UD#50 Tablature: The Secret of the Shapes in the Numbers

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Tablature: The Secret of the Shapes in the Numbers,
The Forest for the Trees (UD#50)
from Ukulele in the Dark
w/ Guido Heistek

In today’s article I want to talk about a common challenge that many of my students experience when they are reading tablature.

Okay let’s get going…

As many of you know, I am a big fan of learning music by ear. But, the reality is that we often have to learn music from the the written page.

Either in STANDARD NOTATION. Like this:


Or in TABLATURE (often referred to as tab for short) like this:


If you need a little basic info. about tablature you can find it at the bottom of the page.

Okay here we go…



Here’s a little simple melody written in tab. Please play it or imagine playing it on your uke.

Question: Did you know that you can play this entire melody with only one movement in your left hand? (If you are right-handed of course!)

Here’s how:

1. Make this chord shape with your left hand:

2. Then pluck each note as you need it with the right hand. Efficient, eh?

The first three notes of Aloha Oe can be played the same way:

Where but not when…

The numbers in tablature tell you which frets to hold down with your left hand but not when to put your fingers there. Let’s explore some more.

Here’s an example from bar 5 of Spanish Melody from UD#39.

I often notice my students playing it this way:

First they fret and pluck this:

Then they fret two more notes (E string 1st fret, C string 2nd fret) and strum this:

This approach adds extra movement and can to cause fingering confusion.

Using the Shapes:

What if you just use the G7 shape for the whole bar? Let’s take a look.

If you make a G7 shape and hold it down with your left hand the tab then tells which strings to pluck or strum with your right hand. There is only one overall shape required for the the left hand: a G7 chord shape. In other words, aside from forming the chord shape there is no movement required of the left hand throughout the bar.

A HINT: You’ll notice the chord indicated for this bar is G7. This can often be a big hint for what shape to make with your left hand.

(RIGHT HAND INFO: The two note “pluck” is done with the thumb and finger of the right hand. See Spanish Melody from UD#39  if you’d like some more info. about the piece)

Let’s take another look…

Here’s an example from bar 17 and 18 of Spanish Melody from UD#39:

Can you see what shape you need for the first bar? F right? That’s all you have to do. You make the F chord shape then you pluck it and strum it twice with the right hand. You don’t need to make any other movements with your left hand in the whole first bar.

The second bar is interesting. You can leave your F chord fretted but add the third fret of the A string with your pinky. Pluck that. Strum it once. Then you can jump up and play the 5th fret note on the A string on its’ own.  Hope this makes sense!

Let’s Practice Seeing Shapes in the Tab!

CHALLENGE A: Here is some practice. Please match the tab with the appropriate
chord diagram below. Number 4 is done for you. Answers at the bottom of the page.

CHALLENGE B: These melodic examples each have four single notes played one at a time. Each bar can be played entirely with one chord shape. Please match the tablature examples on the left with the appropriate chord diagram (shape) on the right. Number 2 is done for you.

Some final thoughts:

If you are working on an arrangement and there are some parts that just seem impossible to play, it is possible that you are not seeing the overall shape that you can use for that section. There may be a simple fingering solution that you are overlooking. If you have a video of someone playing the same arrangement, you might pay particular attention their fingering choices.

Developing a sense for fingering is something that happens slowly over time. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask someone with more experience than you how they would finger a certain part of a song. You may find some solutions that will surprise and delight you!

If you are a more experienced player please share your fingering secrets! Also, please forward this lesson on to someone who you feel might benefit from it.

All for now,




Each line in tablature corresponds to a string on the ukulele. Like this:

A —————
E —————
C —————
G —————

When a number is placed on one of the lines this means that you need to hold down that fret with the finger of your left hand (if you are right handed)  and you need to pluck the string with your right hand. A zero means you pluck the open string, without fretting a note.

Here’s an example:

A —————
E —0———–
C ——2—0—
G —————

This tab asks you to play three notes in a row:
1. Pluck open E string.
2. Then hold down the 2nd fret of the C string and pluck the C string.
3. Then pluck the open C string.

It should sound like Three Blind Mice.

Here’s another example:
A ——2——–
E ——1——–
C ——2——–
G ——0——–

This tab is asking you to play the notes of a G7 chord. You may recognize the shape. You can play the chord by strumming across the strings or by plucking the notes with your thumb and fingers.

More info on tab here: http://ukulelehunt.com/how-to-read-ukulele-tab/

CHALLENGE A: 1) C7  2) Cm7  3) F   4) G7  5) A7  6) D7
CHALLENGE B: 1) E7 2) Dm7 3) Cm  4) Adim7

P.S. I am regularly adding new lessons to Ukulele in the Dark. Please subscribe to my mailing list below to receive every lesson right when it comes out. Be sure not to miss a thing!


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