How to Read Bass Guitar Tabs?

Music aficionados, enthusiasts, and connoisseurs will surely agree that the bass guitar is one of the most sophisticated of musical instruments that is almost always used in recording any and almost music styles.

The bass guitar also variously referred to as electric bass or just bass is normally played by using a plectrum (for picking) or by thumping, tapping, popping, strumming, slapping, and plucking.

Bass guitars find extensive applications in studio recordings and during staging of jazz, rock, pop, heavy metal, country, blues, gospel, and punk rock concerts.

Learning to play a bass effectively requires the individual not only to have latent music talent but also a profound penchant for the instrument. In order to master the instrument, you’ll first have to pick up the bass tablatures or simply bass tabs.

Bass tabs form only a miniscule part of the myriad learning syllabus that you’d have to complete in order to become a seasoned bassist.

The bass tabs, to put it simply are a very basic and straightforward arrangement of musical notations which you’ll come across in countless magazines, books, and websites devoted to basses. Each and every bass notation has a specific finger position on the bass guitar’s fretboard.

Bass tablatures or notations have been in use since the Renaissance. These days, bassists share songs composed by them with their compatriots over the net in the form of bass tablatures.

Deciphering Bass Tabs

Bass tabs are typified by 4 lines that run horizontally and each line stands for the 4 strings which are featured on majority of bass guitars.

The lowermost line corresponds to the bottom E string whereas the topmost line is for the G string. The numerical notations on each line denote the fret to be strummed or plucked.

For instance, if the highest line shows the number 7 at 8 intervals, then it implies that the 7th fret on the G string has to be picked eight times. The bass tabs, in the form of numbers, are extremely helpful for those who have just started taking bass lessons.

Once you feel confident about playing the frets based on the numerals on the lines, you graduate to strumming the instrument based on standardized (musical) notations.

Rehearsing on the bass keeping both the numeric and music notations side by side help pace up learning.

The Strings Associated with Bass Tabs

As most of the bass guitars for learners normally come equipped with 4 strings, it follows that the primary or basic tablature lessons also comprise of 4 straight, horizontal lines. However there are corresponding lessons for advanced learners using 5 or 6-string bass guitars, as well.

The 4 strings in a standard bass are strapped onto the fretboard in ascending order of pitch-the highest pitched string G is at the top followed by D, A, and E strings.

Though playing the bass for some specific music genres or styles, like hard rock and R&B requires the instrument to have more strings, the string with the lowest pitch is always fastened at the base.

The Fretting Numerals Related to Bass Tablatures

The musical notes associated with bass tabs are signified by fret numerals. The smallest fret number is 0 and the largest is 24 on a bass guitar having 24 frets. Majority of the basses have fret settings ranging between 20 and 24.





According to the above tablature, you start with playing two successive 2nd frets followed by the 1st fret on the E string. Next, you pluck the 3rd fret on the A string succeeded by popping the 2nd fret and then the 3rd fret again. You complete the tablature by thumping the 6th fret of the G string.

The bar markings on bass tabs are indicated by vertical hyphens identical to those used for standard notations.

Bass Tab Rhythms

More often than not, you’ll not find indications for rhythms on bass tablatures except the arrangement of the musical notations. This implies that you’ll have to carry out trial and error several times by listening to your recordings and fine tuning the compositions on your own.

However, you’ll see markings for rhythm just below the fret number counts.

Other Markings on Bass Tabs

You’ll also come across various other icons or signs that all have to do with the manner in which notes should be played. However, there is no standardized set of markings and the same varies from one bass tablature to another. You’ll usually spot these markings atop the tablature pattern. Given below are some of the most common bass tab signs.

The markings on strings:-

  • X (x) stands for ghost note
  • H (h) denotes hammer-on
  • P (p) represents a pull off
  • ̂ (caret) means a bend
  • (\) back slash notifies a downward slide of pitch
  • (/) forward slant is indicative of an upward pitch movement

The markings underneath the strings:-

  • S marking refers to thumb slapping
  • P marking denotes popping
  • T signifies tapping
  • L marking indicate that you’ll be using your left handing for plucking, strumming or thumping
  • R marking is for right hand bassists

Bass Tabs: Alternate Tunings

You might frequently encounter altered tunings in bass tabs as well, usually specified above the tablature which signify an alteration in the bass tuning with respect to playing something atypical or unusual.


Undoubtedly the best way to pick up the ins and outs of playing the bass is to register for a tutorial program where you’ll be mentored by seasoned bassists.

Additionally, you can practice the lessons outlined in books as well as follow sites dedicated to bass tabs including ‘Big Bass Tabs’, ‘How to Play Bass’ and ‘Ultimate Guitar’.

Though you may not find tabs representing all musical genres, you’ll surely come across tabs of the most popular styles like jazz, rock, blues, and country to name a few. Last but not the least, you’ll rarely find tabs that designate rhythm of any sort which means you’ll have to rehearse based upon your instincts.     

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