Tablature ukulele

How to Read Ukulele Tabs

Last week, I posted 3 Easy Songs You Can Fingerpick on Ukulele Today.

When you download the sheet music for these songs, you are presented with a musical staff and tablature.

After a couple emails, I realize we’ve looked at how to read music, but one thing we haven’t looked at yet is how to read tabs.

Music tablature, or tab, is a simplified form of musical notation used for stringed instruments like the ukulele.

Most people learn a new piece of music by using tab. Unlike a regular piece of music, tabs show you exactly where to play the notes on the fretboard.

Let’s take a look at some examples of tablature.

Music Tablature Basics

For the ukulele, in a piece of tablature, you will see four lines:

Each line represents a string on the ukulele. The top line represents the bottom string of the ukulele where the bottom line represents the top string of the ukulele.

When you look at a piece of tab, you’ll see numbers scattered across the different “strings” or lines:

Each number refers to a fret number.

For example, in the piece of tab above, you would pluck the 3rd fret of the bottom string on the ukulele. As we read across the piece of tab, we see that we would then pluck the open E string, the second to bottom string. Then, we would pluck the open C string, the second to top string. Then, we would pluck the open G string, the top string. And so on…

How to Write Chords in Music Tablature

In a piece of tab, you might see all the numbers line up vertically:

When you see this, this means you play a chord. In other words, you play all the notes vertically aligned together.

In the above example, we see the chords played from left to right: F, G, C, Am, D7, and G7.

Other Important Music Tablature Symbols

At this point, you should be able to read tab like a pro, but there are a couple more symbols that we will see on occasion.


Hammer-ons are designated by an “h” symbol that separates the two notes.

In this example, you would pluck the 2nd fret of the second to top string, and then “hammer-on” to the 3rd fret.


Pull-offs are designated by a “p” symbol that separates the two notes.

In this example, you would pluck the 3rd fret of the bottom string, and then “pull-off” to the 2nd fret.

Alternative Symbol for Hammer-ons and Pull-offs

Hammer-ons and pull-offs can also be designated by using the “^” symbol.

In this example, you would pluck the open E string, then hammer-on to the 3rd fret, and then pull-off back to the open E string.


Ascending slides are represented by the “/” symbol, while descending slides are represented by the “\” symbol.

In this example, you would pluck the 2nd fret of the bottom string and slide up to the 5th fret. Then, you would pluck the 3rd fret of the second to bottom string and slide down to the 2nd fret.


Bends are represented by the “b” symbol. An “r” symbol will be used to indicate a bend that returns back to the original plucked note.

In this example, you pluck the 5th fret of the bottom string and bend it to the 6th fret and hold the bend. Then, you would pluck the 3rd fret of the bottom string, and then, the 3rd fret of the second to bottom string.

Next, on the same string, you would pluck the 5th fret of the second, bend up to the 6th fret, and then, return the bend back to the 5th fret. Lastly, you would pluck the 3rd fret.

The Big Downside to Using Tab

As you can see, reading tab is a very intuitive way to learn a song.

However, the big problem is that with tab you don’t get a sense of the rhythm. Meaning, you don’t know when to play the notes written on a piece of tab or how long to hold them in relation to the other notes.

The best way to use tab is in combination with your ear. For example, you’ve heard a song you want to learn how to play on ukulele, and because you know how it sounds, you can use the tab as an aid.

Using tab in combination with reading music is extremely powerful. This is the format in which I posted the fingerpicking songs last week. Be sure to check those out if you want some real practical application for using tabs.


How to Read Ukulele Music: Your Guide to Understanding Musical Notation


For the uninitiated, music notation can look less like musical symbols than birds on a telephone wire or insects crawling on a page—inscrutable information that they haven’t a clue what to do with. But many who read notation find it an invaluable tool for learning new music and sharing it with others, while getting to better know their instruments.Here’s how to read ukulele music and understand musical notation.

