In a lot of tab. (for guitar/bass) there is no indication referring to timing. The numbers will obviously refer to string/fret for each note to be played, but when each note is played is somewhat vague. True, the longer notes have a wider gap between them and the next, but how long?

It's as vague as when the words of a song are written out, with chords above - no knowing whether a chord is half a bar, a bar, two bars - unless one knows the song. When arguably one doesn't need the chords - or tab., maybe.

The better tabs have an accompanying 'proper' music stave underneath, with the timing, and some do have stems and flags, so it's not all.

What about when using the little dashes, they (and the numbers) represent say 16 semis in a bar? That way, the timing could be counted with fair accuracy.

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    I’m not sure what your actual question is, but in my opinion anything too complicated should be notated in standard notation anyway.
    – Lazy
    Sep 24, 2023 at 13:27
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    Why is “tab” in all caps every time it appears in here? Also, it’s not clear to me what your question is. Sep 24, 2023 at 14:12
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    @ToddWilcox - 'cos it's usually in caps when it's printed! Is that a problem? We all understand, don't we? The question is in the final paragraph - 'What about'- with a question mark. Semis refers to semi-quavers - 1/16 notes. Hence the idea of using 16 in a bar. Or is there a better, more accurate way? As it all seems quite random - to me.
    – Tim
    Sep 24, 2023 at 14:30
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    Why do you write "tab" in all caps?
    – phoog
    Sep 24, 2023 at 15:18
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    The way this is worded, I read it as a suggestion, not a question: "What about when using the little dashes, they (and the numbers) represent say 16 semis in a bar?" Can you clarify what kind of answer you're looking for? Are you asking if that would be helpful? Seems subjective. Are you asking if that would be technically feasible? Seems trivially true. If you're asking something else, can you elaborate? Sep 24, 2023 at 15:37

2 Answers 2


There are several problems I can think of off the top my my head with using dashes for 16th note counts like you say:

Longer notes will have too many dashes to be able to identify clearly without pausing to count, a bit painstakingly I might add.

Rests are not taken into consideration

If the subdivision changes in a piece, for example quarter or eighth note triplets that system will not work.

Tab has lines. Dashes between the lines would look confusing.

Tab should have rhythmic notation. There is no reason not to use traditional rhythmic symbols such as stems, flags and rests for rhythms in tab (TAB? I’ve often seen it in all caps too). You have seen it. I also have seen it many times as in the example below, which also includes traditional music notation:

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I have a theory as to why this is not done in many instances.

One reason is the person creating the tab has no knowledge of how to notate rhythms.

Another reason is laziness.

CAUTION: POSSIBLE SOAPBOX MOMENT AHEAD: Another one is that I believe sometimes the use of tab has a certain element of resistance to learning music in terms of notes, keys, rhythms, etc. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe there is a benefit to learning how to play by ear and instinct and not being glued to a page. However, using tab exclusively is the musical equivalent of “paint by numbers”.

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    I have a positive view of tab not always containing rhythm. To me, there are two main weaknesses to the Western European notation system, which are how pitch and rhythm are regimented and communicated. As pitch in western instruments is more or less fixed as part of their designs, the rhythmic system of Western European notation is its greater fault, IMHO. Tab without rhythm communicates pitch only, and leaves the rhythms to be learned as part of an aural/oral tradition. The advantage being that the tab learner gains understanding of subtleties of rhythm that are not easily notated. Sep 24, 2023 at 15:44
  • Tab doesn't always have lines - the ones I refer to have these dashes. Dashes with no numbers in a bar would mean no note - (like what we see anyhow), and it would be easy to use x or some other note (x = muted, so not a good example!) for those rests. Just a thought. Although thinking, don't know how muted notes are portrayed.
    – Tim
    Sep 24, 2023 at 16:12
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    @Tim I see using dashes as being even more problematic in those 100% typed tabs. Dashes already represent the strings, then what, more dashes for rhythms? I don’t recall where but I have seen x’s for muted notes in tabs before Sep 24, 2023 at 16:20
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    Regarding muted notes, every tab I’ve read that has muted notes, whether ascii or engraved, has used x to indicate a muted note. Here’s an example: songsterr.com/a/wsa/led-zeppelin-stairway-to-heaven-tab-s27 Sep 24, 2023 at 16:31
  • @ToddWilcox - that's a slightly different tab, where the dots are actually shown, as are rests, which make good sense - the note duration is clear. Not what I'm concerned with.
    – Tim
    Sep 24, 2023 at 16:58

While the other answer explains how timing information can be and is included tabs, I'd like to add a different point of view. Often the tabs are not used as the only source, but instead as an aid to learn to play a song that is already been recorded. In that case the learner can listen to the original recording to get the exact timing and writing everything in the tab is not necessary. Especially ASCII art tabs tend to become difficult to read if every detail is written down.

It should be noted that the timing information in sheet music notation is inaccurate too. It describes an abstract version of the music but omits details like pushing and pulling, slight tempo changes, swing that is not exactly triplets or dotted notes, slight tempo changes, etc.

Edit: If you're interested about much more about the kind of detail I meant, one source is https://helda.helsinki.fi/items/918be3c5-987a-4a6b-b717-ecf6996a6a80 starting from page 83 (in-paper page numbers, page 95 in PDF navigation), and the sources it refers.

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    Could you give examples of these annotations? Suggesting that 1/16th is the smallest unit of notation doesn't sound very nuanced to me?
    – ojs
    Sep 24, 2023 at 17:32
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    @Tim so did you read and understand the part about why the "proper dots" are inaccurate?
    – ojs
    Sep 24, 2023 at 18:01
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    You have it backwards. Rhythmic notation provides a concrete representation of music where as the pushing, pulling, etc are the abstract concepts. On top of that, the pushing, pulling, etc is generally better understood by people who have a foundation of knowledge as opposed to people who are learning and know little to nothing about it, with the possible exception of some individuals who are savants. Sep 24, 2023 at 23:08
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    @JohnBelzaguy Since the notation isn't the actual music in the air and the push-pull and audible rhythm in the air is the music that we actually hear, considering the actual music to be "more concrete" and the inaudible marks on a page to be the "abstract representation" makes a lot of sense to me. My experience contradicts your second assertion also - both my experience as a musician who is certainly not a savant and my experience with other musicians who are also certainly not savants (no offense to them!) Sep 25, 2023 at 1:53
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    @ToddWilcox I appreciate your point of view but you and a few others here seem to be approaching this discussion from the point of view of people who already have a certain (and fairly advanced) level of knowledge and skill. Most people that are learning that are beginners or low level intermediate players and those concepts are over their heads and lost on them. They are working hard just trying to play notes with the correct timing and order to get the music out to think about push and pull and note durations of swing, etc. That is the point I’m trying to make. Sep 25, 2023 at 3:19

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