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Tablature (or tabulature, or tab for short) is a form of musical notation indicating instrument fingering rather than musical pitches.

Tablature is common for fretted stringed instruments such as lute, vihuela of guitar, as well as many free reed aerophones such as the harmonica. Tablature was common during Renaissance and Baroque eras, and is commonly used in notating rock, pop, folk, ragtime and blues music.

Three types of organ tablature were used in Europe: German, Spanish and Italian. There are several types of ocarina tabulature. Harp tablature was used in Spainmarker and Walesmarker.

To distinguish standard musical notation from tablature in the context of the latter, the former is usually called "staff notation" or just "notation".

An alternate usage of the word "tab" is common on the internet, where it can also refer to conventional chord symbols (for harmony), or note names (for melody).



The word tablature originates from the Latin word tabulatura. Tabula is a table or slate, in Latin. To tabulate something means to put it into a table or chart.


There are 2 different common spellings, with (tab'ulature) and without "u" (tablature). While the "tabulature" is closer to original Latin word, and thus more correct etymologically, the adapted version "tablature" seems to be more widespread in modern English.

Both of these words are frequently shortened to "tab" in casual speech. To be less ambiguous, it is preceded by an instrument name (i.g., "guitar tab", "bass tab", "organ tab") when required.


The first known existence in Europe is around 1300. In Asia there exist much older tablature notations.

Lute tablatures were of three main varieties, French, Italian (also widely used in Spain, Bavaria and southern France), and German, detailed below. A special variety of Italian tablature called "Neapolitan" was in use in southern Italy, and a Polish variety of French tablature appears in one manuscript. French tablature gradually came to be the most widely used. Tablatures for other instruments were also used from early times on. Keyboard tablatures flourished in Germany c. 1450–1750 and in Spain c. 1550–1680. Much of the music for the lute and other historical plucked instruments during the Renaissance and Baroque eras was originally written in tablature, and many modern players of those instruments still prefer this kind of notation, often using facsimiles of the original prints or manuscripts, handwritten copies, modern editions in tablature, or printouts made with computer programs.


While standard musical notation represents the rhythm and duration of each note and its pitch relative to the scale based on a twelve tone division of the octave, tablature is instead operationally based, indicating where and when a finger should be depressed to generate a note, so pitch is denoted implicitly rather than explicitly. The rhythmic symbols of tablature tell when to start a note, but usually there is no indication of when to stop sounding it, so duration is at the discretion of the performer to a greater extent than is the case in conventional musical notation. Tablature for plucked strings is based upon a diagrammatic representation of the strings and frets of the instrument, keyboard tablature represents the keys of the instrument, and recorder tablature shows whether each of the fingerholes is to be closed or left open.

Tablature vs. standard staff notation

Tablature is more easily read by a novice musician than standard notation; all one needs to do is tune the instrument, place one's fingers on the indicated string and fret, and sound the note. During the Renaissance, Tablature was used by professionals and amateurs alike to set down music for lute, cittern, bandora, orpharion, four- and five-course early guitar, and viols de gamba. Repertoire for lute began to change during the 1700s; use of the lute in orchestras as basso continuo obliged lutenists to work from parts written in staff notation for harpsichords and harps. Tabulature continued to be used for solo lute and guitar works, but eventually lost popularity and nearly died out, remaining in informal use amongst amateurs, aficionados and within folk idioms such as flamenco.

Victorian-era musicologists found themselves in a quandary when it came to publishing scholarly editions; players of the original instruments were uncommon, while most musicologists do play piano. Editions prior to the Early Music movement presented the music transcribed for guitar or piano (or both), leaving lute players at a loss for their own repertoire as it was originally published. Popular interest in Early Music caused a need for performing editions of renaissance repertoire in tablature.

After World War two ended, acoustic and electric guitar became popular, and guitar tablature was reborn.

Tablature notation has two significant deficiencies. First is an inability to convey the duration of notes sustained against melisma. Only the beginning for each note can be shown; which notes of a chord should be sustained, and for how long, is an artistic decision for the player.

The second problem is one of choice. Historical tablature has three major forms (French, German, Italian); each of those has variants. Modern players usually specialize in just one form, it is difficult to become facile at reading all of them. The surviving repertoire is divided roughly equally, with French and Italian being preferred by modern players over German (especially facsimile editions, as the originals were published in black letter type which is unfamiliar to modern readers). Modern publishers have a difficult decision to make in choosing a form for a modern anthology.

Differences between systems

  • Direct visual representation
:When compared to standard notation, tablature is a closer visual representation of the instrument's fretboard. It does not require any training for players to be able to read tablature therefore some find it easier and quicker to interpret.

  • Fingering position determination
:Tablature removes the requirement for the player to determine the fretboard position within which the notated music is to be executed. Notes on the guitar can be played in different fret hand positions and upon several different strings; for example the note C4 could be played on the third string at the fifth fret or on the fourth string at the tenth fret. In the case of fretted instruments such complexity makes the relationship between staff notation and playing technique less direct than in the case of the piano and many other instruments. Whilst standard staff notation can remove the string/fret ambiguity by further indicating the playing position (usually with Roman numerals), tablature does not contain this ambiguity.

  • Simple typewriter-font representation
:Tablature can be easily (albeit crudely) represented as ASCII tab. This is a plain-text computer file using numbers, letters, and symbols to construct tablature. This characteristic makes it easy to distribute tablature electronically, a practice that has become very widespread; it is now possible to find free tablatures for virtually any popular music on the Internet, although a considerable number of those tablatures may be inaccurate and also illegal. (See Tablature below.)

  • Instrument-specific
:Tablature is instrument-specific, while staff notation is generic. Tablature does not provide any skills transferable to other instrumental or general musical study. Tablature can only be read easily by a player whilst music written in staff notation can be played on any suitable instrument. Reading solely from tablature compromises communication with other musicians such as flаutists or violinists who are commonly trained in the use of standard notation. Reliance solely upon tablature limits the repetoire of the player to that which is published in tablature or transcribed into it. A player who can read both forms of notation is at a decided advantage.

  • Inherent harmonic or analytical information
:The science of harmony and musical analysis is codified by recourse to standard musical notation. Standard musical scores enable musicians to utilise advanced tools for such analysis. These tools cannot be easily applied to, or from, tablature. Therefore the study of musical theory is hindered by reliance upon tablature.

  • Rhythmic information
:Tablature notation provides limited information on rhythm and timing. Tablature writers sometimes provide limited rhythmic information by adding note stems, flags and beams above the fret glyphs but the system is not as well-defined as in standard notation.

  • Distinction between musical parts
:Multiple parts cannot be rhythmically distinguished within tablature notation. This is serious limitation when conveying information required for the proper rendition of multiple-part music on any polyphonic instrument.

  • Indication of pitch
:Tablature notation shows how the notes are fingered; relative pitch is shown and actual pitch can be calculated by considering the tuning, but it takes experience for a player to sing (or internalize) the notes by sight. Dynamic markup is usually left to the performers artistic sense. It can be difficult to get a general outline of the music by simply studying the tablature page without recourse to playing it through or listening to a recorded version beforehand. In contrast staff notation allows musicians to sing from sight.

Lute tablature

Lute tablature is conceptually similar to guitar tablature, but comes in at least three different varieties. The most common variety used today is based on the French Renaissance system (see example at right). In this style the strings are represented by the lines on the staff (occasionally the spaces above the lines on the staff), and the stops are indicated by lowercase letters of the alphabet (rather than numbers), with the letter 'a' indicating an open string and the 'j' skipped (as it was not originally a separate letter from 'i'). A six-line staff is used, just as for modern guitar tab. However, lutes were not limited to 6 strings or courses (they could have as many as 19), and stops for any courses beyond the sixth were shown below the bottom line, with short diagonal strokes (see below).

