How to Read Bass TAB: Ultimate Guide with Diagrams

Bass TAB (or Bass Tablature) is a simple way of reading music for bass that uses numbers and symbols instead of notes on a staff.

In this guide, I’ll explain how to read Bass TAB so you can start learning songs from TAB from websites such as Ultimate Guitar (check out the best TAB websites here). Most sites that offer Guitar TAB also include Bass TAB.

Different Types of Bass TAB

There are a few different types of Bass TAB you may find online. While the types of Bass TAB may look slightly different from each other, they all follow the same basic ideas.

Once you learn to read one type of Bass TAB, you can read them all.

Text-based Bass TAB

This is the oldest type of Bass TAB that was first shared online. Some sites still cling on to text-based TAB instead of using a modern version, so it’s useful to know how to read it.

Text-based Bass TAB is written in a simple text file as shown below.

Bass TAB text example 1

This type of TAB can tell you where to play each note and any techniques used, but it usually doesn’t include any rhythm notation.

Sometimes you will see TAB with numbers underneath (eg: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +) to help explain the rhythm. But if you want TAB with decent rhythm notation, check out the other TAB formats.

Writing Your Own Text-Based Bass TAB

If you want to write Bass TAB in this format, you need to use a specific type of font.

The font Courier New is the most popular font for writing this type of TAB. Notepad in Windows has quite a few other fonts that work well with TAB.

If you see TAB like the below example, it means the wrong font was used.

Bad Bass TAB example

Simply changing the font will fix the format issues and line the notes up properly.

Interactive Bass TAB

Websites like Songsterr use an interactive type of TAB that not only packs in far more information such as proper rhythm notation, but you can play along with the TAB.

Interactive Bass TAB example

As you can see, the above TAB looks similar to the text-based Bass TAB from earlier, but is easier to read and uses different symbols.

Most interactive TAB will include all instruments for a song, so you can play along to the TAB while listening to the drums, guitar, and any other instruments in the background.

You can even write your own TAB in this format using software such as Guitar Pro (explained later).

Tablature and Standard Notation

If you buy a TAB book, you will likely see this format. The basic idea here is that you get both the TAB version as well as the Standard Notation version at the same time.

As you can see below, there are two staffs connected together:

Come as you are bass riff TAB

The top half is the song written in Standard Notation and the bottom half is written in Tablature.

This is the best of both worlds as it gives you two different ways of reading the same music.

It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t need to know how to read Standard Notation to use this format. Simply ignore the top staff and read the TAB as normal.

Writing Your Own Bass TAB

There are a few different ways you can create your own TAB.

The easiest way is with Guitar Pro 7 (link to my full review).

Guitar Pro 7 gives you everything you need to edit and create your own TAB as well as download and playback/edit TAB for other songs. A nice advantage of this software is the range of tools you can use such as:

  • Playback speed adjustment
  • Transpose instruments
  • Write parts for any instrument
  • Metronome and speed trainer tools

If you want to write your own music, a program such as Guitar Pro can be incredibly useful.

Bass TAB Layout Explained

The first thing you need to understand with Bass TAB is the basic layout.

Bass TAB has four horizontal lines to represent the four strings on bass. Bass TAB written for 5-string bass will use five horizontal lines.

The number of lines always matches the number of strings. This means if you see a part with six lines, it may be meant for guitar.

As you can see in the diagram below, the four lines match up to the four bass strings from lowest pitch to highest pitch:

Bass TAB lines explained

Looking at Bass TAB is like looking down at your bass in your hands. The bottom line in Bass TAB matches the lowest pitch string (eg: E for 4-string bass and B for 5-string bass in Standard Tuning) on your bass.

Here’s what TAB looks like for a 5-string bass:

5 string bass TAB explained

Text-based and formal TAB sometimes displays the string tunings for each line as shown below:

Bass TAB Tuning

This is handy when a song uses an alternate tuning. If you don’t see the string names next to each line, look elsewhere to make sure the tuning is in Standard.

The main point is that the lowest line in TAB matches the lowest pitch string on your bass.

What Do Numbers Mean on Bass TAB

Each line on Bass TAB represents a string on your bass. Whenever you see a number on a line in Bass TAB, that number is telling you to play a specific note on that string.

