A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Drum Tabs

Hi HatDrum tabs are an abbreviated, simple form of musical instruction used in place of traditional sheet music for drummers. Many modern musicians and music students prefer to use this kind of tablature because it’s easier to write and easier to find. Instead of looking for sheet music in the music store, for example, you can simply go online and find thousands of drum tabs for all your favorite songs.

Sheet Music and Musical Tabs

Tabs are different from sheet music because they are written specifically for the instrument, rather than the sound. Sheet music is written with musical notes, while tabs are written with letters and various markings. Want to learn to play the drums? Understanding drum tabs is going to be a key part of that adventure!

Parts of the Drum Kit

The drum kit is made of several distinct drums and cymbals, each with their own names and abbreviations. Once you recognize these, you are halfway to reading drum tabs:

  • CC, or Crash Cymbal
  • HH, or Hi Hat
  • Rd, or Ride Cymbal
  • SN, or Snare Drum
  • T1, or Hi Tom
  • T2, or Low Tom
  • FT, or Floor Tom
  • B, or Bass Drum
  • Hf, or Hi Hat with Foot

How are Drum Tabs Written?

The nine parts of the drum kit are written in the order listed above on each drum tab, from top to bottom; the musical instructions are written from left to right. For example:

HH  x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-
SN   -o- -o- -o- -o- -o
B      -x- -x- -x- -x- -x–

The preceding tablature shows you that three parts of the drum kit are being used in this piece of music: the hi hat, the snare drum, and the bass drum. Furthermore, it shows you when to play each piece during a musical count of 16 beats. Look closely, and you’ll see that each line of rhythm for each component has 16 marks per line, so 16 beats. The dashes (-) tell you not to strike the instrument during this particular beat, while any other symbol (x,o) tells you to hit it. A music teacher can help you better understand keeping rhythm, but first, it’s important to practice playing more than one piece of the drum kit simultaneously, as in the tablature.

Symbols Used in Drum Tablature

Full drum tabs follow this format for several sets, depending on how long the piece of music is. The different symbols on a line, such as o, x, X, #, or b, tell you how to hit a particular part of the drum kit. The “o” means open, the small x means normal and the big X means harder or looser.

If you want to learn how to read all the little intricate details of drum tabs and play them successfully, it’s best to pair up with a music teacher. The right teacher can help clarify instructions that are confusing and give you exercises to work on, which will build up your confidence and skills. Take a look through the professional drum teachers at TakeLessons and see who fits the bill! Working with a professional who knows what they are doing will get you drumming much quicker.


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Photo by Christopher Sessums

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3 replies
    • Rimshot Rob
      Rimshot Rob says:

      Practice! Lots and lots of practice! You’ve got to be patient and keep working at it. In time, you’ll find that your speed has increased.


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