When playing guitar/bass from tabs, I find that I can learn the fingering easily, but the timing is often wrong when I play with a backing track. I'm fairly noobish to music notation/tablature, but I have been playing for a long time. Simple rhythm suffices for a chord chart, but not so much when it comes to a tab. The problem is even worse with bass tabs, since it can be challenging to even hear the bass part on most tracks without an equalizer and subwoofer, which I don't have easy access to.

Is there any way besides playing with a track to determine timing from a guitar/bass tab?

7 Answers 7


Tab, in my opinion, is great for getting the general pattern or notes of a song, but pretty poor at conveying real musical information. It would be pretty difficult to sight read a song notated in tab that you had never heard before, as tab does not provide note lengths and expression symbols in the same way that notation does. I have always used tab to learn the progression of notes, and then set them in place by ear.

That being said, tab can provide some timing aid. Usually, the dashes that make up the stave can help you to identify what beats, semi beats, or even quarter beats look like in the context of the bar.

Using a very simple example to illustrate, in 4/4 time,


Indicates crotchets, while


Indicates quavers. So for a bar with 16 dashes, a note with 2 dashes is a quaver, and 4 dashes is a crotchet.

This is not very easy and quick to work out when sight reading, hence why tab is better for reference. It can provide a basic idea however.

Also, as slim said, many music books provide tab beneath the score, so you can see the nature of the note directly above the tab note in order to get the timing.

I've probably explained this in the longest and most complicated way possible, sorry about that. Hope its given some help though.

  • 2
    Tabs can show the exact timing but in my experience rarely do... on the most common websites I find that even when I think I know a song well, the tab doesn't make sense to begin with until I figure out which notes match each phrase in the song.
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 12, 2015 at 14:13

Tab notation does not include any timing information -- the closest you get is bar lines, which at least helps you orientate yourself.

Some books present tab alongside a traditional musical score, so you can get pitch, timing and phrasing from the stave, and choice of string/fret from the tab. The notes on the tabs are lined up with the notes on the stave.

Don't think of a tab as a full specification of what to play -- because it isn't. Think "I know how this is meant to sound; the tab tells me where to put my fingers to get each note".

  • 3
    I'd say that tab notation does not include any timing information is false unless we're talking about bad tab notation written by people who don't know what they're doing. Admittedly there's a lot of tablature like that out there, but ideally each column of a tab should represent a specific subset of the beat. It's certainly not as expressive as a traditional score though.
    – user28
    Apr 26, 2012 at 0:55
  • @MatthewRead: but it's true in the sense that there's no information about how long to play each note for.
    – naught101
    May 5, 2012 at 4:26
  • @naught101 Again, only in bad tabs ;)
    – user28
    May 5, 2012 at 6:19
  • @MatthewRead: ok, I've obviously never seen any good tabs. Are there any examples on the 'web?
    – naught101
    May 5, 2012 at 7:51
  • @naught101 I don't know of an example offhand, but I've seen tabs that used ----1~~~ (or similar) to indicate holding a note.
    – user28
    May 5, 2012 at 15:48

Tabs are usually done in parallel with "real" scores containing the detailed timing information.

Where a tab is supposed to be self-sufficient, it has to contain quite more information than a "standard" tab.

Take a look at the LilyPond documentation for \tabFullNotation: the text a bit above shows how things look with a standard score/tab combination instead.


Where they provide timing information it is usually limited to a bpm number and sometimes an indication as to whether it is 4/4 3/4 etc so an option if you don't have the track to listen to is to use a metronome.

It will at least give you consistent bar and beat lengths, so you can practice effectively.


You might wanna check out you-tab.com, they have tabs that are synced to the original music, so you can learn the timing as you play along. They just went up so they aren't many songs on it yet. But you can see how it works here.


There is no rhythm/timing information in the vast majority of tab. Some try to give clues with the spacing between "notes" but it doesn't really work that well.

When you're working with tab, it's expected that you will play along with a recording of some sort to get the timing right.


While tab is a good way to convey the specific notes played in a passage it is not great at getting timing across and as such should be taken with a large grain of salt. Some tab conventions are better than others but if you are trying to learn a specif passage you still need to listen to the original and get to know it to work out which notes are crucial and which are just accents.

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