The numbers on Bass TAB represent the fret numbers on a string. 5 would mean the fifth fret on your bass. 12 would mean the twelfth fret. 0 would mean the open string (zero fret).

Take a look at the below diagram for examples of different TAB numbers and how each number matches a note on the bass fingerboard:

Bass TAB numbers

As an example, the ‘5’ on the highest line in the above TAB means to play the fifth fret on the G string (the highest pitch string matches the highest line in TAB).

Take a minute to study the above diagram to make sure you can easily figure out how the numbers on each line match the correct fret positions on the bass.

Numbers Stacked on Top of Each Other

When numbers on Bass TAB are stacked on top of each other, it is telling you to play those numbers at the same time.

This is very common on Guitar TAB as guitarists often play chords, but you may see it on occasion in some bass parts.

Bass TAB chords

In the above example, the 0-7 part is telling you to play the open E string and the 7th fret on the A string both at the same time.

The second example is telling you to play the 7th fret on the D string and the 9th fret on the G string at the same time.

Depending on the style of music you play, you may never come across notes stacked in TAB, but the main point to remember is that when the numbers are stacked on top of each other, it means to play those notes at the same time.

Numbers Written Left to Right

When numbers are written side by side (on the same string or different strings), the Bass TAB is telling you to play the notes one after the other from left to right.

We read Bass TAB just like you’re reading this sentence – from left to right one word at a time.

In the below Bass TAB, you start by playing the 1st fret note, then play the 2nd fret note, then the 3rd fret note, and finally the 4th fret note because they are all written one after the other.

Bass TAB numbers example

Read everything in TAB from left to right and only pluck a string if you see a number on that string.

What Do Symbols Mean on Bass TAB

The key to reading Bass TAB is to remember that lines represent string and numbers represent frets.

When you look up Bass TAB for a song, you might notice some symbols used.

Symbols on Bass TAB represent different techniques such as slides, bends, hammer-ons, or slapping. When you see a symbol in TAB, it is telling you to perform a specific type of technique.

There are two sets of symbols to learn for Bass TAB. Text-based Bass TAB uses one set of symbols and formal TAB uses a different set of symbols.

Let’s go through all of the main symbols you will likely see in Bass TAB and what each one means.

What does h mean in Bass TAB

h‘ in Bass TAB is short for ‘hammer-on’. This is when you play a note and hammer-on to a higher note.

In text-based TAB this is shown as ‘h’ in between two notes. In formal Bass TAB, this is shown as a curved line over the two notes as shown below and an H above the staff:

Bass TAB hammer-on example h symbol

Both of the above TABs are showing the exact same thing to play.

2h4 means play the 2nd fret, then hammer-on to the 4th fret. 4h5h7 means to do two hammer-ons in a row (you only pick the first note).

What does p mean in Bass TAB

p‘ in Bass TAB is short for ‘pull-off’. This is when you play a note and pull-off to a lower note.

Bass TAB Pull-off example p symbol

The same curved line is used in formal Bass TAB as is used for hammer-ons, so you simply need to look at whether the number is higher or lower to know which technique to use.

Hammer-ons and pull-offs can be combined (known as legato) all under the same curved line as shown below:

Bass TAB Legato example

This can sometimes look confusing (especially the text version), so take it one note at a time to figure out what technique you need to use.

This can also be combined with slides as shown later.

What does / or \ mean in Bass TAB

A slash ( / or \ ) in Bass TAB is the symbol for a slide.

The type of slash used tells you whether you need to slide up to a note ‘/’ or slide down to a note ‘\’.

To know which slash symbol is which, think of the slash symbol as a slide you walk up to from the left.

If the slash slopes downwards like \, you slide down on your bass. If the slash slopes upwards like /, you slide up on bass.

Bass TAB slides example s symbol

The same symbols are used in text-based and formal TAB so it’s easy to identify slides. Some old text-based TAB may show instead of a slash as shown in the above example (eg: 7s9 is the same as 7/9).

In formal TAB, you may also notice a curved line over the top of the slide, this is a reminder that you only pick the first note of the slide. If there isn’t a curved line, it means to pick both notes.

The above example also shows how hammer-ons and pull-offs can be combined with slides. The curved line tells you to pluck the very first note, but none of the notes that follow under the curve. This is called legato and can use a variety of techniques.

