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How to Read Ukulele Tablature

Standard notation is useful because it’s universal and remains the same for every instrument, including the ukulele. However, notation is quite tricky to read, and for instruments where you can play the same note on different strings — such as the ukulele — it leaves out valuable information. Tablature (or tab) was developed to overcome these problems. Tab is designed specifically for fretted instruments, and it shows — among other details — which string to play and which fret to use.

In the horizontal lines of tab, each line represents a string on the ukulele; however, they’re upside down from what you may expect, and may take some getting used to:

  • The top line of the tab is the A-string (the one closest to the floor when you’re playing).

  • The line below that is the E-string.

  • The line below that is the C-string.

  • The bottom line of the tab is g-string.

    How tab refers to uke strings.
    How tab refers to uke strings.

Fretting ukulele notes in tab

The numbers that appear on the tab indicate which string to play and what fret to play it at (the stacked 4s indicate the time signature). In this figure, the note is on the second line down, representing the E-string. The number 1 indicates that you play the string at the first fret. Playing the E-string at the first fret gives an F note.

image1.jpg

A 0 indicates an open string — one you play without fretting a note at all. This figure shows an open E-string.

image2.jpg

Sequencing ukulele notes in tab

When notes appear one after the other horizontally in the tab, you play them in sequence. You let the first note ring until you reach the next note. In this sequence, you play the E-string open, then the same string at the first fret, and then at the third fret and, for the final note, play the A-string open.

image3.jpg

When notes appear stacked vertically in tab, you play the notes at the same time. In the sequence here, you play the C-string at the second fret while playing the E-string at the first fret. You then move the shape up two frets so you’re playing the C-string at the fourth fret at the same time as playing the E-string at the third fret. The focus then shifts to a new pair of strings: E and A. Play the E-string at the first fret and then play the A-string open. Finally, you play the E-string at the third fret and the A-string at the second fret.

image4.jpg

Listen to both a single and simultaneous sequence.

Showing ukulele chords and strums in tab

In tab, whole chords are written in the same way as simultaneous notes, with fret numbers stacked on the lines that represent each string, like this F chord:

Tab for an F chord.
Tab for an F chord.

The tab shows that you play the g-string at the second fret, the E-string at the first fret, with the other notes ringing open.

To indicate that you need to strum chords, tab uses arrows indicating which direction to strum, but it’s the opposite of what you’d think — an up arrow indicates a down strum, and a down arrow indicates an up strum. Why this system was adopted remains a mystery, but it looks like this:

Strum notation in tab.
Strum notation in tab.
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