If you have ever studied music, you’ll appreciate that reading written music can be a challenge. If you haven’t studied music at all it can be quite off-putting. What the heck do all those little symbols even mean? Luckily for us, there’s an easier way. In this article we’ll look at how to read drum tabs. While tabs aren’t perfect, a good one will get you in the game and playing a song very close to the real thing.
What is a tab?
A tab (short for tablature) is an alternative to sheet music, where the fingers to be used are represented, instead of musical notes.
That’s great, but drums don’t have strings or require fingering, so how does it help us drummers? Simple. We just adapt this idea slightly, and it works really well. Check out this comparison between a guitar tab and a drum tab:
Each of these 6 lines represents one string on a guitar
Anywhere there’s a number, that’s the fret that you’ll put your finger on and play the note(s)
The tab is read from left to right, just like normal sheet music.
Take a look at the horizontal lines and you’ll see that instead of strings, each line represents an individual drum or cymbal.
These are sometimes named in different ways, or not at all, depending on who made the tab, but generally they follow the same format.
Purpose of a tab
Tabs have many benefits. They take the challenge out of reading a piece of music. Sometimes you just want to be able to jump right in without learning to read music, and a tab takes care of that really well.
You don’t need any special software to create a tab, just a basic text editor. Thanks to this, there are huge amounts of tabs online for just about every well-known piece of music. You can create and share your own ideas really quickly.
The best thing, though? The amount of highly accurate tabs you can get for free!
How does a tab differ from sheet music?
Sheet music is pretty much universal in the sense that you can play almost any instrument – stringed, wind, brass, piano, or anything in between using a standardised format.
When it comes to drum sheet music, the notation is quite similar to music for other instruments, for the most part. But, instead of musical notes being represented on the horizontal lines, it’s the individual drum or cymbal. All the notation relating to pauses, rests, dynamics, etc remains the same.
If you ask me, learning to read drum sheet music is beneficial over tabs, because you get an exact picture of the rhythm. A drum tab often does quite a good job at this, but you’ll often have to listen to the original piece of music to be sure about the rhythm.
Enough of the introduction, how do I read tabs?
Now that I’ve talked about the reasoning behind drum tabs and their benefits, I’ll get to the point. How do you read them?
As mentioned earlier, all the individual drums and cymbals are represented by on a separate line, for example:
C|——–| Crash cymbal
B|——–| Bass drum
Typically, a drum tab will start at the ‘top’ of the drum kit, i.e. a crash cymbal. Therefore, the first several lines represent cymbals and hihats, which are marked with an x. An upper case X means an open hihat.
C|—X—| crash cymbal
H|x-X-x-X-| hihats (alternating between open and closed)
Below the cymbal lines, the notation switches to an o. Anything marked with an o represents a drum. Sometimes people will use the letter representing the drum in place of an o, for example:
s |o-o-o-o-| snare
s| s-s-s-s-| also snare
This Wikipedia article lists several more common abbreviations and some of the characters used to represent special requirements for the instrument – cymbal choke, snare rim shot, flam, to name a few.
A tab is read from left to right, as with sheet music. The time signature is usually displayed if it differs from common, or 4/4 time. Notes which are vertically aligned are played at the same time:
In a basic tab, the notes are often separated into 16 even notes. You may see something like this below the tab:
If you’re not sure what this means, it is a well known way of counting a beat, breaking it down into 16th notes. Counting (out loud, or in your head) is a good practice for keeping good time as you learn. The video below shows this in more detail.
Other time signatures will vary in the amount of notes, but usually this will be noted somewhere in the document.
Disadvantages of tabs:
Unfortunately, there’s a few downsides to creating and using tabs. As you can see from my above examples, the font you’re using when writing out a tab might have different sized letters. This will throw the alignment of the rhythm out if you’re not careful.
Make sure you choose a font that lets everything sit nicely. You’ll see what I mean when you see some of the perfectly formatted tabs on a site like ultimate-tabs.com. The font I use on this site isn’t very tab friendly, but it shows my point nicely!
Believe it or not, Microsoft Notepad is a perfect tool for creating tabs as the default font keeps everything perfectly in line.
There has been some controversy about whether tabs are a breach of copyright because they represent a recreation, or ‘derivative’ of a copyrighted piece of work. Some tab sites were even taken down in the past. But, luckily for us, it seems for now at least that we still have access to a huge number of tabs online for free.
If you want to read more, check out this article about the reasoning behind this legal debate in relation to guitar tabs.
If a tab is made with care, it can convey a piece of music fairly accurately. But the only way to ensure complete accuracy is with sheet music, given that it is accurate, of course!
What are some good resources?
There’s loads of tabs available online, a quick Google will reveal dozens of sites. Here’s a few which I’ve used:
Drum tabs are a quick and easy way to interpret a piece of music for anybody. They’re freely available online, and you can pretty much find tabs for any popular piece of music.
In saying this, I strongly recommend learning to read drum sheet music. It’s a skill that will always come in handy in your drumming career – even if it’s just referring to practice material. Take the time to invest in yourself, and a whole world opens up to you.
Do you prefer tabs or sheet music? Please do leave a comment below, I would love to hear from you.