Knowing how to read drum tabs is a vital skill for drummers of all experience levels. Many popular songs or tutorials are published in tabs, not sheet music, so being aware of how to quickly and accurately read drum tabs will help drummers increase their skill and repertoire. Despite their differences, drum tabs are similar to tablature notation for any other instrument. Follow these steps to get a good start on learning how to read drum tabs.
- Determine what drum each line represents. Most drum tabs will be made up of sets of five or six horizontal lines, each of which represents a different part of the drum set. Most drum tabs will have a key at the beginning or end to tell you what each line represents. If not, most tabs follow the format of bass drum on the bottom line, then snare drum, then toms, then cymbals.
- Read the tabs from left to right. Explaining how to read drum tabs is much like explaining how to read a sentence. Start at the far left and move across the page to the right side. Every time you encounter a note on a line (usually marked with an “x”) play the specified drum.
- Play notes together to form beats. Reading drum tabs is more than playing single notes in sequence. It’s about learning to see the tabs as complete beats and playing them as such. A line of x's on the top line can represent a constant eighth note pattern on the hi-hat. Beneath that there may be a simple alternating pattern between the bass drum and snare drum. Soon, you will be able to look at any drum tab and instantly understand the beat it represents.
- Learn the structure of the tab. Once you understand the basic idea of how the drum tab designates what to play, you have to learn how tabs are structured. Measures are usually separated by vertical lines. Most tabs will also include a song order at the end to indicate how many times and in what order to play each section of the song.
Don’t try to play your favorite song right off the bat. Start off with simple beats and songs so you can get used to playing while looking at tabs. Increase the complexity of what you are playing only when you feel comfortable.