The letters soon developed somewhat stylized forms for ease of recognition. In particular, the letter 'c' often resembled 'r'. This was common in many styles of Renaissance handwriting, but also helped to differentiate 'c' from 'e'. Also, sometimes 'y' was used for 'i'.

Lute tablature provides flags above the staff to show the rhythms, often only providing a flag when the length of the beat changes, as shown in the example. (Notice that this piece begins with a half measure.)

Other variants of lute tablature use numbers rather than letters, write the stops on the lines rather than in the spaces, or even invert the entire staff so that the lowest notest are on top and the highest are at the bottom.

As with guitar, various different lute tunings may be used, all written using the same tablature method. A tenor viola da gamba can usually be played directly off lute tablature as it typically uses the same tuning. A guitar can often be played off lute tablature by tuning the g string down to an f# and putting a capo at the third fret to preserve the original pitch.

In standard Baroque lute tabulature, each staff has six lines, representing the first six courses. The course of the highest pitch appears at the top, and that of the lowest appears at the bottom. (The Italian Archlute of the same period uses an opposite system.)


Lower case letters or "glyphs"are placed on each of these lines to represent notes. If it is required to play an open D course, for instance, a small "a" will be placed on the appropriate line. For a note with the finger on the first fret a "b", a note on the second fret a "c", etc. However, as mentioned above, "j" was not used since it was not considered a separate letter from "i", and "c" often looked more like "r". Thus:

G - a

would represent a G-minor chord,

All open strings would represent a D-minor chord:

D- ///a

The strings below the 6th course are notated with additional short "ledger" lines: glyphs are placed below the staff. These courses are tuned in accordance with the key of each piece played:

G- a
F- /a
E- //a
D- ///a
C- 4
B- 5
A- 6

A number of slightly different systems were used to show rhythm: some scribes and printers used headed notes, but, it was simpler for a scribe to use headless tails for the fast-moving notes these plucked instruments commonly played (breve to semi-fusa); and early printers followed the scribal practice. Individual tails were sometimes combined into 'grids', resemblimg today's beams. Semi-breve was indicated by an untailed line, breve by a circled line or a line flagged to the left.

The Lute was a virtuosos instrument, and rapid ornamentation in the form of graces, trills, shakes, fall-backs, mordents etc were expected of players adlibitum to artfully ornament the music, not just playing the notes written down. Some of these are written out, but more commonly a special symbol would mark places where they might be used; these symbols are subjects for a special discussion, each scribe and composer had differing ways to ornament and a variety of ways to notate.

German lute tablature

The origins of German lute tablature can be traced back well into the 15th century. Blind organist Conrad Paumann is said to have invented it. It was used in German speaking countries until the end of 16th century. When German lute tablature was invented, the lute had only five courses, numbered 1 (the lowest sounding course) to 5 (highest). Each place where a course can be stopped at a fret is assigned with a letter of the alphabet, i. e. first course first fret is letter a, second course first fret is letter b, third course first fret is c, fourth course first fret is d, fifth course first fret is e, first course second fret is f, second course second fret is g and so on. Letters j, u, w, are not used. Therefore, two substitutional signs are used, i. e. et (resembling the numeral 7) for fourth course fifth fret, and con (resembling the numeral 9) for fifth course fifth fret. From the sixth position upwards, the alphabetical order is resumed anew with added apostrophes (a', b', ...), strokes above the letters, or the letters doubled (aa, bb, ...). When a 6th course was added to the lute around 1500 CE, different authors would use different symbols for it. Chords are written in vertical order. Melodical moves are notated in the highest possible line, notwithstanding their actual register. Rhythmical signs, which are written in a line above the letters, are single stems (semibreves), shafts with one flag (minims), stems with two flags (crotchets), stems with three flags (quavers), stems with four flags (semiquavers). Stems with two or more flags can be grouped into units of two or four ("leiterlein" in German, i. e. small ladders).


