Learn Your Lines! How to Read Ukulele Tabs – A Guide for Beginners

ukulele tabs

Using chord charts is fine for simple ukulele songs you can strum along to.

But when you want to take on something a bit more complicated, or even just to embellish a chord sequence (think the riff in Nirvana’s Come as You Are), a chord chart isn’t enough.

A ukulele tablature (or ‘tab’) will show you precisely how to play the lines.

The great thing about tab is you don’t need any knowledge of the notes on a ukulele fretboard. All you need to be able to do is count, and if you’re reading this, I figure you’ve worked that out already 🙂

In this article, we’ll show you how to read ukulele tabs and explain what all the symbols mean.

Strings

A tab looks like this. Four horizontal lines representing the strings, with the string names on the left going down vertically (GCEA).

A |————————————|
E |————————————|
C |————————————|
G |————————————|

Imagine the uke is laid down on its side this:

understanding ukulele tab

Frets

So far so good (I told you it was simple). Now, every time you see a number, it means ‘play this fret’ on this string.

So a 2 here…

A |—-2—————— |
E |————————|
C |————————|
G |————————|

means do this:

ukulele tab fret

Or a 5 here…

A |————————|
E |————————|
C |—–5—————– |
G |————————|

means do this:

ukulele tab fifth fret

Notice how tab doesn’t tell you which finger to play with, just the fret number you need to play.

Or how about playing the 1st fret multiple times:

A |—-1—1—1—1—1—|
E |————————-|
C |————————-|
G |————————-|

One of the drawbacks to using tab is there’s no reliable way of depicting rhythm. To get around this, numbers are spaced apart according to show the speed at which to play the notes. It’s not ideal, but it beats having to learn to read music.

A |—-5———–3-2——–|
E |———————-5-3–|
C |—————————-|
G |—————————-|

Chords

Can you show chords in tab? You sure can. If there’s more than one fret number in a vertical line, that often (but not always) means it’s a chord. 

Here are the chords to Riptide, for example (Am, G, C)

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

So that’s all there is to it. Now we’ll look at the common tab symbols used.

Tab Symbols

Tab symbols are used to represent more advanced techniques. Here are the main ones:

Hammer On (h)

A simple ‘h’ is used between two notes to mean ‘hammer on here’. In the below example, its telling us to ‘hammer-on from the 4th to the 5th fret on the E string’

A |————————|
E |—–4h5—————|
C |————————|
G |————————|

Pull Off (p)

And the same in reverse, a ‘p’ means ‘pull off’. So here, it means ‘pull off from the 5th fret to the 4th on the E string’. 

A |————————|
E |—–5p4—————|
C |————————|
G |————————|

Hammer On & Pull Off (^)

Or how about a combination of both. Simply use the ‘^’ symbol for this. So here, it means ‘hammer from the 4th to the 5th fret, and pull off from the 5th back to the 4th fret on the E string’.

A |————————|
E |—–4^5^4———–|
C |————————|
G |————————|

Bend (b)

We all love a bend. To represent this, simply add a ‘b’ in between two notes. Here it means ‘bend from the 4th to the 5th fret on the E string’.

A |————————|
E |——4b5————–|
C |————————|
G |————————|

Vibrato (~)

A touch of vibrato, sir? It’s simply shown as a ‘~’ on either side of a note. So below it’s telling you to ‘add vibrato to the 5th fret on the E string’. 

A |————————|
E |——~5~————-|
C |————————|
G |————————|

Ghost Note ()

Ooh, spooky! Simply add parenthesis around a note to mean ‘play it quietly’.

A |————————|
E |——(5)—————|
C |————————|
G |————————|

Sliding (/ \)

For a slide, use forward-slash (/) for going up the fretboard (towards the soundhole) and backslash (\) for going down. Here it means ‘slide from the 5th fret to the 7th fret on the E string, then slide back down from the 7th to the 5th fret’.

A |————————|
E |——-5/7——7\5—|
C |————————|
G |————————|

Harmonic (<>)

To play a harmonic on a note, use chevrons. This means ‘play a harmonic at the 12th fret on the E string’

A |————————|
E |——-<12>———–|
C |————————|
G |————————|

Summary

And we’re done. Now you know how to read ukulele tabs. Woohoo!

Now to start playing some songs. A great place for discovering uke tabs is over at ukulelehunt.com where you’ll find tons and tons of them, grouped by difficulty.

Good luck, and enjoy 🙂