The low frequencies of a bassline are the driving force of a track. Learning to play bass guitar from sheet music is the way to master more songs. However talented your hands are, reading bass tablature is a necessary skill for professional musicians. Here is a rundown on the basics, some songs to add to your repertoire, and what to know about playing bass tabs.
Basics of Bass Tabs
You don’t have to know how to read classical staff music to learn new songs. Tablature is a useful and customizable shorthand to tell you what to play. Let’s cover our bases with the standard layout and most common things you will see on bass tabs.
The horizontal lines represent each string on a bass. Standard bass tuning means four strings, from the lowest to highest, in the order of E-A-D-G. The key and any alternate tuning should be indicated on the page.
Each note is indicated by the fret number, written on the string it is played on. This goes from 0 for an open string up to 24 for the last fret.
The end of each measure is marked by a vertical line. The count is dictated by the time signature at the start of the bass sheet music.
Bass Playing Techniques
Tablature has a variety of standard letters and characters to indicate various legato techniques. They show how notes should be stylistically played in sequence. There are dozens of accepted notations, including for using cords and tremolos, but here are the most common bass tab letters and symbols:
- Vibrato – ‘v’ or ‘~’ both indicate vibrato.
- Bends – ‘b’ is used to bend the string up, ‘r’ is to release the bend, and ‘=’ means to hold a bend.
- Hammer-ons and pull-offs – ‘h’ is used for the note to hammer on and ‘p’ for the note to pull off.
- Trills – “tr” indicates trills, while just a single ‘T’ is for tapping, a lower case ‘t’ for right-hand tapping, and “TP” means to play by tremolo picking.
- Slides – the forward-slash ‘/’ indicates a slide up, the ‘\’ means slide down, ‘s’ is a legato slide, and ‘S’ is a shift slide.
- Mutes – “PM” means palm muting, and may also be indicated by an underscore or a period.
- Harmonics – ‘*’ is for a natural harmonic, “[n]” for artificial harmonics, and “n(n)” for a tapped harmonic.
Essential Bass Tabs to Learn
There are hundreds of iconic basslines from across the decades. Here are some of our favorites, by genre, to start learning bass tabs, entertain listeners, and sharpen your skills. Begin with easy tablature, then work on the techniques needed to master more challenging songs. Practice makes perfect.
- Easy: The Beatles – Come Together
- Iconic: Yes – Roundabout
- Expert: Jaco Pastorious – Come on Come Over
- Easy: Cream – Politician
- Iconic: Stevie Ray Vaughan – Pride and Joy
- Expert: Miles Davis – So What
- Easy: Chic – Good Times
- Iconic: James Brown – Sex Machine
- Expert: Jaco Pastorious – Come On Come Over
- Easy: Ben E. King – Stand By Me
- Iconic: Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On?
- Expert: Hall & Oates – Maneater
- Easy: Queen – Another One Bites the Dust
- Iconic: Pink Floyd – Money
- Expert: Stanley Clarke – School Days
- Easy: The Temptations – My Girl
- Iconic: Michael Jackson – Thriller
- Expert: Muse – Hysteria
Our criteria for selecting these songs included covering a range of bass techniques and genres with bass tabs available online. We considered bass players new to reading sheet music. Some tracks are included for their cultural significance and recognizability of the music. Others represent the most technical skills from some of the best bass players in the world. These are some of the most downloaded bass tabs of all time.
Finding Good Bass Tabs
Ultimately, the best songs are the ones you want to play. There are a few other important considerations for learning how to play bass tablature. You need to be able to find the music you want, so it has to be readily available and well-formatted so that you can reliably play with other musicians. Look for these useful features as well when searching for your favorite bass tabs.
- Be able to find and buy bass tabs online.
- Search for a huge library of songs.
- Pick from multiple arrangements and keys.
- Have the sheet music available to print, on a smartphone app, and on a computer.
Look for bass tab services that are well-reviewed by customers, musicians, and educators. Premium options include extras like controls for playback and looping and options for syncing with other music software like forScore.
Practice time with new bass tabs can open up your musical creativity, especially when learning brand-new tunes or new arrangements of old favorites.