What does b mean in Bass TAB

b‘ in Bass TAB is the symbol for a bend. In formal TAB, a curved line with an arrow or number is used.

Bass TAB bends example b symbol

In text-based TAB, sometimes a number is given after the ‘b’ to tell us what pitch to bend up to. So 7b9 means to bend the 7th fret note up until it sounds like the 9th fret pitch.

Some older text-based Bass TAB found online use the symbol ^ to represent a bend (eg: 7^9 is the same as 7b9)

In formal TAB, a number or text (eg: 1/2, full) is given at the top of the curved arrow to tell us what type of bend to play.

‘1/2’ means a half-step bend, ‘full’ means a whole-step bend, ‘1 1/2’ means a one-and-a-half step bend and so on.

r‘ in Bass TAB means to release a bend. Sometimes this is shown if a bend needs to be held for a long time, so you know when to lower it again.

pb’ in Bass TAB means to pre-bend a note before you pick it. You push the string up to the correct pitch, then pick the note before releasing it or holding it.

What does x mean in Bass TAB

x‘ in Bass TAB is the symbol for a muted hit. This can be across multiple strings or on a single string.

Bass TAB x meaning mute

A muted hit is when you pluck the string while dampening it with your fretting hand. This produces a percussive sound rather than a note ringing out.

What do parentheses () mean in Bass TAB

When a note is in parentheses () in Bass TAB, it can mean two things. It either means to play a ghost note or that the note is continuing to ring out.

In the below example, the notes in parentheses are ghost notes. This means you play the notes in the parentheses far softer than the rest of the notes.

Brackets symbol Bass TAB meaning

In the below example, the note in parentheses isn’t a ghost note. Instead, the parentheses tell you that the note has continued to ring out into the next bar and you don’t pick it again.

Bracket Bass TAB symbol meaning example 2

Normally when a note rings out to the next bar, parentheses are used to show that the note is still ringing out.

Some TAB will also include brackets for held notes within a bar while others won’t. In the above example, you can see that the 5th fret note is held for three beats (by reading the Standard Notation), but nothing is written in the TAB part to let you know it continues to ring out.

Some TAB may show a bracketed note here. In these cases, you need to figure out for yourself whether the note is meant to be a held note or a ghost note.

What does ~ mean in Bass TAB

~‘ in Bass TAB is the symbol for vibrato. In text-based Bass TAB, this is usually displayed on the line next to the note and formal TAB shows a wavy line above the staff.

Some old text-based Bass TAB uses next to the note to show vibrato because the ~~~ can be hard to see.

v or ~ symbol Bass TAB meaning

In the above text-based TAB, you can see how the ~ and v symbols both represent the same thing.

What does <> mean in Bass TAB

<>‘ in Bass TAB is the symbol for harmonics. When you see a note in between the two symbols such as <12> it means to play a harmonic on that fret.

Some TAB will show N.H. above or below the staff to indicate the note is a natural harmonic. You may also see A.H. for artificial harmonics.

< data-srcset= symbol Bass TAB meaning” width=”900″ height=”321″>

The above example shows two artificial harmonics on the fifth fret and two natural harmonics on the 12th fret (played at the same time).

Some TAB may also include a small fret number in brackets to indicate the pitch of the artificial harmonic. This takes the guesswork out of what pitch you should use for the harmonic.

In the above example, you can see the two artificial harmonics on the 5th fret are played with the plucking hand on the 12th fret. Some TAB may only write <5> and you need to figure out what the harmonic pitch should be.

The <> symbol may also be used to indicate volume swells, so listen to the song to know which is more likely.

What does t mean in Bass TAB

t‘ in TAB is the symbol for tapping. This is sometimes displayed above the staff with a capital T, while other times it is displayed next to the note (usually on text-based TAB).

t symbol Bass TAB meaning

In the above example, you tap the 17th fret with a finger from your plucking hand, pull-off to the 10th fret, then hammer-on to the 14th fret before repeating the pattern.

The curved line over all of the notes in formal TAB reminds us that all of this is played without picking or plucking the string (legato).

Repeating tapping patterns can quickly become messy and confusing to read when using text-based TAB as you can see in the above example.

While ‘t’ is sometimes used like this to indicate tapping, it’s far more likely you will see the symbols ‘i m r p‘ used instead (covered next).

