How to Read Mandolin Tablature

Instead of the five-line staff used in standard musical notation, tablature for fretted string instruments uses one line for each string (or pair of strings). Since there are four courses of paired strings on a mandolin, tab notation for mandolinists uses four lines. It looks like this:


The top line on the screen or paper does not represent the top string when you're playing the mandolin. The highest line stands for the string with the highest note.

If this is confusing, pick up your mandolin and get it in normal playing position. Now turn the mandolin so that the strings are facing up, and the back of the instrument is parallel to the floor. If you look down, you will see that from this perspective the highest string is also the string tuned to the highest note. This is the string represented by the top line in tablature notation.

Normally the bottom line (lowest note) is G, second from the bottom is D, third from the bottom is A, and the highest line is E. If the tablature has been written for a different tuning, such as GDAG, the person who wrote the tablature should tell you so. I include the notes as a reminder, so the beginning of a tune looks like this:


Notes are designated by numbers. If there is no number, the string is not played. A zero represents an open string. A number other than zero tells you in which fret to press the string down. Thus:

     lowest pitched string,    second-lowest string,
          fifth fret,              third fret,
           middle C                F (natural)

     highest pitched string,    second-highest string,
          played open,              first fret,
               E                      B flat

Chords are indicated by placing the numbers one on top of the other. For example, the C major chord looks like this in tab:


Tablature does not tell you about fingering, that is, it doesn't tell you which finger to use for which fret. I have seen some sheet music and instructional books which use numbers to do this, but not tab. Remember that the numbers in tablature indicate which fret, not which finger to use. Normally each finger covers two frets: in first position, the index finger takes first and second fret, the middle finger is used for the third and fourth frets, ring finger for fifth and sixth frets, and pinkie (usually on the E string) for seventh and eighth frets.

Duration of notes, how long they are to be played, is indicated by horizontal spacing. Evenly spaced numbers mean that these notes are played for equal amounts of time. Closely spaced numbers suggest shorter notes, and wide spacing represents longer notes. So the beginning of "Mary Had a Little Lamb":


shows four evenly-spaced notes, possibly quarter notes in 4/4 time, whereas when the song continues, there are numbers about twice as far apart, showing that those notes should last about twice as long. From the top:


Many people add bar lines to their tablature, which is very helpful. I also add the time signature, and note stems (for sixteenth, eighth, quarter notes, and triplets) or beat counts (for half notes and whole notes) below the tablature. So "Cherish the Ladies," a double jig, begins:

           |_|_|     |__|__|  |__|__|     |__|__|  |__|__|

and if I had an overwhelming urge to write the mandolin tablature for "Mary Had a Little Lamb," it would look like this:

           |  |  |  |     |  |  |  |     |  |  |  |

When printing out tablature, use a monospaced font such as Courier, not a proportional font. My tablature should all be safe to print at 10 characters per inch, which is about 11- or 12-point. You can of course use a smaller font size if you prefer.

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How to Read Mandolin Tablature / Revised 14 April 2004 / © Copyright 2004, Elizabeth T. Knuth / URL: