Understanding Tablature

Often referred to as tab, tablature is a system of notation used for fretted string instruments such as guitar and electric bass. Tab is a relatively easy way to communicate the intricacies of neck positioning and note selection. Because there are so many options regarding where to play a note on the bass guitar, a notation system such as tab can help solve this dilemma.

In Europe, the use of tablature dates back to the fourteenth century. Initially, tab was used as a system of notation for lutes and other plucked instruments such as the orbo, mandora, and vihuela. France, Italy, and Germany all offered variations in tablature notation.

Tab tells you the precise order of the notes and the exact string and fret to play them on. For the modern bassist, tab is most commonly used to figure out a bass line from a favorite recording. It also may be used to communicate the best path on the fretboard for any given song or passage.

On bass, tab is arranged on the page as four horizontal lines with numbers written on those lines. The lines represent the four strings of the electric bass with the lowest pitched string — the E string — as the lowest line and the highest pitched string — the G string — as the highest line. The middle two lines represent the middle A and D strings. The numbers, which sit directly on these string lines, indicate the fret numbers on each string that should be depressed.

For example, if you see a “4” on the lowest or E-string line, that means that you will be playing the fourth fret, which is a G-sharp or A-flat. An “o” placed on a line tells you to play an open or unfretted string. Always read the numbers left to right and take note of the spacing; the spacing determines the basic timing of the notes. One of the drawbacks with tab is that it cannot accurately indicate rhythm. In order to play the right rhythms, you will probably need to listen to the song or review standard notation.

Individual numbers, which appear in a row on the staff, indicate single notes. Conversely, numbers stacked on top of each other indicate a chord or double stop (two notes played simultaneously). Sometimes the spacing may correlate to the actual rhythm but only crudely. Again, exact rhythmic specifications are beyond the scope of this type of notation. Tab is designed to show the positioning aspects of playing a melodic line or chord rather than the rhythmical aspects of that line. Figure 3-4 shows some basic single-note tab patterns.

Tab is an evolving, creative, and dynamic tool. Increasingly, there are new ways to communicate complex and intricate performance techniques and articulations such as bends, slides, pull-offs, and so on. In the following chapters you will learn more about different techniques on the electric bass and how tab is used to notate them.

Figure 3-4.

Basic tab examples

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