To get the most from this magazine, which is packed with music for songs and lessons in each issue, you don’t have to become a virtuosic sight-reader. But it would be a good idea to have at least a little understanding of how notation works. As with guitar and other fretted instruments, ukulele notation is typically conveyed in several ways—through the standard staff notation that any trained musician can read, and by tablature and chord frames, which are ukulele- and even tuning-specific. 

Here’s a comprehensive primer, covering all of the notational aspects you’ll typically find on these pages, for any type of ukulele. For handy reference, download a free PDF of the notation guide here. Devote a portion of your practice time to learning how notation works—and reading new music—and those strange symbols will become rich with musical information.

Standard Notation

Standard notation is written on a five-line staff, with notes in alphabetical order, from A to G. Every time you pass a G, the sequence of notes repeats, starting with A.

ukulele musical notation, notes on staff

The duration of a note is determined by three elements: the note head, stem, and flag. A whole note (w) equals four beats. A half note ( h ), as the name suggests, is half of that: two beats. A quarter note (q) is one beat; an eighth note ( e ), half of a beat; and a 16th note (x), a quarter beat (four 16th notes per beat). 

ukulele musical notation, note values for whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, 16th note, and triplets

A fraction (4/4, 3/4, etc.) at the beginning of a piece of music—or at any other point within the tune—denotes the time signature. The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure, and the bottom number indicates the rhythmic value of each beat (4 = quarter note, 8 = eighth note, 2 = half note, etc.). You’ll most often encounter ukulele music written in 4/4 time—four quarter notes per measure, also known as common time, sometimes expressed with a [c] symbol. The symbol that looks like a “c” with a vertical line through it stands for cut time—that’s two half notes per bar, a meter used for fast tempos. Waltz time or 3/4 (three quarter notes per measure) is another common meter in the ukulele literature.

ukulele musical notation time signatures

Chord Diagrams

Chord diagrams (a.k.a. frames or grips) offer a quick and easy way for players of all levels to read music. In a chord diagram, vertical lines represent the ukulele’s strings—left to right, strings 4 through 1—while frets are shown as horizontal lines. A thick top line represents the instrument’s nut; if that line is thin, it represents a fret, the number of which is indicated to the right of the frame. Dots within the grid show you where to place your fingers on the fretboard, and numbers above the frame suggest fingers to use (1 = index finger, 2 = middle, 3 = ring, and 4 = pinky). Meanwhile, 0 calls for a string to be played open and X calls for it to be silenced or not played. 

ukulele musical notation, how to read chord diagrams

Here are four common ukulele voicings. Note that the last frame uses a thick horizontal line to represent a barre—a single finger laying across and depressing multiple strings—in this case with the first finger depressing strings 1 and 2 at fret 3. 

ukulele musical notation, chord fingering diagrams for C, F, G7 and alternate C chords


Tablature is another notational form often used for fretted instruments. It uses four horizontal lines to represent the four strings of the ukulele, with the first string on the top and the fourth on the bottom. The numbers refer to the frets to be played on given strings.

ukulele musical notation showing musical staff and tab notation

The relationship between the notation and the tablature will vary, depending on what type of uke you’re playing. In reentrant (or high G), the tuning most commonly used in Ukulele, on a soprano, concert, or tenor uke, the notation of the open strings will look like shown below. Low G, in which the fourth string is an octave lower, making the four strings fall in consecutive pitch order, is depicted in the next measure. The baritone uke is tuned to the same notes as the top four strings of the guitar, as shown in the third bar. Note that while the guitar sounds an octave lower than written in standard notation, the baritone uke is often written at pitch.

The standard notation and tablature in Ukulele is designed for tandem use—you can get the rhythmic information from the former and fretting-finger placement from the latter.

