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How to Read Drum Tabs Quickly: A Complete Beginner's Guide

Drum tablature, or drum tabs, provide drummers with an easy way to read music and learn to play a song quickly.

Tabs tend to be easier to find and create than sheet music, making them a popular choice for drummers around the globe.

If you are interested in learning to read drum tabs, then you have come to the right place. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about reading drum tabs. You will be well on your way to playing all sorts of beats in no time with this useful skill.


What Are Drum Tabs?

Drum tabs are a simplified form of musical sheet music that is explicitly written for drums. Instead of notes that represent different sounds, the symbols in tabs represent when and how you are to strike the instrument.

Many people prefer using tabs to traditional sheet music because tabs are much easier to write, and some people even consider it easier to read drum tabs. This notation easy to type out and share over the internet while sheet music generally requires music notation software.

With drum tabs, instead of going through the trouble of crafting a beautifully shaped quarter note, you only must place an x or an o. You can easily find all drum notation in tabs on a typical keyboard. As a result, it is no wonder that tabs became immensely popular in the 1990s during the advent of the internet.

If you are looking for an easy way to share drum music, then tabs are the way to go. However, if you are serious about drumming and want to pursue it professionally, you will likely need to learn how to read traditional sheet music because it allows for much more nuance in drum notation.


How Drum Tabs Are Written

Tabs are written so that time is represented horizontally, and the different components of the drum set are written vertically. Generally, the first column of the tab features an abbreviation for the type of drum represented by that line of music. Moving toward the right, symbols indicate the beat to be played by each drum individually.


SN xx-xx-xx-xx

B x—x—x—x

In the brief example above, the HH and the SD represent two different pieces of the drum set, the snare drum, and the bass drum, while the x's and dashes represent whether to hit that instrument or not on that beat.


How to Read Tabs Quickly: The Complete Guide

1.  Familiarize Yourself with the Kit

 You will have a hard time reading the different parts of the drum tablature if you do not know the different parts of the drum kit. In drum tabs, each drum is represented by a different abbreviation.

However, it is essential to note that tabs can vary based on the writer. Some people may choose to use different abbreviations, so it is essential to always look for a key or legend at the top of the page to determine that you understand the writer's notation. The most popular abbreviations for the nine pieces of the kit are listed below.

  • HH – Hi-Hat
  • Hf – Hi Hat with Foot
  • B – Bass Drum
  • Rd – Ride Cymbal
  • CC – Crash Cymbal
  • SN – Snare
  • T1 – Hi Tom
  • T2 – Low Tom
  • FT – Floor Tom


Generally, in drum tabs, the drums will be listed in this order, which loosely corresponds with the height of the instruments.


 2.   Understand the Symbols

Now that you know the abbreviations for the drums, let's take a closer look at the different symbols in the music portion of drum notation.

There are five main symbols for hitting drums that are as follows:

  • o = strike or normal hit
  • O = accent or hit harder than normal
  • g = ghost or hit softer than normal
  • f = flam or two strokes hit by alternating hands with the first hit being a grace note followed by a stronger first hit with the other hand. The two notes are meant to be played in extremely close succession, so it almost sounds like one hit
  • d = double stroke or a roll


Now that you know the symbols associated with the drums, it is time to take a look at the characters used for cymbals in tabs.

  • x = strike
  • X = hit hard cymbal or loose hi-hat
  • o = hit open hi-hat
  • # = choke or hit the cymbal, then grab it so the sound stops abruptly


The last symbol to take note of is the dash (-), which can be used for drums or cymbals to let you know not to hit the instrument on that beat.

It is also important to note that some people will write the drum abbreviation to denote a hit instead of the above symbols. Drum tabs are not an exact science, and there is some variation from writer to writer. Some people also choose to use x's to denote bass drum hits instead of o's. Other people may use x's for every instrument. However, the reason most people tend to use x's and o's instead of all the same is that it can make the composition more natural to read. All these discrepancies are a matter of personal preference as there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to drum tab notation.

Spend some time studying these symbols so that you will not have to think twice about what to do if you come across one while you read drum tabs. The quicker you learn to recognize these symbols, the quicker you will be able to play your favorite songs without losing a beat, pun intended.


3.  Pay Attention to Rhythm

When playing drum tabs, the symbols that are written in the same vertical column are meant to be played at the same time. Most often, music is written in 4/4 time where the beat is divided into 8th or 16th counts. Each set of 8 or 16 beats is known as a bar. Bars are usually separating by vertical dividing lines so that it is easy to tell when one bar ends, and the next one begins.

When it is divided into 8ths, you can count it as 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. If it is divided into 16ths, it's a little different. You can count it as 1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a. Keeping a clear and consistent count will help you ensure that you are playing each beat precisely when you are supposed to. Sometimes the count will be written below the tabs, but this is not always the case, so it is crucial to keep a solid count in your head or out loud.

Keep an eye out for a repeat symbol that may appear above a bar. It will be hard to miss as it usually includes the repeat and then the number of times that bar is to be repeated before moving onto the next bar.


4.   Start Simple

It can be a little complicated to read drum tabs. When you are first starting, consider getting comfortable only using a few different instruments, such as just the snare drum, bass drum, and crash cymbal, as opposed to throwing yourself in the fire by trying to use nine instruments at once. Try to become comfortable with two or three lines of music before building up to more while you read tabs. You will likely become stressed and frustrated if you try to take on too much at one time. No one becomes an expert overnight.



Drum tabs are a fun way to learn how to play your favorite rhythms without having to acquire and learn how to read complicated drum sheet music.

While learning to read drum tabs can be a bit complex at first, with a bit of practice and perseverance, you can become a pro in no time. A quick internet search will likely yield you with many different drum tabs to choose from for your favorite songs.

So, what are you waiting for? Start practicing today and learn how to read drum tabs confidently!