         French Italian German

          -r-     ---     k
          -d-     ---     o
          -d- =   -0-  =  n
          -a-     -3-     2
          ---     -3-
          ---     -2-

Computer programs for writing tablatures

Various computer programs are available for writing tablature - the two standard programs used by the lute community are Fronimo by Francesco Tribioli and Django by Alain Veylit. These were designed for the purpose of engraving tabulatures for various lutes and other plucked instruments for Early Music (these programs also provide fully implemented midi playback of tablature scores.

There are many other programs, some solely for tablature, while others also write lyrics, guitar chord diagrams, chord symbols and/or staff notation (e.g: Power Tab, Guitar Pro, TablEdit, Musedit, SmartScore etc. ). ASCII tab files can be written (somewhat laboriously) with any ordinary word processor or text editor. An Opensource program written in Java is TuxGuitar, it supports writing notes, tablatures, playing them and exporting to many formats. Internet sites such as TinyLick allow creation and sharing of tablature using a web browser. Both Finale and Sibelius software offer some lute tablature support (in Italian, Spanish, and French styles, but no German as is offered by Fronimo). Sibelius and Finale do not provide fonts to score lute tablature in a historic looking style but can incorporate any fonts needed for any style desired with extra set-up time which can be easily transferred to additional scores.

Guitar tablature

Guitar tablature consists of a series of horizontal lines forming a staff (or stave) similar to standard notation. Each line represents one of the instrument's strings therefore standard guitar tab has a six-line staff and bass guitar tab has four lines. The top line of the tablature represents the highest pitched string of the guitar. By writing tablature with the lowest pitched notes on the bottom line and the highest pitched notes on the top line of the tablature follows the same basic structure and layout of Western Standard Notation.

The following examples are labelled with letters on the left denoting the string names, with a lower-case "e" for the high E string. Tab lines may be numbered 1-6 instead, representing standard string numbering, where "1" is the high E string, "2" is the B string etc.

The numbers that are written on the lines represent the fret used to obtain the desired pitch. For example, the number 3 written on the top line of the staff indicates that the player should press down at the third fret on the high E (first string). Number 0 denotes the nut - that is, an open string.

For chords, a letter above or below the tab staff denotes the root note of the chord.

Examples of guitar tab notation:

The chords E, F, and G:

    E   F   G

Various lines, arrows and other symbols are used to denote bends, hammer-ons, trills, pull-offs, slides, and so on.These are the tablature symbols that represent various techniques, though these may vary:

h - hammer on.

p- pull off.

b - bend string up

r - release bend

/ - slide up

\ - slide down

v - vibrato (sometimes written as ~)

t - right hand tap

s - legato slide

S - shift slide

asterisk (*) - natural harmonic

[n] - artificial harmonic

n(n) - tapped harmonic

tr - trill

T - tap

TP - tremolo picking

PM - palm muting

\n/ - tremolo bar dip; n = amount to dip

\n - tremolo bar down

n/ - tremolo bar up

/n\ - tremolo bar inverted dip

= - hold bend; also acts as connecting device for hammers/pulls

> - volume swell (louder/softer)

x - on rhythm slash represents muted slash

o - on rhythm slash represents single note slash

Guitar Tablature is not standardized and different sheet music publishers adopt different conventions. Songbooks and guitar magazines usually include a legend setting out the convention in use.

The most common form of lute tablature uses the same concept but differs in the details (e.g. it uses letters rather than numbers for frets) - see below.

Musette tablature

Musette tablature from Borjon de Scellery

Borjon de Scellery's Traité de la musette includes pieces for musette de cour in both standard notation and tablature, plus a partial explanation of his system. The numbers refer to the keys on the instrument, and are shown on a five-line stave so that they also correspond with standard notation. Standard symbols for note-lengths are written above each tablature-staff.

The standard notation shown in the illustration is also taken from de Scellery; No explanation is given for the slur-like symbol; the comma , is explained as indicating a tremblement, starting on the note above. No explanation is given for the unusual beaming or the significance (if any) of where note-length symbols are repeated.

