How to Use This Tablature

Dennis Ladd contributed a majority of the tabs found on the Mandolin Cafe. Dennis spent 20 years living in Hawaii where he performed with groups like the Territorial String Band (folk, bluegrass, country), Bluegrass Hawaii (bluegrass, some Hawaiian) and The Castoffs (contradance band, fiddle tunes). He's also the author of "Leonard Kwan's Slack Key Instruction Book" and has a tab instruction book that is now out. Here is his tutorial on how to read tablature.

(Print with Courier 10 font)

Tablature uses numbers instead of notes to show the fingering on a plucked string instrument. For the mandolin, it starts with lines representing the four pairs of strings, as if the mandolin were put back down on your lap, with the headstock facing to your left. This makes the top line represent the first or highest string (the E string) and so on:

1(E)---------------------------------------------------------------------
2(A)---------------------------------------------------------------------
3(D)---------------------------------------------------------------------
4(G)---------------------------------------------------------------------
I then divide each line into two measures. Keeping accurate measure lines is critical to helping the reader get a feel for a new piece and to make reading easier. The eye needs these measure lines to make sense of the music.
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
Then the notes are written in on the lines, as below. They are played in sequence from the first note which is a G (1st string, 3rd feet) on to the last note, an A (2nd string, open). At the beginning of the 2nd measure there are two notes written, one above the other, They are played at the same time, with a single stroke of the pick. (The tune, by the way, is from "Blackberry Blossom.")
 ----3---5---7---3----2---3---5---2--|---0-------3---0-------------------
 ------------------------------------|---3----------------5---3---2---0--
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
But now we have trouble with the timing. To help in counting out the rhythm of the tune, I add 4 down beat lines for the notes that hit the count 1, 2, 3, 4:
 ----3---5---7---3----2---3---5---2--|---0-------3---0-------------------
 ------------------------------------|---3----------------5---3---2---0--
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
     |       |        |       |          |       |        |       |
I then add a further visual cue by connecting each pair with a bar. I collect fingerstyle guitar instrumentals and I have come to depend on this bar to help me read more accurately what I have written. It makes the four count more visible for me.
 ----3---5---7---3----2---3---5---2--|---0-------3---0-------------------
 ------------------------------------|---3----------------5---3---2---0--
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
     |_______|        |_______|          |_______|        |_______|
Not all notes are played on the downbeats. Some are played on the off beats and I mark these and the down beats with a lines over each note. Now we have time 1 and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and written over the basic 1, 2, 3, 4 count:
     |   |   |   |    |   |   |   |              |   |    |   |   |   |  
 ----3---5---7---3----2---3---5---2--|---0-------3---0-------------------
 ------------------------------------|---3----------------5---3---2---0--
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
     |_______|        |_______|          |_______|        |_______|
I complete these top markers with a bar across the top which, I believe, gives the new player the visual cues needed to understand what is going on in the piece. Notice that the first note pair in the second measure has no upper bracket. I eliminated it as a visual cue that there is no off beat note and that the down beat note pair is held for the whole count.
 
      ___     ___      ___     ___                ___      ___     ___   
     |   |   |   |    |   |   |   |              |   |    |   |   |   |  
 ----3---5---7---3----2---3---5---2--|---0-------3---0-------------------
 ------------------------------------|---3----------------5---3---2---0--
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
     |_______|        |_______|          |_______|        |_______|
All we have to do now is add chords for the rhythm player and the tab is complete.
     G___     ___     D___     ___      C         ___     G___     ___   
     |   |   |   |    |   |   |   |              |   |    |   |   |   |  
 ----3---5---7---3----2---3---5---2--|---0-------3---0-------------------
 ------------------------------------|---3----------------5---3---2---0--
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
     |_______|        |_______|          |_______|        |_______|
You are also ready to write some pretty complicated stuff down. For instance, here I have added a triplet (3 notes played in the space of two) at the end. I have you sliding from the 2nd string, 2nd fret to the 2nd string 1st fret; and then pulling off from the 2nd string 1st fret to the open 1st string..
     G___     ___     D___     ___      C         ___     G___     _3_   
     |   |   |   |    |   |   |   |              |   |    |   |   | | |  
 ----3---5---7---3----2---3---5---2--|---0-------3---0-------------------
 ------------------------------------|---3----------------5---3---2-1-0--
 ------------------------------------|----------------------------sl-po--
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
     |_______|        |_______|          |_______|        |_______|
I believe these top and bottom brackets are as important as measure lines in making a piece readable and in making a system nearly as flexible as standard notation.

For laughs, here's how I'd notate the first measure as two measures of waltz (3/4) time:

     G          ___       ___            D          ___       ___  
               |   |     |   |                     |   |     |   |  
 ----3-------------5-----7---3-------|---2-------------3-----5---2-------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
     |_________|_________|               |_________|_________|
Here, the upper brackets make it clear that the second note of each measure comes on an offbeat.

And a typical jig (6/8 time):

        D_______        _______           Am_______        _______
        |   |   |      |   |   |           |   |   |      |   |   |   
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----0--------------0---2---3------
 -------0---2---0------0---2---5-----|-------------5---------------------
 ------------------------------------|-----------------------------------
        |______________|                   |______________|              
I've kept the upper brackets, even when there is no note played because in jig time it helps my eye keep the 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3 count going over the basic 1, 2 count.

Some more musical notations: the repeat signs mean play everything in between twice:

     G___     ___     D___     ___    C         ___     G___     _3_   
     |   |   |   |    |   |   |   |            |   |    |   |   | | |  
 ||--3---5---7---3----2---3---5---2--|-0-------3---0-------------------||
 ||o---------------------------------|-3----------------5---3---2-1-0-o||
 ||o---------------------------------|--------------------------sl-po-o||
 ||----------------------------------|---------------------------------||
     |_______|        |_______|         |_______|        |_______|
And if there is a different ending the second time through, it looks like this with the first and second endings on the same line:
  ___________________________________  ___________________________________
 |1  C        ___     G___     ___   ||2  C        ___     G___     ___   
 |           |   |    |   |   |   |  ||           |   |    |   |   |   |  
 ----0-------3---0-------------------||---0-------3---0-------------------
 ----3----------------5---3---2-1-0-o||---3----------------5---3---2------
 -----------------------------sl-po-o||--------------------------------5--
 ------------------------------------||-----------------------------------
     |_______|        |_______|           |_______|        |_______|

There's more, but these are the basics. Hope it helps those of you who are new to this. I worked out all this while teaching myself guitar and mandolin and I have used it with students over the years so it works for me. I hope it works for you.

Dennis Ladd