Want to learn some cool riffs on your ukulele? In this lesson, ukulele teacher Willy M. shares how you can read ukulele tabs and find them for your favorite songs…
Hello, ukephiles! Ukephile (pronounced “you-keh-file”) is a new word I just invented deriving from “uke” for “ukelele” and “philo,” Greek for “to love;” so it means “lovers of the ukulele!” Anyway, I digress. One of the hardest things for ukephiles is finding tabs for songs that you want to play.
Most of the time, we can find guitar chord charts and strum along with ukulele chords; but every once in a while, we want to be more daring and venture out into uncharted territory on the uke – by fingerpicking, or lead playing, or playing arpeggios, or any number of other cool things we can do on the ukulele. When we want to do those things, we naturally are going to need some tab, unless we want to figure it all out by ear.
Tab, or tablature, as it is commonly called among string players, is a very old method of notation for stringed instruments. It actually predates modern sheet music by several hundred years, and most scholars believe it dates back to the development of the lute and early guitar music.
How to Read Ukulele Tabs
The wonderful thing about tab is that it is incredibly easy to learn to read. Tab for the ukulele will look like four lines. Most of the tab you will find on the internet is for a ukulele tuned to G-C-E-A tuning. If the ukulele is tuned to another tuning, the tab will usually indicate this, as you’ll see that the pitch that each string is tuned to sits directly to the left of the tab.
The four lines of the tab represent the four strings, as mentioned, and they are represented from the G string, being the bottom line of the tab, to the A string, being the top line of the tab. So, from bottom to top: the bottom line is G, the second from the bottom line is C, the third line of the tab is E, and the top line of the tab is the top highest string of the ukulele, A.
When you see a number written on the tab, it refers to the fret that you are supposed to hold down when you pluck a note. Sometimes, you will see examples that are typed out like this:
In this example, you would play the open C and E string, followed by playing the fifth, then the third, then the open C string. You would then play the third, then second fret of the G string, followed by the open G and C strings. The rest of the example is pretty self-explanatory.
Reading tab is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Sometimes, you’ll find tab written along with the sheet music, and that gives you a good idea of how to play the rhythm, if you understand how to read rhythm on sheet music. And sometimes, you might find tab written with the rhythmic stems of the traditional sheet music notes written above the tab, without the accompanying sheet music. Either way, they are simple ways of helping you understand the rhythm of what you are looking at.
You might run into some symbols that represent hammer-ons, pull-offs, string bends, slides and the like, but they are more common to guitar tab, rather than ukulele tab. Keep in mind, though, that they might be there.
It’s usually pretty easy to figure out what these symbols mean. A bend looks like an curved arrow pointing up, a hammer-on has a little “h” in the symbol, whereas a pull-off has a little “p” in the symbol! Slides are lines from one fret to another, and vibrato is typically a zigzag line after a note.
Where to Find Ukulele Tabs
Now, where are you going to find these tabs? Well, I’ve done a lot of research for you and found 10 places where you can find ukulele tabs.
1. Uke-chords.com is a site that hosts tabs and chord charts. They are much heavier on the chord-chart side of things, but you might find a few tabs there. They do, however, include a lot of chord diagrams with their charts.
2. Ukuleletricks.com is a site for beginners with few tabs, but lots of chord charts and videos for beginning ukulele players.
3. UkuTabs.com is a great site for finding tabs and chord charts for the ukulele. It has a great deal of the popular ukulele songs out there that everyone wants to learn how to play. It also has a neat feature that lets you transpose the song into a key you want to play in.
4. Gotaukulele.com has a lot of tabs and chord charts for older songs. Some of the songs go way back to the 20s and 30s, and some of the classic rock songs from the 70s and 80s also make an appearance.
5. Ukulele-tabs.com is another chord-heavy site, but the chord charts are partially tabs as well, because they give you the strums written out between the chords (diagrams with little “x’s” for the strums).
6. Ukulelehunt.com is the best ukulele tab site that I’ve found with actual tabs. They have chord charts, as well, but they have tabs for popular songs. I was able to find a tab for “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream. They have Eric Clapton’s guitar part tabbed out properly! Pretty cool site.
7. LiveUkulele.com is another interesting site. It typically provides its readers with the tab and chord chart in one printable sheet.
8. Tabs4ukulele.com is one more chord-heavy site, but it also has a lot of the really popular songs, so if you have trouble finding a song on one of the other sites, check this site.
9. Ultimate-guitar.com has a lot of ukulele tabs, as well. I love this site. It has about every song imaginable out there for tabs and chord charts, you can transpose it to whatever key you want, and you can usually find tabs for every member of your band. Really cool site.
10. Finally, one last place to find tabs is your local music shop! If you’re looking for tabs to a particular song but can’t find them anywhere else, go talk to the people at your local music shop, and they can probably order it for you!
So, there is an introduction to ukulele tabs – where you can find them and how to use them. Hope this helps. Keep practicing, and good luck in your ukulele lessons!
Willy M. teaches guitar, ukulele, and mandolin lessons in Winston, NC. He is the author of the Dead Man’s Tuning series of mandolin songbooks and is a former member of the American Federation of Musicians. Willy has been teaching for 20 years, and his students have ranged in age, from young children to folks in their 80s. Learn more about Willy.
Photo by Michael