If you have ever searched for drum music online you will have come across two formats for transcriptions: music notation and drum tab.

Notation involves notes placed on a stave, like this:

Example 1

Groove example - notation

Drum tab (short for ‘tablature’) looks like this:

Example 2

CC |x-----------x---|x---------------|
HH |--x-x-x-x-x---x-|--x-x-x-x-x-----|
SD |----o-------o---|----o-------o-oo|
BD |o-------o-o-----|o-------o-o-----|

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The two examples above are the same drum groove, so you can see how very different the two main methods of writing drums look.

Should I learn notation or drum tab?

We are often asked which one is best: drum notation or drum tab? The truth is, both systems are useful. We’ll cover the main differences and merits of notation vs drum tab in this mini-series on writing drum music.

Today, we’re going to talk about Tab.
Drum Tab


Tab (tablature) is a form of drum notation which uses letters and symbols on a fixed grid to indicate which part of the drum kit to strike. It shows the rhythm / pattern of the notes to be played in their exact sequence.

Each drum or cymbal is denoted by a simple code to identify it at the beginning of the piece of music. Each drum or cymbal gets its own line and these are layered on top of each other. As a general rule, the order in which they appear, from top to bottom is:

CC |-Crash cymbal----|
HH |-Hi-Hat----------|
Rd |-Ride cymbal-----|
SD |-Snare-drum------|
T1 |-High-tom--------|
T2 |-Mid-tom---------|
FT |-Floor-tom-------|
BD |-Bass-drum-------|
Hf |-Hi-hat-foot-----|

Not all of these will be present in every piece of music.  If a particular sound is not used in the song, then there’s no need to for the tab to show it.

Similarly, if a particular song or example of music calls for additional drum or cymbal sounds, then the author will usually tell you what their tab means by providing a key to the tablature at the top of the piece.  For example, an additional bass drum may be given as B2, or a remote Hi Hat might be given as HX.  This is open to interpretation and whatever suits the author.

The next element of understanding tab is the different “notes” that appear on the grid.

Most strokes that land on a drum will be notated like this:


And, if the part is played on a cymbal (e.g. Hi Hat, Crash, or Ride) then the note is shown as an x, like this:



Other commonly used markings

Further differentiation between the different types of note to be played is achieved by being specific in the type of marking used. Some of the more common ones you might encounter are:

|-o-| or |-x-| Normal stroke
|-O-| or |-X-| Accented stroke
|-g-| Ghost note
|-f-| Flam
|-d-| Drag
|-@-| Snare rim


Laying it all out

Each bar is usually divided into 16th notes. Here are 2 bars:


The dashes just represent the time, there is no sound when you see a dash.

In order to specify what sound you’re supposed to be playing and how to play it, there first needs to be one of the drum or cymbal markings (let’s use the Hi Hat, HH) and then you need to specify the rhythm to be played (let’s use a mix of normal and accented strokes, x and X). So we get something like this:

HH |X-x-X-x-X-x-X-x-|X-x-X-x-X-x-X-x-|

The full pattern to be played is layered up with the other parts on their own line. The note to be played is placed in the exact place within the 16th note “grid” for each bar. You end up with a visual representation of the groove.

For example, here’s the same Hi Hat pattern again, now with a basic Bass and Snare part added:

HH |X-x-X-x-X-x-X-x-|X-x-X-x-X-x-X-x-|
SD |----o-------o---|----o-------o---|
BD |o-------o-------|o-------o-o-----|


Tab vs. Drum Notation

Drum notation gives you a more complete range of possibilities for more fully communicating the inticacies of a groove or fill. Drum tab is often used as a simplified version. The Tab method is very useful but it can’t communicate quite so much information as full notation due to the limitations of the format.

Next time we’ll pick up from this point and discuss drum notation in more detail.

The next part in this series will help drummers who are familiar with using tab to understand drum notation.

Further Reading:

The following articles provide additional information related to this topic

Which format do we use?

We normally use full notation for our transcriptions because it is more versatile as a format. We sometimes use drum tab when this is appropriate.


As part of our commitment to providing the best face-to-face drum lessons in London we have a large number of song transcriptions available for our drum students. Become a member and you will have access to all our transcriptions for a huge range of songs to learn and play along to, as part of your lessons.

Further Resources

We write a huge variety of drum exercises and transcriptions as part of face-to-face lessons, and in the Members-Only area which contains songs, exercises, grooves, fills, play-alongs, and transcriptions.


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