Tablature, also known as “tabs,” is a method of reading music that is different and more simplified than reading traditional sheet music. (Traditional sheet music is also known as staff notation or standard notation.) Unlike learning how to read traditional sheet music, reading tabs doesn’t require a lot of time or memorization, and uses a more mathematical and “logical” approach.
However, like traditional sheet music, reading tabs still requires you to read the notes off of a page (or from the screen of your phone, tablet or computer), but don’t let that intimidate you. Learning how to read tablature is something that ukulele players of all skill levels can learn how to do very quickly, and something that can be mastered in a considerably short amount of time.
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To be clear, I certainly don’t want to insult anyone who has taken the time to learn how to read traditional sheet music, and I deeply respect musicians who have taken the time and effort of putting the work into learning it. I remember taking music lessons when I was a child and trying to be respectful of the art form that is standard notation, but I also remember feeling like I was doing more studying than actual playing, and often times it felt like I was just doing homework.
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Tablature, on the other hand, is incredibly easy to figure out and something that virtually anyone can pick up in very little time. Like learning any new skill, it does require some practice and patience, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is. So, if you want to start learning how to play some of your favorite songs on the ukulele, this article will help to guide you through how to learn to play tabs.
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What is Tablature?
Traditional sheet music uses a series of symbols that are written across a series of horizontal lines, as well as in the spaces in between those lines. Each of these symbols represents a specific note, along with how long (or short) you should play each note.
On the other hand, reading tabs is more like using an interactive diagram. Like standard notation, tablature also uses a series of horizontal lines, but unlike standard notation, each line in tablature represents a string on your ukulele. Also, the symbols that you see on tablature correspond to exactly where you are supposed to put your fingers on the fret board, whereas standard notation requires you to only “visualize” where you are supposed to put your fingers on the fret board.
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The Advantages to Reading Tablature
Learning how to read standard notation can take months or even years until you are able to fully comprehend the symbols, notation and play fluently. But with tablature, even if you are picking up a uke for the first time, you can figure out the notes to your favorite songs literally within minutes.
Keep in mind that mastering any song takes time and practice, but learning tabs as opposed to standard notation won’t require a lot of time studying or just trying to figure out which note is which. Also, tablature is something that ukulele players of all skill levels can benefit from when it comes to learning songs that you want to play.
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How Does Tablature Work?
As mentioned, tablature is a very simplified way to learn how to read and play music on the ukulele, and it doesn’t require a lot of studying or homework in order to become efficient. It’s almost like learning a sing-a-long song or a follow-the-bouncing-ball song. And, once you get the hang of it, it will unlock a lot of doors to your playing.
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The Lines in Tablature Represent the Strings
The first thing that you need to do in order to understand and learn tablature is to know which string is which. With ukulele tabs, there may only be four strings to learn, but it’s still very important to know all of them in the correct order from top to bottom.
So, with the uke resting on your knee with the strings facing outward, and with the neck in your left hand, the strings going from top to bottom are G, C, E and A. (Putting it another way, the string closet to the sky is the G, the next closest is the C, the next closest is the E, and the lowest string is the A.)
The Symbols in Tablature Represent the Notes
This is where “follow the bouncing ball” comes into play. You will notice that with tablature there will be numbers assigned to various places on the strings, and each number represents a specific, individual note which guides you to where you should put your fingers on the fretboard of your ukulele.
With your left hand is on the neck of your uke, the lowest fret is the furthest one away from your body and the highest fret is the one that is closet to your body. So, when you match up which string to strum and which fret to place your finger on, you will hit the correct note.
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Learning Chords with Tablature
Just like with learning individual notes using tabs, learning chords on the ukulele uses the same method. The only difference is that you are placing multiple fingers on the fretboard as opposed to just one finger at a time. Learning chords may seem intimidating at first, but with tablature, it’s no less intimidating than learning how to play individual strings in the first place.
Simply place your fingertips on the appropriate spots on the fretboard, and strum all of the strings at once. Learning chords can take a little longer to master since you are using more than one finger at a time, but as with learning how to play individual strings, learning chords with tablature will become more and more easy the more you practice.
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Learning how to read and understand tabs will unlock a seemingly endless world of playing the ukulele without taking up an endless amount of time. Tabs are something that players of all skill levels can benefit from when it comes to learning how to play in general, or wanting to know how to play a specific song.
Once you understand tablature and become comfortable with your finger placement, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you will pick it up. But, like with learning all new things, it’s important to practice regularly and often. After a short while, it becomes more about memory; both with your eyes and your ears, and with your muscle memory, too.
Just remember to start slowly and go at your own pace so that you won’t get too frustrated. There’s no point in playing or learning something new if you’re not enjoying the experience, right? So above all, make sure that you’re having fun.
Good luck, and happy playing!