Whether you want to jam out to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Hey Jude,” you need to become familiar with how to read ukulele tabs. Fortunately, once you get the hang of it, it proves surprisingly straightforward to read and write ukulele tablature (a.k.a. tab). Expect to progress at a rapid pace, astonishing your friends and family with your newfound song repertoire.
That said, mastering ukulele tabs could feel downright frustrating without a basic understanding of how the system works. You also need to understand its strengths and limitations. So, let’s dive into everything you need to know about ukulele tab.
Famous tunes adapted for ukulele abound. We’ve already mentioned two of them above, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Hey Jude.” There’s also:
- “Can’t Help Falling in Love”
- “No Woman, No Cry”
- “Sunday Morning”
- “Losing My Religion”
- “Dream a Little Dream of Me”
The list goes on and on. This gives you a taste of some of the awesome renditions you’ll perform as you progress through ukulele literature.
What do all of these songs have in common that’s central to learning tab music on the ukulele? You can probably hum most if not all of them. Right?
That’s a central concept when it comes to successfully using tab to learn music. Why? Because unlike standard musical notation, tablature does not express tempo (timing) and rhythm.
So, if you’re trying to learn a tune straight from tab without any concept of how the chord changes go, then you’re going to get awfully frustrated awfully fast. So, let’s make one ground rule.
Before learning a new song via tab, make sure that you can name that tune. And, for good measure, know how to hum it, too.
Fortunately, it’s never been easier to track down a song you’d like to learn and listen to it. From YouTube to Apple Music, Pandora to Amazon Prime, you’ve got options.
So, find the tune you’d like to learn and give it a couple of listens, paying special attention to the chord changes and rhythm. That way, you’ll save yourself lots of time and heartache.
How to Read Ukulele Tabs 101
Okay, so let’s assume you’ve chosen a song you know and love. One that you can hum and feel familiar with the chord changes. And you’ve got the uke tabs for it.
This begs the question. Now what?
First, you need to understand that the four horizontal lines that comprise a bar of tablature symbolize the four strings on your instrument. So, basically, the tab represents a type of visual graph of your fingerboard. You’ll see the G string located at the bottom of the diagram and the A string located at the top.
To give you a better sense of what’s going on, place your ukulele flat on its back on a table. Make sure the headstock and strings point to the left as you face it.
Then, hold the tab over your instrument, and you’ll see that the strings line up. Pretty cool, isn’t it?
You’ll also notice that the string closest to you will be G. The string furthest from you will be A. Now that you’ve got a basic concept of what’s going on, let’s move on to some fretboard action.
Time to Start Picking!
Now that you understand how a bar of uke tabs relate physically to your instrument, you’ve probably noticed numbers on the tab. What the heck do these mean?
Each number relates to a fret on your instrument. So, if you see the number “8” on your C string, then that means you need to put your finger on the eighth fret and play it once. If you see a number “2” on the A string, then play the second fret once.
Although tablature doesn’t indicate time, it implies a progression forward. So, you’ll notice that the numbers move from the left to the right implying forward motion. You read this the same way that you read a line of poetry, left to right.
A number to the left of another correlates a note that gets plucked before the next one. Tab also indicates repetition when the same number shows on the same string consecutively. So, if you see “4–4–4” on the G string, then you know that you need to play the fourth fret G string three times in a row.
At first, you’ll probably notice a distinct brain drain as you try to wrap your head around this system. But over time, you’ll come to appreciate its simplicity.
Not only will it give you the chance to master a wide range of tunes without diving into complicated Classical music notation, but it gives you the ease to start composing and notating your own music, too. Just make sure you commit the rhythm and tempo to memory!
Let’s Talk Chords
Of course, the richness of ukulele music, like the guitar, comes from chords. It would sound very strange, indeed, to just pick one note at a time on the instrument. So, once you’ve gotten the basics of tab notation down, dive into chords.
