How ASCII Tab Works

Tablature is a way of graphically showing notes on the guitar by specifying the string and fret at which the note is fingered.

All of the flatpick tablature on my Web pages uses ASCII Tab. This is a way of using normal keyboard characters to type in the tablature. It is not as pretty as tablature created in a drawing program, but it is much smaller, and thus it is faster to download and takes up less disk space. Most of the tab on my pages uses an ASCII Tab format perfected by Bo Parker of the FLATPICK-L mail list. That is the format that I will explain below.

The idea that is common to most tablature is that the guitar strings are represented by six horizontal lines, with the low E string at the bottom and the high E string at the top. This may seem upside-down at first, but this is what you see if you tilt your guitar up so that the fingerboard is visible. Musical bars are set off by vertical bar characters ( | ).

The frets are represented by numbers. 0 (zero) represents an open (unfretted) string. In some tabs, letters are used to represent frets 10 and up, so that only one character is needed for each fret number. This makes it easier to keep a consistent width in the diagrams. In such cases, there will be a explanatory note above the tab.

In addition to fret numbers, special fingering techniques may be marked on the strings. The most common such marks are 'p' for "pull-off", 'h' for "hammer-on", and 's' for "slide". Some tabs may use / for "slide up" and \ for "slide down". Tabs that use special symbols will ususally include a key or legend down below the tab.

Timing is usually shown by vertical bar characters above the high E string line. Each bar represents a (quarter note) downbeat. Notes between bars are on upbeats. In normal fiddle tune style playing, this means that notes below a vertical bar are played with a downstroke of the pick, while in-between notes are played with an upstroke. Even those tabs that don't include the timing marks use the same spacing, so once you get used to it, you can probably figure them out.

Some tabs will include numbers showing left-hand fingering below the diagrams: '1' for index finger, '2' for middle finger, and so on. Others may show pick direction--especially for crosspicked passages.

Chords are noted above the timing marks. This area may also be used to mark triplets, special fingering, and so on.

Here is one measure of ASCII Tab, showing some of these features.

   G                   G chord
1 |   |   |   |       bar number 1, followed by timing marks
|-----------------|    high E string
|-------------3---|    B string
|-------0-2h3-4---|    G string
|-0-2-4-----------|    D string
|-----------------|    A string
|-----------------|    low E string
              1        left-hand fingering (index)
  0 1 3 0 1 2 2        left-hand fingering (open-index-ring-open-index-middle-middle)
  D U D U D h D        pick direction (down-up-down-up-down-hammer on-down)
This diagram represents the following notes:
  D eighth note - 4th string open - downstroke
  E eighth note - 4th string 2nd fret - upstroke
  F# eighth note - 4th string 4th fret - downstroke
  G eighth note - 3rd string open - upstroke
  A eighth note - 3rd string 2nd fret - downstroke
  A# eighth note - 3rd string 3rd fret - hammered on from previous note
  B and D quarter notes - 3rd string 4th fret and 2nd string 3rd fret - downstroke

Many fiddle tunes consist of an A part and a B part, each played twice, sometimes with slightly different endings. The A part may have a "pick-up measure" at the beginning. The beginning and end of each part will be indicated by asterisks on the 3rd and 4th lines. The first ending will have _1________________above the timing marks, and the second ending will have _2________________.

Here's a typical tab key:

----2h3--- Hammer-on
----2p1--- Pull-off
----3s4--- Slide

------0--- Triplet with hammer-on from first note to second note
----02---- (Third note is picked.)
---1310--- Sixteenth notes - picked, hammer-on, pull-off, pull-off

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