it's a pull-off.

The third way is a combination of these two. The "^" character is used for each, and the letters h and p are written in on the line above to tell you which is which.

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How to Read Bass Tab - Right Hand Taps

Similar to a hammer-on is a right-hand tap. This is where you bring your right hand over to the fingerboard and use the first or second finger to tap the string down, much like a hammer-on. This is shown in bass tab with the letter t, or a "+" symbol. The example above calls for you to play the eighth fret, then tap the 13th fret with your right hand.

You may also see taps indicated with a "^" and the tap symbol on the line above, just like hammer-ons and pull-offs. This is shown in the third section of the example.

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How to Read Bass Tab - Bends and Reverse Bends

To play a bend, you fret one note and then push the string up towards the ceiling to bend its pitch up. This is shown in tab with the letter b.

The number before the b represents the fret, and the number after the b is just an indication of how much to bend. In this example, you should play the eighth fret and bend it up until it sounds like the ninth fret. Sometimes, the second number is put in parenthesis to emphasize this distinction.

A reverse bend is just the opposite. You start with the string bent, then let it back down to the fretted pitch. These are shown with the letter r.

If there is no second number, it means you should just bend the pitch a little bit for decoration. This is also shown by using .5 as the second number.

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How to Read Bass Tab - Slaps and Pops

If you're looking at bass tablature for a funky song that uses some slap bass technique, you may see the capital letters S and P on the bottom below the notes. These stand for slap and pop.

A slap is when you strike the string with your thumb so it slaps into the fretboard. Do this on every note that has an S written underneath it. A pop is when you use your first or second finger to lift the string up and then let it snap back down against the fretboard percussively. Every note with a P underneath it should be played like this.

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How to Read Bass Tab - Other Symbols


Harmonics are chime-like notes you can play by lightly touching the string at certain places and plucking. You'll see them written using angle brackets surrounding the fret number where the harmonic is played, or just the "*" symbol. This example shows the harmonic over the 7th fret.

Muted Notes

An "X" can indicate two different things. When seen by itself, it means you should mute the string and pluck it, producing a muffled, percussive note. When seen above or below fret numbers, it means you should simply mute the string to stop it ringing.


"Vibrato" is the term for making the pitch wobble up and down by bending the string back and forth a little. This is shown with either the letter v or a "~" symbol (or two).