How to Read Bass TAB | Play Like The Best

What are bass tabs?

Bass tabs are a text based alternative to standard music notation. More specifically, they notate music for the bass using numbers and symbols.

How to read bass tab for beginners

As a beginner bassist you’ll need to learn how to read bass tabs, because they’ll allow you to start playing bass immediately and easily.

Bass tabs are read from left to right using numbers and tab symbols. The rhythm can be notated using tab symbols, but may also be notated with standard notation read alongside the bass tab.

Bass tab strings and staff

Bass tab strings are depicted using 4 lines, tuned in standard. The number of lines will increase if the number of bass strings increases, to a 5-string bass for example.

Bass tabs are read upside down, with the lowest bass string starting at the bottom of the bass tab staff. This gives you, from the bottom up, E-A-D-G.

Here’s the bass tab layout for 4-string bass, alongside a traditional staff.

It’s best to have a staff accompanying the bass tab, as it will give you the rhythm.

And yes, there are ways to depict rhythm using tablature, but standard notation does a better job.

Bass tab layout and staff

Basics for how to read bass tab

What the numbers mean in bass tab

Numbers are the first thing you’ll notice when you read bass tabs. These are fret numbers, meaning they correspond with the fret number on the string.

Open string fret numbers

Here are the open strings notated in bass tab.

As you can see, like mentioned earlier, the E string is on the bottom of the tab, and the G string is at the top.

Bass tab open string fret numbers on tab staff

Adding another measure

Measures are easily distinguished by simple bar lines between each other.

In this bass tab example, you’ll ascend picking the open bass strings for the first measure, then descend using the E minor pentatonic scale.

Adding a bar to bass tabs

Reading bass tab rhythms without notation

Bass tab rhythm is generally indicated in 4 ways:

  • Standard notation above the tab
  • Tab rhythm symbols below the tab
  • Numbers counted beneath the tab
  • No rhythm at all

Bass tab rhythm with notation (above the tab)

As long as you can read rhythms in standard notation, this is the way to go.

Reading bass rhythms with notation and tab

Bass tab rhythm without notation | Rhythm symbols below the tab

In the above example you could see the note types based on the standard notatation.

This is the same notes, but the rhythm is depicted using tab rhythm symbols below it.

Assuming you knew they standard notation above, you’ll know that the notes here are grouped:

  • 1 Quarter note
  • 2 eighth notes
  • 3 triplets
  • 4 sixteenth notes

If you end up reading tabs from websites like Songsterr, you’ll get the hang of these rhythm symbols quickly.

Rhythm in bass tabs with no notation

Bass tab rhythm without notation example audio

Common bass tab symbols

As you’re learning how to read bass tab, you’ll encounter a variety of tab symbols. These symbols help you understand how to play notes, and what techniques are used to employ them.

Most tab websites and all tab software will have their own set of standard symbols, but websites like ultimate-guitar don’t have any set standard. In the case that the symbols aren’t common or standard, the symbols will generally be explained before the tab.

What bass tab symbols mean

These are the most common bas tab symbols for text-based tablature.

  • P means pop
  • S means slap
  • T means tap
  • Forward slash (/) or backwards slash (\) means slide
  • X means a muted or ghost note
  • H means a hammer-on
  • P means a pull-off
  • B or ^ means bend
  • PM —- means palm muting
  • V or ~~~ means vibrato
  • <> means harmonics
  • () means a grace note

Are tabs a good way to learn bass?

Some students ask me if tabs are good way to learn bass. As a general rule tabs are an excellent way to learn bass, and help beginner bassists get started quickly. Afterall, early momentum is critical for learning bass.

Conclusion: How to read bass tab

Getting started with reading bass tabs might seem overwhelming, but you’ll probably find it to be quite easy after reading some online tabs and a method book with bass tab.

And keep in mind, learning how to read bass tab is a valuable skill for beginner and advanced bassists alike. It gets beginners playing bass quickly, and is a tool used by pros to learn advanced music easily.

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