Learning Tabs and Fret Aids

Tabs, or Tablature, is a form of musical notation that was invented to make reading music easier for fretted and string instruments like the violin. Unlike traditional music notation, showing rhythm, duration, and pitch, tabs show where and when to place the fingers on the instrument, however there is no notation showing where to stop the sound, so you need to have familiarity with the piece you are playing.

For example, here is the first four measures of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with the music notation on top and the tabs on the bottom.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is twinkle.jpg

The “0” denotes an open string. The 1 on the E string means that you place your first finger on the first fret on the E string, and so on. As you can see from the example, violin tab eliminates the need to read music, and allows you to pick up and play the instrument almost immediately. Learning to read tablature is a good skill to develop if you are interested in playing the instrument quickly. Violin tabs are great for learning certain genres of music I am most interested in: early American and Old Time Fiddle music, but they are also used for Bluegrass and Pop.

For someone new to the violin, like me, tabs can help me learn positions and individual notes quickly and efficiently and are common when learning the fiddle. Violin tablature depicts the four strings rather than actual notes. The tabs are laid out from the lowest open note or string on the bottom (the open G) to the highest on the top line (the open E). Numbers are placed on these lines to represent the left-hand fingers on the strings, making it easy for someone who can’t read standard notation to play.

  • 0 = open string
  • 1=1st finger – index finger
  • 2=2nd finger – middle finger
  • 3=3rd finger – ring finger
  • 4=4th finger – pinky finger

Below is a Download Button for a Blank Tabs Form I created that I use to easily transcribe traditional music notation to Tabs.

Here’s an image of the Blank Tabs Form:

Left Fingering Aids for Beginners

In order to use violin tabs, and begin learning finger placement, some players like to make “fret” marks on the neck of their instrument with small pieces of tape. These marks indicate the first position finger positions.

Instead of using tape, you can also purchase what is called a “First Frets” for this purpose, or as I did, purchase a “Don’t Frets” that has 12 lines indicating a complete chromatic scale of one octave. With the full set of lines it is easier to learn finger patterns, keys, and intervals such as whole- and half-steps. Ideally, whether placing tape or placing a ready-made fret decal, these are intended only as aids when learning to place the fingers. You can pick both of these products up at the Fiddlershop.

  • 0 = open string
  • 1=1st finger – index finger – yellow
  • 2=2nd finger – middle finger – red
  • 3=3rd finger – ring finger – blue
  • 4=4th finger – pinky finger – orange

Tablature, or Tabs for short, is a great way to get started learning the fiddle.

  3 comments for “Learning Tabs and Fret Aids

  1. Tom
    March 1, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    A great source for tablature music is the mandolin community. Their tab refers to their fret numbers, but it’s easy:
    1 = low 1
    2 = high (normal)1
    3 = low 2
    4 = high 2
    5 = low 3 (octave with next open lower string)
    6 = high 3
    7 = 4 (unison with next open higher string)

    • March 1, 2019 at 1:39 pm

      I use the Don’t Frets when I am first learning something. After a while, I close my eyes or don’t look at it and try not to rely on it as much. Thanks for the tip on the mandolin community.

  2. Tom
    March 1, 2019 at 1:12 pm

    When I started I used the Don’t Frets sticker. The instructions indicate the proper scale length for these to work, so you may have to move your bridge back or forward while holding a (plastic) ruler. The same goes for any measurement from the nut, it will depend on the scale length, or where the bridge is.

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