Have you ever seen a tab with more than one fret number in a vertical line down the bar? This indicates that these notes should get played together. So, for example, if you see tab with a number “3” on the A string and then the number “0” directly below it on the E, C, and G strings, this indicates playing the third fret of the A string along with the open G, C, and E strings.
Congrats! You’ve just deciphered your first uke tab chord!
Now, when it comes to tab chords, you may not always see all lines notated vertically. For example, what if you only see the number “0” lined up vertically on the G, C, and E strings? With no number above them on the A string?
Then, strum the open G, C, and E strings together without hitting the A string at all. Similarly, if you only see two notes vertically, that means you play a two-note chord.
Bar Lines, Articulations, & Note Duration
Once you start checking out a greater diversity of song tab for your ukulele, you’ll no doubt notice more going on than just notes and chords. You may see bar lines, letters, parentheses, and even brackets. What does it all mean?
First of all, give yourself a nice pat on the back for getting this far with tab reading. You’re well on your way to becoming a ukulele player with a hit parade of songs under your belt. Spend some time mastering the basics when it comes to notes and chords before diving more deeply into the tab.
That said, when you feel ready to move on, you’ll quickly realize that the tab represents a fascinating musical shorthand that can indicate a variety of articulations and playing techniques.
At this point, you wonder what I mean by the term “articulation.” Articulation refers to the way that a note gets played. In other words, it describes the quality of the note sound.
On a ukulele, articulation could refer to the volume at which you play a note as well as whether you keep it short and percussive or let it ring out and use vibrato. Alright, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of this system.
Notated articulations include:
Hammer-ons connect notes, not unlike slurs (if you’re familiar with other musical instruments), and you’ll see them notated with an “h.” To play a hammer-on, you pick the string to make the first note but not the second, which results in a smooth transition or slur between notes.
Pull-offs are denoted by the letter “p” and happen when you play one fretted note and then pull your finger off that note to the second one behind it. Slides happen when you see a slash mark (“/” or “\”) and involves sliding from one note to the next without picking your finger up off the string.
Bends and releases get indicated with “b” and “r respectively and refer to bending the string up to the pitch indicated after the letter. When you see the “r,” it requires releasing the bend back down to the original pitch.
Techniques that Impress
Once you’ve worked on the techniques above, you’re ready to start mastering next level playing. Here are more articulations that get indicated in tab:
- Ghost notes
You’ll recognize vibrato by the “~” before and after the fret number. It adds a richness and expressiveness to your playing that’ll set you apart from beginners. To achieve it, you need to rock your finger back and forth while fingering a note.
Give yourself time to learn vibrato thoroughly. You can even use a metronome to control the speed with which you rock your finger and then work your way up to a pace that sounds natural. Learning how to control your vibrato technique will pay off in the long-run by providing you with a gorgeous lyrical tone, but it requires patience and practice.
Take a look at this video showing how to play vibrato on a uke.
Parentheses around a number mean you should play it softly, hence the term “ghost notes.” Finally, chevrons (“<” and “>”) refer to harmonics. Place your finger lightly on the fret number shown between the chevrons and pick to play the natural harmonic.
Getting natural harmonics to ring can prove difficult at first. They require a light touch and finger accuracy. Like vibrato, once you get them down, you’ll boast next level playing.
You may also notice bar lines indicated with some tab. These look like vertical bar lines that separate notes and chord indications on tablature. Akin to traditional measure lines in classical music notation, they denote separation between musical phrases or sections.
Play Like a Pro
Figuring out how to read ukulele tabs and the techniques that go with it requires hard work and determination. But just think about how proud you’ll feel with your new skill set. Imagine how blown away your friends and family will be when they hear your newfound ukulele chops firsthand.
Once you’ve mastered tab, learn how to convert guitar chords into ukulele chords to expand your repertoire even further. Or, check out these essential tips on instrument maintenance. Or, contact me today with your ukulele questions and comments.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.