Example of numeric vihuela tablature from the book "Orphenica Lyra" by Miguel de Fuenllana (1554). Red numerals (original) mark the vocal part.

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

Three types of organ tablature were used in Europe: German, Spanish and Italian. There are several types of ocarina tabulature.[1]

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


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.


The first known occurrence in Europe is around 1300, and was first used for notating music for the organ.[2]


While standard 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 placed to generate a note, so pitch is denoted implicitly rather than explicitly. 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 woodwind tablature shows whether each of the fingerholes is to be closed or left open.

Advantages and disadvantages compared to standard notation

Diatonic scale on C, guitar tablature.  Play 

Tablature is more easily read by a novice musician but it has some significant deficiencies compared to standard notation.


Fretboard tablature is a closer visual representation of the instrument's fretboard compared to standard notation. It does not require as much training for players to be able to read tablature; therefore, in terms of pitch definition on the instrument, it is often easier and quicker to interpret.
Fretboard tablature (unlike organ 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. Tablature has two additional advantages. First, it clearly identifies the note. Tablature makes explicit all instances of musica ficta, so that there is no guesswork about whether a note is, for example, an F or an F. Second, tablature can notate music in different tunings and scordaturas. Third, for woodwind instruments tablature can be used to discriminate between different tone colours for the same pitch.
Tablature can be 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.


Fretboard tablature shows how the notes are fingered, but not the pitch itself. This is a serious limitation because obtaining the actual pitch requires calculation by considering the tuning, thus making it more complicated for a user to sing (or internalize) the notes by sight. It hinders the user's ability to sense the sound of music directly from reading the tablature alone. In contrast, staff notation allows musicians to sing from sight, making it easier for users to understand the science of harmony, musical analysis and music theory behind it. German organ tablature is also note-specific, and even incorporates some staff notation.
Tablature is instrument-specific, while staff notation is generic. Tablature can only be read easily by a player of one particular instrument, but not others. In contrast, staff notation is universal. Reading solely from tablature compromises communication with players of other instruments who are commonly trained only in the use of standard notation. Reliance solely upon tablature limits the repertoire of the player to works published in tablature or transcribed into it.
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.
Multiple parts cannot be rhythmically distinguished within fretboard tablature notation. This makes it harder to convey information required for the proper rendition of multiple-part music on any polyphonic instrument. This does not apply to organ tablature, as the user can easily distinguish the constituent voices in polyphonic textures.

Lute tablature

French Renaissance style lute tablature, with corresponding notation for guitar: a simple Renaissance dance, printed by Pierre Attaingnant.

Lowercase 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 sixth 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

German lute tablature

Types of lute tablatures

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.[3] It was used in German-speaking countries until the end of the 16th century.

Computer programs for writing tablatures

See List of guitar tablature software

Various computer programs are available for writing tablature; some also write lyrics, guitar chord diagrams, chord symbols, and/or staff notation. ASCII tab files can be written (somewhat laboriously) with any ordinary word processor or text editor.

Guitar tablature

The following examples are labelled with letters on the left denoting the string names, with a lowercase e for the high E string. Tab lines may be numbered 1 through 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 tablature staff denotes the root note of the chord.

Examples of guitar tablature notation:

The chords E, F, and G:

     E   F   G

Tablature can use various lines, arrows, and other symbols 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:

Symbol Technique
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
* natural harmonic
[n] artificial harmonic
n(n) tapped harmonic
tr trill
T tap
TP tremolo picking
PM palm muting (also written as _ and .)
\n/ tremolo arm dip; n = amount to dip
\n tremolo arm down
n/ tremolo arm up
/n\ tremolo arm 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
·/. pick slide

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.

When circles are used to indicate fingering, sounded notes are white, an assumed root is grey, and a sounded root is black.[4][5]

Musette tablature

Musette tablature from Borjon de Scellery

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 tablature

For example, on a "C" diatonic instrument:

Unbent    Bent lv1    Bent lv2    Bent  lv3
3i (B)    3i|  (Bb)   3i|| (A)    3i||| (G#)

To indicate button-press on a chromatic instrument, 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. The same is true for bending or button-press indicators.

To indicate the beat, in the arrow system the length of the arrow may be varied. However, the more popular method is to use a slightly simplified rhythm-symbol notation, such as "o" for a semibreve, // for a minim, "/" for a crotchet, "." for quavers, and place them above the characters, while spacing them accordingly.