Standard ukulele musical notation example showing notes on a musical staff and ukulele tabs


Just as with chord frames, fretting-hand fingerings are sometimes suggested with small numbers in notation. Picking-hand fingerings are often depicted between the standard and tablature staves using a letter to represent each finger: p represents the thumb, i the index finger, m the middle, and a the ring. Remember that the fingerings in notation are only suggestions; if you find a way that works better for you, always feel free use it.

ukulele musical notation fingerings

In music that is strummed or played with a pick, downstrokes (toward the floor) and upstrokes (toward the ceiling) are shown as follows. Slashes in the notation and tablature indicate to continue strumming the previous chord—in this case, G.

ukulele musical notation strumming


If a capo is used, a Roman numeral indicates the fret where it should be placed. The standard notation and tablature are written as if the capo were the nut of the guitar. For instance, a tune played using key-of-G chord shapes and fingerings will be written in the key of G, regardless of where the capo is placed. Likewise, open strings held down by the capo are written as open strings. In this example, the music is played in G with a capo at the second fret, causing it to sound a whole step higher than written, in the key of A major. 

ukulele musical notation using capos


Unless otherwise specified, the music in ukulele is in standard reentrant tuning, string 4 to string 1, G C E A. If a piece is in an alternate tuning like G C E G or G B D G, that information is shown immediately before the notation. In these tunings, the notation reflects the actual pitches of the notes. But if the ukulele is placed in a tuning in which the strings maintain the same relationship to each other—for instance, lowered by a half step (F# B D# G#)—then the pitches are written as if played in standard tuning.


There are a number of ways to articulate a note on the ukulele. Two or more different notes connected with slurs (curved lines, not to be confused with ties, which link notes of the same pitch) in standard notation and tab can be played with hammer-ons and/or pull-offs. Lower notes slurred to higher ones are played as hammer-ons; higher to lower, as pull-offs.

ukulele musical notation articulations

A slide is fretting-hand articulation represented by a slanted line. If the line precedes the note, that note should be slid into from an indefinite, lower point; if it follows the note, slide down. The direction of the slide is dictated by the orientation of the line. For example, slide up into the seventh-fret B in bar 1, and down out of that note in the next measure. For a legato slide—two or more notes connected with a slide, as shown in bars 3 and 4—pick the first note and then slide into the other(s).

ukulele musical notation slides

A grace note—a quick ornament leading into a note, most commonly played with some type of slur—is represented by a small note with a dash through the stem in standard notation, paired with a small number in tab. In the first example below, pick the note at the fifth-fret F on the beat, then quickly hammer onto the seventh-fret G. The second example is executed as a quick pull-off from the second-fret B to the open A string. In the third example, the open A and E strings are played simultaneously (even though it appears that the A is to be played by itself), then the third-fret C fret is immediately hammered.

ukulele musical notation grace notes


Natural harmonics are chime-like sounds produced by gently touching the strings directly above the fretwire, without pressing down. Harmonics are represented by diamond-shaped notes in standard notation and regular numbers in tab, paired with the text indication harm. On the ukulele, harmonics are most commonly played at the frets 12, 7, and 5, as shown below. 

ukulele musical notation harmonics


The navigational devices used to convey repeated music in a score can be a major source of confusion. Repeat symbols are placed at the beginning and end of a passage to be repeated, as shown below. You should ignore the forward repeat symbol (with the dots on the right side) the first time you encounter it; when you come to a backward repeat symbol (dots on the left side), jump back to the forward repeat. The next time you come to the backward repeat, ignore it and keep going unless you see instructions like “play three times.”

ukulele musical notation repeats

A section will often have a different ending after each repeat, like shown in the example below. Play until you hit the backward repeat at the first ending (through bar 2), then jump back to the forward repeat in bar 1, and play through that measure again. After that, skip bar 2 (the first ending), go straight to the second ending (bar 3), and continue (not shown in notation).

ukulele musical notation section repeats

D.S. stands for dal segno or “from the sign.” It’s usually indicated with an instruction like D.S al Coda, which simply tells you to return to the music at the sign and continue until you are instructed to jump to the coda [fi] As shown here in notation, play through bar 5 and then, as directed by D.S. al Coda, go to the sign at bar 2. Play until you see the instruction To Coda (at the end of bar 3), then move to the coda (bar 6). 

ukulele musical notation examples for Coda, D.S., D.S. al Coda, and To Coda

D.C. stands for da capo or “from the beginning.” Go to the top of the piece when you encounter this indication. Fine means ending, so D.C al Fine tells you to return to the beginning of a piece, and then play until you see the indication Fine, ending the piece. For instance, after you’ve navigated through bar 6 below, go back to bar 1 and play through the end of bar 2. 

