Tabs are a practical solution created so that players can learn new songs in a short amount of time. It got popularized with the advent of the internet and nowadays it is the go-to method for guitar and bass players.
Compared to traditional sheet music notation, tabs offer an easier, more intuitive approach. While it may take a lot of practice to read sheet music with proficiency, most beginners can learn how to read tabs efficiently within one week or less.
Today, we are going to show you how to read bass guitar tabs as well as write your own. Before you head on to learn, be sure that you have a basic concept on how to find yourself on the bass guitar fretboard. This will help a lot.
Tip: If you’re a beginner in search of your first bass or an advanced player looking for the next model to your collection, be sure to check our Best Bass Guitar article.
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How to Read Bass Guitar Tabs
Bass guitar tabs are usually presented in the following manner:
As you probably already know, the letters on the left side represent each string of the bass guitar, in this case, in the standard tuning (E A D G). The G string is the first one, the D string is the second one, and so on.
Depending on the number of strings on your bass and tuning, it can appear in different forms. For example, if the song is meant to be played on a 5-string bass, one line will be added on the bottom. If it is meant to be played on the Drop D tuning, we will have a D instead of the E on the 4th string.
The example below is from the intro of Nirvana’s song Come As You Are. Note how there are numbers on the horizontal lines that represent each string of the bass. Those numbers are the frets you need to press on each string. Try it for yourself:
Nirvana – Come As You Are (Intro)
Now, as you may have noticed, unlike sheet music, bass guitar tabs in most of the cases don’t have any form of time or rhythmic notation: they only show you which frets you have to play. So before you learn a song, you must listen to it to get the rhythm right.
Related: How to Practice Bass Guitar
Bass Tab Markings
Take a look at the bass tab for part of the intro of the song Come Together by The Beatles.
The Beatles – Come Together
You may have noticed that there are two new elements on this bass guitar tab: the h and the \. These are markings for a hammer-on and slide-down, respectively. Let’s see what each of the markings on a tab means.
h – Hammer-On
In the particular case of this song, the hammer-on from the 10th to the 12th fret means that you should play the 10th fret with your index finger and immediately press the 12th fret with your ring finger. Keep in mind that you should strum the A string only once.
p – Pull Off
The pull-off is the opposite of the hammer-on. Take a look at the example:
In this case, you should play the higher note (5th fret) with your ring finger while also fretting the lower note (3rd fret). After strumming, immediately let go of the 5th fret. There you have, a pull-off.
/ – Slide Up
The slide-up is represented by the / marking. Example:
The representation above means that you should play the 5th fret and immediately slide your finger up to the 7th fret. Simple as that.
\ – Slide Down
The slide down is the opposite of the slide up. Represented by \, you should, in that case, slide your finger down the fretboard. Take a look at our example song Come Together: in a certain section of the intro (12\8), you should slide from the 12th fret to the 8th fret.
ˆ – Bend
The ^ marking means that you should bend the string up or down. To learn exactly how much you need to bend, you must listen to the original song.
x – Ghost-Note
Ghost notes are usually used as rhythmic accents inside a song. When you see an x on the bass guitar tab, you should rest your finger gently over the strings and either strum or slap it. What you will hear is a 100% rhythmic sound.
Should I Also Learn to Read Sheet Music as a Bass Guitar Player?
While nowadays it is not so crucial to learn how to read sheet music unless you’re a classical musician, this style of notation can be a great addition to your set of skills as a bass player.
Sheet music has the advantage of being able to tell you rhythmic and time notations and a few extra information such as about dynamics. It is not a must for popular musicians nowadays since we have easy access to any song we want, but extra knowledge is always welcome. It is up to you at the end of the day.
As you can see, learning to read bass guitar tabs is very easy. Most beginners are able to get a good grasp on the subject in their first week of playing. Before you try to learn any song though, remember to listen to them so that you can get a great idea about the rhythm and the timing of the notes.
If you’re a beginner bass guitar player, we also recommend that you check our related articles made for those who are starting out with the instrument. They may help you with concepts such as memorizing the notes on the bass guitar fretboard, finding the best exercises for daily practice, etc.Thank you for reading our article. We hope you learned how to read bass guitar tabs. If you have any questions or suggestions on how we could improve, feel free to contact us. Happy playing!