Harmonica tab

The harmonica tab was basically a 1-to-1 mapping of the notes to the corresponding hole, and thus, is a type of numbered musical notation. For each note, it will indicate the number of the hole to play, direction of breathing (in or out), and even either bending (usually for diatonic) or "slide-in" (usually for chromatic)

One methodology for indicating direction of breath is by showing the direction of arrow; another is by using either a "+" or "-" sign, or "i" (for inhale) and "e" (for exhale). Bending was shown with a bent arrow with the direction of breath, or by a circle that circle the note, or even a simple line next to the breath indicator. Additional lines and/or circle may be used to indicate how much to bend.

For example, on a key "C" diatonic:
 Unbent Bent lv1 Bent lv2 Bent lv3
 3i (B)    3i| (Bb)    3i|| (A)    3i||| (G#)

To indicate button press on Chromatic, a similar indication to first level bending may be used.

The breath indicator may be placed right next to the hole number, or below the number. Same for bending/button press indicators.

To indicate the beat, on arrow system they may use the length of the arrow. However, the more popular method would be to use a slightly simplified notations, such as "o" for whole note, // for half notes, "/" for quarter notes, "." for eighth notes, and place them above the characters, while spacing them accordingly.

For chord, they will simply show the numbers to play, so for example:
a C major (CEG) chord (on a C diatonic): 456e
However, they may simplify it, especially when playing blues. For chords, it was common to just play three or two holes instead (sometimes even just one), especially when the instrument is not of the same key. For example, in blues progression in G (G G G G7 C C G G D7 D7 G G) it's common to use C diatonic, and use the following:
G chord (G-B-D): 34i (BD)
G7 chord (G-BD-F): 45i (DF).
D7 chord (D-F#-A-C): 4i (D) or 4e (C)

There are many harmonica tab systems in use. The easiest tab system works like this.

Diatonic Harmonica tab

 2  = blow the 2 hole
-2  = draw the 2 hole
-2' = draw the 2 hole with a half bend
-2" = draw the 2 hole with a full bend

chords are shown by grouping notes with parentheses

(2 3) = blow the 2 hole and the 3 hole at the same time

Chromatic Harmonica tab

  2 = blow the 2 hole
 -2 = draw the 2 hole
 <2> blow the 2 hole with the button in</2>
<-2> draw the 2 hole with the button in</-2>

Harmonica tab is usually lined up with lyrics to show the tune and the timing.

Harmonic tab usually tells you the key of the harmonica the song is tabed for.

Here is an example of harmonica tab:

Mack the Knife
  C Diatonic
5   6   -6   -6   5  6   -6     -6
Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear
-4  -5  -6    -6  -4 -5   -6
And he shows them pearly white
 6  -7  -8    7   -7   -6  7     -4
Just a jack knife has MacHeath, dear
 5  -5   7   -4  7  -7  -6
And he keeps it out of sight

Legal issues

There has been a lot of controversy over the legal position of Internet free tablature, as many Internet tablature websites provide tablature free of charge without holding the right to publish musical works, and not paying the original songwriters royalties. Moreover, revenue generated from advertising on these websites is typically kept by the website owners as profit or used to cover the website's maintenance costs.

Free Internet tablature sites often attempt to defend themselves by claiming to be educational providers or non-profit organizations, even if not formally registered as such. This leads to considerable difficulty justifying the service as legal under the fair use doctrine of copyright law (see Fair Use As A Defense). The legality of free Internet tablature served by tablature websites is disputed, largely because websites have thus far only been threatened with legal action; the issue has yet to be taken to court.

As of Monday December 12, 2005, distributing free tablatures of copyrighted music using the Internet was considered illegal by the music industry in the US. By early 2006, an unprecedented legal move was taken by the Music Publishers' Association (MPA), initiating legal action against tablature websites that hosted interpretations of songs and music. The Music Publishers' Association (MPA) had been pushing for websites offering free tablatures to be shut down. MPA president Lauren Keiser said that their goal is for owners of free tablature services to face fines and even imprisonment. Several websites that offer free tablature have already taken their tablature offline until a solution or compromise is found. One of the purposed solutions is an alternative compensation system, which allows the widespread reproduction of digital copyrighted works while still paying songwriters and copyright owners. In addition, there are now a number of "legal" services offering guitar tablature that have been licensed by music publishers.