Note that in general, both D.S. and D.C. can be used with either al Coda or al Fine, and that there can be multiple signs and codas within a piece.

ukulele musical notation examples for Fine and D.C. al Fine

If all these D.S.s and D.C.s still seem like gibberish to you, not to worry. Just as with learning to strum chords and play melodies, it will take a little effort to learn notation. But once you’ve spent enough time with it, you’ll be able to sail through music with ease—in real time, without having to look up what those symbols mean.

For handy reference, download a free PDF of this notation guide here.

book cover for ukulele basics – chords and harmony

Ukulele Basics: Chords and Harmony is a collection of six easy-to-follow but in-depth lessons on the basics of chords and harmony. Instructors and Ukulele magazine contributors Jim D’Ville and Fred Sokolow, as well as the great composer/player Daniel Ho, will guide you through easy chord variations, harnessing the power of certain chords, demystifying the famous Circle of 5ths, and understanding moveable chord shapes.

The Ukulele Owner’s Manual is the book that belongs in every ukulele player’s instrument case. Each chapter was written by the experts and performers at Ukulele Magazine, with topics ranging from commonsense instrument care to fixing rattles and buzzes to a pictorial history of the instrument. Book owners can also download how-to videos with step-by-step guidance on common set-up and maintenance topics.

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How to Read Ukulele Tabs: A Complete Guide to Tablature

Ukulele tablature (also known as “tab”) is an easy and fast way to write out songs for stringed instruments. Here’s a complete guide on how to read tabs for the ukulele.

Due to its simple nature, learning how to read ukulele tab is very straightforward and once you get the concept you can progress quickly.

Overview sheet/Tab Legend

The disadvantage to reading music via tab is that you cannot express timing values with it. So while you can play a piece you’ve never heard before by looking at piano sheet music, you can’t do the same with tab.

If you don’t know the song it’s going to be frustrating to try and learn it this way. To make things easy on yourself, employ the “hum it” rule: if you can hum the tune then you can learn from the tab, if not, don’t try.

How to Read Ukulele Tabs: Understanding the System

Ukulele tab looks like this:

A |-----------------------| E |-----------------------| C |-----------------------| G |-----------------------|

The Strings:

The four horizontal lines on a bar of tab represent the four strings of an ukulele.

The G-string is on the bottom and the A-string is on the top.

To visualize it better, imagine you set your ukulele down flat on a table, strings facing up and headstock to your left. If you hold the tab on top of the fretboard in this way, the strings will match. G is closest to you, A is furthest away.

The Frets

Tab is read left to right. Anytime you see a number it means “pick this fret.” Which string line the number is one tells you what string to play the fret on.

The tab below tells you to pick the 3rd fret on the A-string one time:

A |--3--| E |-----| C |-----| G |-----|

This next tab tells you to play the 10th fret on the C-string one time:

A |------| E |------| C |--10--| G |------|

Here you would play the 3rd fret, E-string once and then the 5th fret, A-string once:

A |-----5--| E |--3-----| C |--------| G |--------|

If you want to show two notes picked in a row you would repeat the fret number. This means pick the 3rd fret, E-string two times:

A |--------| E |--3--3--| C |--------| G |--------|

Three times:

A |-----------| E |--3--3--3--| C |-----------| G |-----------|


Here’s a C major scale in reverse:

A |-3-2-0-----------| E |-------3-1-0-----| C |-------------2-0-| G |-----------------|

Still having trouble getting oriented? There’s a nice guide on the basics of how to read tab over at Ukulele Go. Ukulele Hunt also has one with some pictures and audio examples.