For chords, the numbers to play are shown, so, for example: a C major (CEG) chord (on a C diatonic instrument): 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 the blues progression in G (G G G G7 C C G G D7 D7 G G) it is common to use a C diatonic instrument, and notate the following:

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

Diatonic Harmonica tablature

 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 tablature

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

Here is an example of harmonica tablature:

"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

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 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.[6] Several websites that offered free tablature have taken their tablature off-line until a solution or compromise is found. One of the proposed 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.[7]

One site,, contacts the bands themselves for permission to post tablature. Few bands have declined the request.[8]

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.[9]

On April 10, 2010, Ultimate Guitar (UG), a Russian, free on-line tablature site, entered a licensing agreement with Harry Fox Agency.[10] The agreement included rights for lyrics display, title search and tablature display with download and print capabilities. HFA’s over 44,000 represented publishers have the opportunity to opt into the licensing arrangement with UG.

Rise of legal guitar tablature sites

In light of the legal questions surrounding user-created on-line guitar tablature, a number of companies have been formed that claim to offer consumers legal on-line tablature, which has been officially-licensed from songwriters and/or music publishers. These companies offering legal content generally fall into three categories:

  1. Websites that offer "professionally-created" content: These websites typically hire professional musicians to transcribe songs into guitar tablature, and generally charge anywhere from $0.99 to $6.99 for the ability to purchase legal pieces of guitar tablature. These websites also claim to have acquired the proper licenses to display this tablature on-line. Several websites in this first category specifically cater to guitarists.
  2. Websites that offer "user-created" tablature, but have obtained the proper legal clearances to post these transcriptions on-line. There are several websites that fall into this second category, which generally do not charge consumers for using these user-created tablature pieces, and share any advertising revenue with music publishers and/or songwriters.
  3. Websites that index other tablature resources, and offer unique formatting options. had been closed down because of complaints from copyright holders. However, as of February 23, 2006, the owners of Mxtabs put the website back on-line 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 tablatures 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 tablatures have never been proven to be illegal, then requesting that sheet-music companies contact Mxtabs in order to create a system of tablature licensing.

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

Guitar Tab Universe

On 17 July 2006, Guitar Tab Universe (GTU) posted a letter on its home page 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".[11]

In response, GTU's site owner(s) immediately created a website named Music Student and Teacher Organization (MuSATO) to attempt to reposition 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 tablatures as "music students" and transcribers as "music teachers". has been contacted by the NMPA and MPA with similar copyright infringement allegations. The NMPA and MPA have also threatened 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 their website.[12]

The On-line Guitar Archive (OLGA)— is another tablature site that has been removed after receiving letters from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA.[13]

See also


  1. "ocarina tabulature". Retrieved 2011-12-16.
  2. See Willi Apel's book on music notation, The Notation of Polyphonic Music (1942), for a fuller history.
  3. Sebastian Virdung, Musica getutscht (Basel 1511), and Martin Agricola, Musica instrumentalis deudsch (Wittenberg 1529), quoted in: Oswald Körte, Laute und Lautenmusik bis zur Mitte des 16. Jahrhunderts. Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der deutschen Lautentabulatur (Publikationen der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft. Beihefte 3. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1901), 76 seq.
  4. Latarski, Don (1999). Ultimate Guitar Chords: First Chords, p.5. ISBN 978-0-7692-8522-1.
  5. Don Latarski, Aaron Stang (1993). Practical Theory for Guitar, p.6-7. ISBN 978-0-89898-692-1.
  6. Youngs, Ian (2005-12-12). "BBC report". BBC News. Retrieved 2011-12-16.
  7. Dave on August 5th, 2008 (2008-08-05). "Fretbase, Can Guitar Tablature Go Legit?". Retrieved 2011-12-16.
  8. "". Retrieved 2011-12-16.
  9. Arnold, Chris (2006-08-07). "NPR report". Retrieved 2011-12-16.
  10. "" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-12-16.
  11. Guitar Tab Universe letter.
  12. Guitar Tab Universe MPA allegations.
  13. "The On-line Guitar Archive". Archived from the original on May 24, 2012. Retrieved June 11, 2012.
    OLGA is currently offline while we attempt to resolve legal issues with the archive.

    We received a 'take down' letter (pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 ) from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA.

    We greatly appreciate your support and hope to return to providing resources to the aspiring guitarist as soon as possible. Contact rcwoods for more information. In the meantime, we recommend the usenet newsgroups and

External links

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