An uppercase is regularly used in slapping riffs to indicate a slapped note using the thumb (covered later).

What does i m r p mean in Bass TAB

The lowercase letters ‘i m r p’ in TAB are the symbols used for tapping with your plucking hand. Each letter represents a different finger to use to tap a note on the fretboard.

Here are fingers to use for each letter:

  • i: index finger
  • m: middle finger
  • r: ring finger
  • p: pinky

i m r p symbol Bass TAB meaning

In the above example, you can see that the 17th and 19th frets are tapped using fingers from your plucking hand. The notes on the D string use your plucking hand’s index finger (i) and the notes on the G string use your plucking hand’s middle finger (m).

This is the more common way of indicating tapping in TAB because it gives you clear information on which fingers you should use for each note.

What does PM mean in Bass TAB

PM‘ in Bass TAB is the symbol for palm muting. Palm muting is where you use the side of your palm on your plucking hand to lightly mute the strings while playing.

A dashed line is used if the palm muting is held for a long time. Any notes below the dashed line are to be played with palm muting.

PM symbol Bass TAB meaning

The dashed line in text-based TAB can quickly make the TAB confusing (making it look like a 5 string TAB instead of 4 strings), so some songs that heavily use palm muting may not show this symbol at all.

What does S mean in Bass TAB

S‘ in Bass TAB is the symbol for slapping. Some people notate slapping using (S for slap) while others use an uppercase T (T for thumb).

S P symbol Bass TAB meaning

In the above example, you slap the E string notes using your thumb.

What does P mean in Bass TAB

P‘ in Bass TAB is the symbol for popping.

Sometimes TAB may use an uppercase P for pull-offs, but it’s usually very clear which technique is meant to be used.

Remember that a pull-off is when you move from a higher fret note to a lower fret note on the same string. One look at the below example and it will be clear that the P is not for pull-offs here.

S P symbol Bass TAB meaning

In the above example, the notes on the D string are played with a popping technique. The P symbol does not represent pull-offs here because there is no note to go to on the same string.

Bass TAB Symbols Legend

Here is a quick guide to the most common symbols you will see in text-based Bass TAB:

  • h = hammer-on
  • p = pull-off
  • b = bend
  • S or T = slap
  • P = pop
  • / = slide up
  • \ = slide down
  • PM – – – – = palm muting (above or below TAB)
  • ~~~ or v = vibrato
  • x = muted hit
  • <> = natural or artificial harmonics
  • t = tapping
  • i m r p = plucking hand fingers
  • () = grace note or let the note ring out

There are many more symbols that can appear in Bass TAB, but the above covers all of the essentials you are likely to see.

Bass TAB Template

If you want to quickly write some ideas down and you don’t have Guitar Pro 7, you can use the below Bass TAB template.

Four-string Bass TAB:

G|---------------------------------------------------------------|
D|---------------------------------------------------------------|
A|---------------------------------------------------------------|
E|---------------------------------------------------------------|

Five-string Bass TAB:

G|---------------------------------------------------------------|
D|---------------------------------------------------------------|
A|---------------------------------------------------------------|
E|---------------------------------------------------------------|
B|---------------------------------------------------------------|

Simply highlight all lines then copy and paste the above text into Notepad, Word, or any other text editor. You can then use it to TAB out anything you want or print it off to be able to quickly write down your ideas.

When you paste the text, make sure you use a monospace font such as Courier New. If you use the wrong font, you will struggle to make the numbers, symbols, and dashes line up properly.

When editing the TAB, remember to add or remove the dashes to keep the lines the same length. This can be done by pressing the Insert key on your keyboard with some word processors. It will type over the top of the dashes instead of adding numbers or symbols in between the dashes.

Find Bass TABs Online

Now that you know how to read Bass TAB, you can start learning to play songs by finding free TAB online. Learning how to play bass by reading TAB is an easy skill to learn, so keep this page open while you look through some TABs to get used to all the symbols.

Read this guide on the Best TAB Websites to check out some formal and text-based TABs.

Learn these 14 must-know easy bass riffs to practice reading Bass TAB with some fun and easy riffs.

Practice these 6 daily bass exercises to work on some important bass skills.

 

Bass TAB is one of a few ways of reading music. Find out about the other ways of reading music here and check out this guide if you want to learn how to read standard notation.