Showing Chords

If there are more than one fret number in a vertical line, play the notes simultaneously. This is how you’d write a chord:

A |--3--| E |--0--| C |--0--| G |--0--|

Or you could show three notes played simultaneously:

A |-----| E |--0--| C |--0--| G |--0--|

Or just two:

A |-----| E |--0--| C |--0--| G |-----|

Bar Lines

Oftentimes it’s nice to break a tab into pieces via vertical bar lines like this:

A |-----|-----| E |-----|-----| C |-----|-----| G |-----|-----|

Since tab can’t show timing, it’s sometimes hard to place these precisely enough to stand in for traditional measure lines.

Instead these are often just used for a bit of separation between parts.


The above examples are created in text. You can do the same yourself using a monospace font (I like Courier New).

But the tab-reading concepts you’ve learned can also be applied to fancier presentations like you’ll find on my page of Guitar Pro-made ukulele tabs.

With this high-end format it is possible to show the timing of notes via combo standard notation/tablature layouts, more precise articulations, rhythm slashes, and more.

All in all, it’s a much more professional looking tab. But because of the extra details, it is more tedious to make these tabs and thus, are harder to find.

Notating Articulations

Since single picked notes are rarely the only thing you find in music, here is a breakdown of how to read all the additional symbols you might find when reading ukulele tabs.

Multiple examples are shown separated by a bar-line.

“h” – Hammer-on

Use an “h” to show where a hammer-on connects two notes.

A |-5h7-|-----| E |-----|-----| C |-----|-0h2-| G |-----|-----|

“p” – Pull-off

This is used to connect two notes like this:

A |-7p5-|-----| E |-----|-----| C |-----|-2p0-| G |-----|-----|

and means you pull-off from one to the other.

“/” or “\” – Slide

Move from the first note to the second note via a slide.

A |-5/7-|-7-|-------| E |-----|-----|-------| C |-----|-----|-2/4-| G |-----|-----|-------|

“b” – Bend and “r” – Release

Bend the string up so that it equals the pitch of the second note shown.

A |------|-7b8-| E |-8b10-|-----| C |------|-----| G |------|-----|

You can also release a bend down to its starting point by adding an “r” to the equation:

A |--------|-7b8r7-| E |-8b10r8-|-------| C |--------|-------| G |--------|-------|

“~” – Vibrato

Vary the pitch of the note with the vibrato technique.

A |-----| E |-~8~-| C |-----| G |-----|

“()” – Ghost Note (parenthesis)

Play very softly.

A |-(3)-----| E |-----(3)-| C |---------| G |---------|

“<>” – Harmonic (chevrons)

Chime a natural harmonic at the fret shown in angle brackets.

A |--

Artificial Harmonic

Fret the first note shown then chime an artificial harmonic over the fret shown in brackets.

A |---------|---------| E |---------|--3

Note Duration in Text Tab

Sometimes people who want to express the timing for a song will put special notation on top of the text ukulele tab to show note duration.

This notation is closely based around the way timing is written for standard sheet music. So in addition to learning the symbols below, you must also be familiar with traditional piano-style music notation.

Duration Legend

(Shown above each fret number.)

  • W – whole note
  • H – half note
  • Q – quarter note
  • E – 8th note
  • S – 16th note
  • T – 32nd note
  • X – 64th note
  • a – acciaccatura
  • + – note tied to previous
  • . – dotted note
  • .. – double dotted note
  • Lowercase letters are played staccato
  • Irregular groupings are notated above the duration line
  • Rests are shown above an empty space

There are ways to notate more complex parts, but at a certain point, ask yourself, “Should I just be using Musescore instead?” To me, this style sort of defeats the point of a simple text tab.

For example, here’s the intro to “Black Magic Woman” by Santana:

  a W          +H.      E E   E H..         +W           a a W |------------|--------------|-------------|------------|----------| |-3s1--------|-(1)----------|-------------|------------|-1h3p1----| |------------|------------2s|=4s2---------|-(2)--------|----------| |------------|--------------|-------------|------------|----------|


Ukulele tablature



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