How to Read Ukulele Tabs
One of the most common (and easiest) ways of learning to play songs on the ukulele is by reading tablature. It’s a collection of lines, numbers and symbols that looks confusing at first but is actually very simple to understand. Meaning once you get the hang of it, you will be reading it like you would read a book.
In this article, we are going to explore the basics of how to read ukulele tabs and go through some examples to set you on your way.
What we will learn
- What Is Tab? And Why Is It So Common?
- How To Read Ukulele Tabs
- Expressive Symbols
- The Problems With Tab
What iS Tab?
TAB stands for tablature and fundamentally, it’s a very simplified way of reading sheet music. Instead of it telling us what notes to play and forcing us to figure out where those notes are. TABs acts as a visual fretboard and tells you not only what notes to play, but where they are on the ukulele fretboard.
It’s increasingly popular as we can look at TABs and play them without having to know anything about reading music such as key signatures, scales, harmonics and time signatures. As long as we have a rough idea of what we are trying to learn sounds likes, you can begin to learn it rather quickly depending on skill level.
How to read ukulele tabs
If you think of TAB as a ukulele fretboard it’s going to make your understanding of it a lot easier. Imagine you are hovering above it and looking straight down. You have 4 horizontal lines that are made up of dashes and they are your strings. You can tell what strings they are because of the letter on the far left.
Next, you have the numbers and these represent the frets. Check out my guide to the different parts of the ukulele if you are not sure what they are. This is telling you what fret to put your finger on. So if you see the number 3 on the C string, you need to press your finger down on the 3rd fret and pluck the string.
When you see multiple numbers above o beneath each other, this is representing a chord. So for example, if you saw 0 on the G, 2 on the C, 3 on the E and 2 on the A. This is the tab telling you to play a G Major chord. You can either pluck them all with 4 fingers or strum them depending on what the song requires.
The lines that split the strings are signalling that it’s the start of a new bar or section of the song.
Those are the basics of how to read ukulele tabs. However, as you advance as a player. You might stumbled across some other interesting looking things on the tabs.
Other Important Symbols
The following techniques are used to add some dynamic to our uke playing.
This is the “h” that sits between 2 numbers.
To execute a hammer-on, you need to pluck the first note as normal. Then use your next finger to press down on the following fret without plucking.
This is the “p” that also sits between 2 numbers.
This is the “/” or “\” that instructs you to slide between notes.
Sliding creates a smooth transition between notes. It’s great for adding a little bit of delicacy to your arrangements. To execute a slide, pluck the first note and then slide either up or down depending on which way the slash is facing.
The “~” symbol requires us to vibrate the strings.
Vibrato has its origins in blues music. It’s the motion of bending the string up and down ever so softly. Most of the movement should be in your wrists and hands.
This is the “b” that you will find between 2 numbers.
Bending the strings has a similar sound to a slide. Its essentially a smooth transtion between notes but instead of moving to a new fret. We are bending the string to get a new pitch (the number following the “b” symbol).
For a more indepth guide on how to bend your ukulele strings. Check out this one on liveukulele.com.
Now you have an understanding of how to read TABs. Here are a few examples of things you can try to play.
examples for you to try
Smashing Pumpkins - Today
Heres an idea to make this easier to play. Place your first finger across the 5th fret on both the A and E strings. Then use your ring finger for the 7th fret. Then your pinky finger for the pull off on the 9th fret.
Billie Eilish - Lovely
This is a great tab to try as it involves both chords and a riff to play. Theres also a hammer on and pull off too.
Vampire Weekend - Cousins
Time to speed things up! The easiest way to play this is to utilize your first finger. Place it on the 4 fret of both the C and E string. That way you can move it straight onto the 6th fret for the next set of notes.
Its worth noting, the majority of ukulele tabs you find online wont be colour coded like the ones above.
Now you know how to read tabs and hopefully are able to play a few songs. Lets talk about some common issues that arise with tab.
The Problems With Ukulele Tab
Not A Clear Picture
Whilst tab is great for beginners who are just starting out or people who are familiar with the songs they are trying to play.
After you have learnt how to read ukulele tabs, There are a few issues when it comes to relying on the TABs to learn songs. One of them is there’s no sense of timing in TABs. Unlike sheet music, it’s impossible for the TAB to tell you how much space you should leave between notes. Equally how quickly you should play notes after each other.
The only way to combat this is to know how the song sounds before you are learning. Which about 99% of the time this would be the case. However, If you are seeing the TAB for the first time you are going to NEED to listen to the song to learn it.
Whereas if you had sheet music, through to the use of quavers and crotchets, you would be able to know exactly how long to play each note for.
Lack Of Tabs Online
Another issue with TAB is the severe lack of it on the internet. Especially for the ukulele. You can find guitar tabs for any song you want to try finding them on the four string and you’re going to become stuck, very quick.
That’s why I made a guide that teaches you how to hack guitar tabs and turn them into ukulele tabs, very simply. Check out my guide to learning guitar tabs on the ukulele. I used guitar tabs extensively when arranging this video below.