One site,, contacts the bands themselves for permission to post tabs. Few bands have denied the request.

The tablature debate was featured on NPR's Morning Edition in a segment entitled "Music Industry Goes After Guitar Tablature Websites" on August 7, 2006. had been closed down due to complaints from copyright holders. However, as of February 23, 2006, the owners of Mxtabs put the website back online with a letter explaining their position. In short, they believe that the purpose of Mxtabs is to "aid musicians in learning their instruments." They say that Mxtabs has accounted for as much as $3000 a month in sheet music sales, and offers many tabs that do not have equivalent sheet music published, so Mxtabs and similar sites are the only place that musicians can find a way to play these songs (other than figuring the songs out for themselves). The letter concludes by pointing out that tabs have never been proven to be illegal, then requesting that sheet music companies contact Mxtabs in order to create a system of tab licensing.

On February 29, 2008, relaunched as the first legitimately licensed site designed to provide musicians with access to free tabs, while also compensating music publishers and songwriters for their intellectual property. Similar to other user generated content sites, users are encouraged to create, edit, rate and review their own tablature interpretations of their favorite songs. However, unlike other user-generated content sites, only songs that have received explicit permission from participating copyright owners will be made available online.

Guitar Tab Universe

On July 17, 2006, Guitar Tab Universe (GTU) posted a letter on its homepage that its ISP had been jointly threatened with legal action by the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) and the MPA "on the basis that sharing tablature constitutes copyright infringement".

In response, GTU's site owner(s) immediately created a website named Music Student and Teacher Organization (MuSATO) to attempt to re-position themselves from an illegal copyrighted materials provider to an "education provider". MuSATO's main objective is to use fair use as their rationale to publish tablature free of charge. By claiming to be an educational provider, they do not have to obtain publication rights nor pay royalties to the original composers. MuSATO claims to be educational by classifying users downloading tabs as "music students" and transcribers as "music teachers".

Furthermore, MuSATO also argues that Internet guitar tablature does not infringe upon publishers' copyrights because the tablatures it provides does not contain rhythmic information and therefore is not an entirely accurate representation of the song. However, it did not note that some lyrics provided are copyrighted. It has since removed lyrics from all tablature in an attempt to appease the NMPA. Tablature is not directly provided to users unless it is through the forum, where members are linking to other websites hosting tablature. has been contacted by the NMPA and MPA with similar copyright infringement allegations. The NMPA and MPA have also warned Guitar Tab Universe with similar legal action. A copy of the certified letter received by the site owner, along with a brief note similar to the one posted on Mxtabs, has been posted on the website. is another tablature site that has been "taken down" after receiving letter from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA.

Ultimate Guitar Archive

Since the late 1990s, Ultimate Guitar Archive has remained the largest uninterrupted, user-submitted guitar tablature site on the web. With the advent of YouTube they also offer user submitted video guitar lessons for songs.


A more recent development in the continued move towards legal tablature, is the latest announcement by I-Tab Limited, based in Maynooth, Ireland, launching a range of dedicated touch screen tablature players. Linked to a copyright-cleared library of tabs and backing tracks, this development underscores the shift in online tablature to more stable and verified content base. [701907] have announced a September 9 launch of their entry level tab player, the 5" touch screen "lite", with two larger players due for official launch at the NAMM Show in January 2010.

See also


  1. ocarina tabulature
  2. , Google searches indicate that word "tablature" ( ~6 560 000 hits) is used 27 times more frequently than "tabulature" ( ~335 000 hits)
  3. BBC report
  4. Fretbase, Can Guitar Tablature Go Legit?
  6. NPR report
  7. Guitar Tab Universe letter
  8. Guitar Tab Universe MPA allegations
  9. Legal tablature site i-Tab

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