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How to Read Drum Tabs: A Quick 6 Step Guide for Beginners

How to Read Drum Tabs: A Quick 6 Step Guide for Beginners

Drum notation is great to learn but can be a steep learning curve. This is where learning to read drum tabs becomes so useful.

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What are drum tabs?

Drum tabs are a quick and convenient way of notating drum beats and patterns.

They came into use in the late 90’s with the advent of the internet.

The fact that drum tabs use common symbols that are found on computer keyboards means that you can write out a drum beat and share it easily online.

Standard drum notation relies on musical noteheads and the knowledge of rhythmic tails.

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With drum tabs it’s much easier to explain an idea without the need for a pen and paper.

Learn to read drum tabs quickly

When it comes to reading and writing drum tabs, quite often you will find minor discrepancies in the notation used.

When it comes to most drum beats and fills, the main issue is notating the correct rhythm.

With drum tabs there is a mathematical approach.

So how does this work?

Let’s delve a little deeper

First we will take a basic drum beat in 4/4 and explain how it might typically look with drum tabs, that will give a good idea of the concept.

A simple beat on the hi-hat, with a bass drum on beat 1 and a snare on beat 2 could be tabbed as such:

drum tabs notation basic rock beat

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • the first line represents the hi-hat. t
  • he next line down represents the snare
  • below that, the bass drum.

You can in theory tab any type of drum here as long as you leave a short explanation beforehand.

With both drum tabs and drum notation it is quite common to have what is called a ‘drum key’.

This key simply explains what the drums being used will be and how they will be notated. So you might have something like this:

HH = Hi-hat
FT = Floor tom
CC = Crash cymbal
CH = China type

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Symbols: X’s and O’s

No, this has nothing to do with the Fall Out Boy song…

Looking at the initial drum tab example above we can see that each line is made up of ‘-’ symbols and ‘x’ symbols.

The ‘-’ symbol represents a pause; so in this case you don’t play the instrument.

On the other hand, the ‘x’ symbol represents a ‘hit’; it tells you to play the instrument.

Some drum tabs like to use symbols other than ‘x’. ‘O’ or ‘o’ are quite commonly used too, usually to refer to drums such as the snare, bass drum and toms.

Cymbals are usually represented by the ‘x’ symbol although some people prefer to use them for the bass drum too.

Differentiating in these ways can make a beat easier to read.

Take a look at this example:

drum tab notation example 2

In this sample we make use of differing symbols, both ‘x’ and ‘o’, to make the pattern more easy to read.

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There is also an extra instrument in this example.

Above the ‘HH’ we have a crash cymbal, this is notated with ‘CC’.

If you are tabbing a song with many cymbals you can use ‘CC1’, ‘CC2’, ‘CC3’ etc. to refer to each crash individually.

When writing tabs:

It’s worth bearing in mind that there is a limited number of rows that you can use before it all becomes a bit too muddled and hard to read.

When starting off, stick to the basics. In time you can add more rows.

Getting into the rhythm of it

Earlier I mentioned that drum tabs are very mathematical in nature.

In each example up to now you will notice that each row is made up of 16 different symbols.

Some of these symbols are ‘-’ and others are either ‘x’ or ‘o’.

The reason there are 16 in total is that both of these examples are in 4/4.

In standard 4/4 timing the bar can be split into 16 semi-quavers. (Semi-quavers are often referred to as 16th notes.)

Not all time signatures will be split into 16 when working with drum tab.

For example, if you are trying to tab a song that uses 32nd notes, or demi-semi-quavers, then you will need to split each bar into 32.

Alternatively if you have a very simple drum beat in 7/8 timing, then you might find it easier to use columns of 7, or even 14.

Here’s another example for you with 7/8 tabbed with 7 columns:

7/8 drum tab example

and here’s 7/8 with 14 columns:

drum tabs 4

As you can see there are options when it comes to arranging the lines with drum tabs.

If the beat does not contain any 16th notes, the chances are that you’ll be fine with just 8th notes.

Spacing: how much to use?

When you have become familiar with the way of notating drum tab and you should then proceed to create your own.

Start with simple examples involving three or four instruments.

Next work up to full song transcriptions, complete with drum fills.

Depending on the text editor you are using you may run into issues with spacing.

It’s important that each letter or symbol is equally spaced so that the piece is easily read.

Below are two examples of a beat written with differing spacing:

Even spacing:

Drum tabs example

Uneven spacing:

Drum tabs example

Equal spacing is largely down to the text settings on the text editor you are using.

On basic text editors such as Microsoft’s Notepad, you can easily input without running into any issues.

If you are using more advanced word processors, such as Microsoft Word, then you may have to change the text formatting settings to achieve equal spacing.

To get equal spacing in word processors, you’ll want to select monospace fonts such as CourierCourier New and Consolas.

When creating drum tabs for larger pieces such as full songs and drum solos, you will need to work with more than one bar.

Spacing bars is easily done using the ‘|’ symbol.

This symbol is usually located to the left of the ‘z’ on a standard computer keyboard. (Hit the shift key to access it.)

You can easily create a clean division between bars using this approach.

Printing drum tabs

If you are planning on printing out your drum tabs, make sure that you pay attention to the formatting.

This will determine how the printed drum tab will appear.

Use the ‘print preview’ to see how it looks before you go ahead and print.

You may have to rearrange some of the bar placing so as it is easily read on paper.

Wrapping it up

Drum tabs are an easy way of notating ideas and patterns without needing to resort to professional notation software.

Another benefit of drum tabs is that they are easily interpreted, once you have had the basics explained to you.

Learning how to read and write drum tabs will give you a better understanding of the coordination involved with playing the drums.

It will also give you a head start when it comes to learning how to read and write formal drum notation.

Further reading: