How to Read Tabs for Bass

Guitar tabs and bass guitar tabs, in particular, may seem like a foreign language for many new players, but tabs were actually born out of a desire to make music reading more simple for most people.

As a music teacher and guitar player, I know how important it is for people to learn how to read tabs for bass. It’s simple when it’s broken down, so let’s dive in and do just that.

What Are Tabs For Bass Guitar?

Before getting down to it, you may still be wondering what tabs.

Many bass guitar players are converted standard guitar players. As such, you probably have a good grasp of how to read chords or a lead sheet which shows when to play certain chords in a song.

Bass doesn’t work the same way. It’s much more focused on single notes and lines at a time. Chord figures don’t show this.

At the same time, most bass players don’t want to learn how to read all sheet music or standard notation (though you should try in time). What evolved from the need to learn single notes without having to read notes on a staff was bass tablature (commonly called bass tabs).

Guitar tabs and bass tabs function in the same way. There are lines meant to represent each open string (so a bass tab has only 4 strings).

Then a fret number is placed on each tab to show how to finger the string to play the note.

Before you know it, you’re learning to read bass on a standard bass guitar.

The next section goes into more detail.

How Do You Read Bass Tabs For Beginners?

Let’s break down bass tabs to its basics for you. This section will walk you step by step through how bass tablature works.

Keep in mind, this will help you play better on a standard bass guitar.

Start With The Strings

The place to start is with the guitar strings. The bass guitar only uses 4 strings compared to the 6 strings of a standard guitar. Although there are also 5 string bass guitars.

Each string gets a line, and the lines match the low to high. The bottom line on a bass tab is the lowest E string, and this is the string closest to you.

The next string is the A string followed by the D string and then the G string.

For those of who want to check where they’re at, the top line and highest open string is the G string. It’s the string farthest away from you on the bass guitar.

Knowing how the lines match your bass strings is the first step to learning how to play bass tabs.

Look At Fret Numbers

The next step to read bass is to look at the fret numbers. As you read the tab from left to right, you’ll see numbers on each line/string.

These numbers show which fret to hold down and which strings.

For example, if you look at a bass tab and you see a number “2” on the bottom line, you know the first note you play is the E string on the second fret.

Continue in this manner reading left to right and playing the fret as you see it. At this point, you have the heart of what it means to read bass tabs.

Keep Measures Lines In Mind

Every so often, you’ll notice vertical lines down each of the tab string lines.

These are meant to indicate measures or bars. All the numbers inside these measure lines need to be played in the measure.

A measure is commonly held as the time it takes when you count (1, 2, 3, 4). At the vertical measure lines, you start the count over (1, 2, 3, 4).

If there are few frets in the tab before the measure lines, the notes will be slower. If there are many notes, it’s meant to be played fast.

Getting a feel for how the notes line up with the tab is one of the most important parts to read bass tabs. Sadly, this specific part is one of the hardest ones to teach directly as it requires experience and feeling.

My advice for getting a better idea of how the measure work is to pull up a tab to a famous song and listen to how the bass player plays it while watching the notes go by.

Eventually, you should try to play along too.

This is how most great players got their start as well.

Where’s The Rhythm?

One of the things you may notice when trying to read bass is the distinct lack of rhythms.

A bass tab doesn’t typically mark any sort of rhythms or give the player an indication of how the notes are supposed to go.

Bass players are known for just feeling the music as we mentioned above. They just put their fingers on the fret and go with it.

Honestly, it’s something I’m a little jealous of in really good bass players as a mostly acoustic guitar player myself.

The rhythms are left off on purpose. It encourages the musician to play more in the style of the song itself instead of playing like a tab tells you to.

As you play and get better, it’s encouraged to add your notes in between what’s written on the bass tab.

But the tab is a good lift-off point for exploring more high-level areas of play.

Special Markings On The Strings

These are the basics of reading tabs on bass guitars, but there are some special characters you may find as you play. In many cases, new players can just ignore these symbols for now and add them in later.

These special markings add specific techniques that create an iconic sound when playing.

While the following list is by no means a complete one, this should be enough to get you started:

  • Forward slash ( / ) means to slide up to the next pitch noted.
  • Back slash ( \ ) means to slide down to the next pitch notes.
  • The caret ( ^ ) means to bend the string.
  • An H means to perform a hammer-on (when you pick the string and then push down the fret).
  • P’s mean to do a pull-off (opposite of a hammer on)
  • X’s mean to ghost the note (place your finger on the fret but don’t press down all the way).

Special Markings Below The Strings

These markings are shown beneath the strings as they don’t need the actual strings to be played:

  • T means to tap on the guitar
  • P means to pop
  • S means to thumb slap

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed learning more about how to read a bass tab. Tabs are a great way to get at playing melodic lines and developing your play skills on bass.

Keep in mind how the strings and fret numbers show you what to play as you come across them from left to right on the bass tabs.

With a little practice, you’ll read bass tabs with few problems. The bass tab system seems complicated at first, but it’s actually quite simple.

Now go practice!

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How to Read Tabs for Bass