What Are Drum Tabs?

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

Drum tabs are a method of writing down drum music other than by using standard musical notation. Many consider tablature easier to read and more user friendly than traditional music notation, although it may not provide the same level of detail. Drum tabs have rows running from left to right which represent each individual drum and have an indication of timing in columns running along the top. The positions of various symbols in the rows and columns show the player which drum to hit on which beat. Different symbols for the type of hit also instruct the drummer on how specifically to play a certain note.

Music tablature is a non-standard way of showing how to play music on a particular instrument. Other instruments, such as the guitar and piano, also have a tablature form of music specifically designed for them. Music notation is the technically correct method of displaying music, and this is done on five lines, called a staff, with different lines representing different notes. The complexity in understanding the meaning of the various symbols used in music notation has led to the creation of “tabs,” simpler methods of showing how to play a song.

The most important things to look at when trying to decipher drum tabs are the specific rows and columns the notes fall on. Each row is labeled to the far left of the tab, with letters such as “HH,” “BD,” and “SD,” to represent the hi hat, bass drum, and the snare drum. Any mark in the row corresponds to a hit of that specific drum. Most drum tabs will have a “key” if the drums have been referred to in a non-standard way.

Along the top row of drum tabs are columns representing the passing of time in the song. Each bar is split into the beats that make it up, ordinarily four. Along the top, the drum tab will show something like “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &,” and the notes will be arranged into those columns. This example assumes a song which uses eighth notes and has four beats in a bar, but sixteenth notes may also be used, which are displayed as “1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a” on drum tabs. This is what drummers are taught to say when they are learning the instrument to stay in time, so is intuitive for most players.

Different symbols can be used in the place of a hit to show different types of hit in drum tabs. The standard symbol for a strike of a cymbal is “x” and for a drum is “o.” Other techniques, such as an accent and a ghost note are shown by different symbols. For example, an “O” represents an accent and a “g” represent a ghost note.

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      Man playing a guitar