How To Read Drum Tabs (Beginner’s Guide)

how to read drum tabs

Reading drum tabs is a super easy way to learn new songs. If you want to learn how to read drum tabs to help you get to grips with your favorite songs then you’re in the right place!

There is a huge wealth of drum tabs on the internet for most popular songs that exist. The reason why drum tabs are so popular is that they are easier to make than conventional sheet music.

The great news is that drum tabs are mostly free online and lots of people enjoy notating drum tabs for their favorite songs and sharing them online for the world to enjoy.

What is Drum Tab Notation?

Drum tabs, also known as drum tablature, are a form of simplified percussion notation designed for drums and they provide a visual representation of the rhythms and beats in a song.

Unlike traditional drum notation, which uses standard music staff notation with notes representing specific drum sounds, drum tabs use a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols to represent different drum elements.

Drum tabs provide a visual representation of the drum set, with vertical lines representing each drum or cymbal. The placement of the characters on these lines indicates when and how the corresponding drum or cymbal is played.

How To Read Drum Tabs Online

I’m going to take this opportunity to say if you haven’t heard of Songsterr then go check it out right now. It’s one of the best musical training tools available, plus the standard version is completely free. It has a huge selection of over 500,000 complete song tabs.

The interface is intuitive and so easy to follow, and I’ve always found the notation to be accurate for all the songs I’ve learned.

This is an example of what the interface looks like. It guides you through the music with a green line that indicates where you are, and follows in time with the MIDI audio so you can listen and read together as you make your way through the song.

songsterr drum tab example
Note: Songsterr has added a rather annoying feature that puts it in traditional notation. Thankfully there is a fix. Here is a link to disable the new drum notation. They said that in the future they might add some toggle between the tablature and the score.

How Are Drum Tabs Written?

Drum tabs are designed to be read like conventional sheet music. The time is represented horizontally, and the different parts of the drum set are written vertically. It reads from left to right, and each part of the stave represents a different part of the drum set.

Unlike sheet music, which is written with musical notes, tabs are formed with letters and various markings that indicate what to play and with various dynamics.

Parts of The Drum Set

The nine parts of the drum set are written on drum tablature as follows. Each drum set component takes up its own line on the vertical chart.

  • CC – Crash Cymbal
  • RD – Ride Cymbal
  • HH or xH or oH – Hi Hat Cymbals (closed or open)
  • S – Snare Drum
  • HT or T1 – High Tom
  • MT or T2 – Middle Tom
  • FT – Floor Tom
  • BD – Bass Drum
  • fH or Hf – Hi Hat with Foot

Understanding The Rhythm

Reading drum tabs is mathematical by nature. Now we know the different parts of the drum set that appear, let’s take a look at how we figure out exactly what to play by looking at drum tabs.

Old school drum tabs are much more difficult than reading drum tab on software. This is due to the complexity of time signature changes. To be honest, there is no real need to read old school drum tabs anymore now we have tab software such as GuitarPro and Songsterr.

Traditional drum tabs are read are with the three most common symbols: ‘‘ and ‘x’ or ‘o’. These symbols indicate whether to play a part of a drum set or to leave it as a rest. Each space on the drum tab indicates a beat of the respective time.

Let’s take a look at a common 8th note beat on each type of drum tab. On Songsterr the rhythms are displayed underneath, and they follow conventional sheet music notation.

You can see that these are 8th notes because of the stems – they are quaver notes. You can also see that there are eight that make up the bar. It’s super clean and easy to read. The parts of the drum set such as BD and S are displayed exactly where they are meant to be played.

songsterr drum tab

Now let’s take a look at traditional drum tab, it’s pretty awkward and unclear, but i suppose it does the job. It isn’t immediately clear that this is 8th note hi hats with the spacing but it makes sense when you put the kicks on the 1 and 3 and snares on 2 and 4.

There’s ‘o‘ and ‘x‘ and these basically signal where you are supposed to play. But we can now see that the spacing indicates that each ‘‘ is worth a 16th note. old school drum tab

Ok now we have seen a standard beginner drum beat, let’s take a look at a more complex rhythm. This is taken from Iron Maiden’s ‘The Trooper‘.

As you can see there’s a variety of rhythms including quarter notes, 8th notes and 16th notes in various combinations. In addition to having the audio to help guide you, we have the rhythms displayed underneath.

We can clearly see that there are two quarter notes that make up the first half of the opening bar, subsequently followed by a grouping of an 8th and two 16th note kicks, and closing the bar with two 8th note hits: one on the snare and one on the kick.

the trooper drum tab

Wrapping Up On How To Read Drum Tabs

Learning how to read drum tabs is all about paying attention to the rhythms and learning a song piece by piece. Accurately learn how to play individual sections before trying to rush through the whole thing – following the notation and listen carefully to the music.

Before jumping right into the deep end, start off by learning some easy drum songs. You can search for drum tabs for any song you like on Songsterr, just be sure to change the instrument to drums within the interface!

It’s definitely a great idea to start using drum tabs to your advantage. They are really easy to follow and interpret, and there is a huge range of drum tabs available for almost every song you can think of, even the hardest songs to play on drums!

While drum tabs can be a useful tool for learning and playing songs, it’s important to note that they have limitations.

Drum tabs may not convey nuanced details or complex drumming techniques accurately, and they may not be available for all songs.

Therefore, it’s beneficial for drummers to develop skills in reading both drum tabs and traditional drum sheet music to have a comprehensive understanding of musical notation.

Learning how to read drum tabs will certainly help you on your way to becoming a great drummer because you will familiarize yourself with different rhythmic combinations and patterns. Have some patience and perseverance, and you’ll be sure to see some progression!

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