How to Read Guitar Tabs and Tablature
A complete, easy-to-follow guide on learning to read guitar music.
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Last Updated: January 2023
Want to learn guitar tabs?
In this easy to follow guide, we’ll show you how to play guitar songs using tablature, step-by-step.
You’ll learn what each of the lines are, what the numbers mean and how to read it while playing along.
So let’s get to it….
Learning Guitar Tablature
Learning this is probably one of the best things you can do if you’re a beginner.
It allows you to read music without having to know traditional music theory and notation. It’s an intuitive way to know what you’re supposed to play.
If you’re just starting out, learning the ins and outs of sheet music (and then remembering them when you’re also trying to learn a song) can slow you down to a crawl.
That’s why learning notation is essential.
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Tablature can be used for pretty much any stringed instrument.
We’re mostly concerned with tabs for 6-string guitars. But they exist for 12-strings, ukuleles and other instruments.
The picture above is what a very basic tab looks like.
But they can get pretty complicated-looking quickly, like the pic on the left.
So let’s go over what everything on a guitar tab means.
What You Need to Know First
You need to know the basics of how to play guitar like picking, strumming, notes and more before moving forward.
As a quick refresher here’s the notes:
- 6th String – E (top string – thickest, the “low” e note)
- 5th String – A
- 4th String – D
- 3rd String – G
- 2nd String – B
- 1st String – E (bottom string – thinnest, the “high” e note)
A Close Look at the Diagrams
There are 3 (sometimes 4) parts to any guitar tab diagram:
- rhythm markers
We’ll take a close look at the first 3 aspects below. But in terms of how to know what rhythm to play on a tab, that can vary depending on who’s writing out the tablature. But we’ll still touch on that briefly.
Lines and Numbers
When you’re looking at a tab the first thing you’ll notice is the lines and numbers on it.
The lines represent each string. But there’s something important to remember:
The top line is the bottom string of the guitar, and the bottom line is the top string!
It’s confusing, but it’s the way it is.
What the Numbers Mean
Now when it comes to the numbers on all the lines, they refer to which fret you’re supposed to hold down.
So if you see there’s a 3 on the bottom line of a guitar tab, it means you’d pick the 1st string (low E) while you’re holding down the 3rd fret on that string.
Important Note: The fret that is closest to the tuning pegs (at the top of the fret board) is FRET 1. The fret right after that is fret 2, and so on.
There are a couple different ways the numbers are shown on a tab, and you’d play them each differently.
- If the numbers appear to the left and right of each other, you pick each note one after the other.
- If the numbers appear stacked on top of each other, you strum the notes together to play a chord.
They’ll look like this:
You read this from left to right, so this is how you’d play the notes in the above picture:
- First you’d pick the 6th string (thickest/top) while holding fret 3
- Next you’d pick the 4th string with no fret held down (a 0 mean it’s played as an open string)
- Then you’d pick the 5th string while holding down fret 2
- Finally you’d strum 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings at the same time, holding down the string 3 and 1 on fret 2 and holding down string 2 on fret 3
If there’s no number on a string, you don’t play it
Pretty straight forward right?
Now, here’s where things can get a bit complicated.
There’s a lot more that you can do on a guitar than pick, strum and fret.
And that’s where tab symbols come into play.
If you’re a complete beginner, don’t worry about these too much – you may not even know how to play them.
That’s ok. Once you start to learn the techniques, you’ll also know how to read them.
- / – slide up fret
- \ – slide down fret
- h – hammer on note
- p – pull off note
- ~~~ – vibrato
- b – bend note
- pb – pre-bend note
- t – tapping
- br – bend release
- pbr – pre-bend release
- brb – bend, release, bend
- PM – palm mute
- <n> – harmonic on fret (n = fret number)
- [n] – pinch harmonic on fret
- x – dead note
Again, the above stuff are more advanced skills that you probably don’t know yet (you’ll learn them with proper guitar lessons online).
But let’s quickly take a look at some of these symbols in action:
So in the above example you’d play the following:
- pick 6th string (thickest) while holding down fret 2, and slide your finger to fret 3
- pick 4th string while holding fret 9 and hammer-on fret 11
- pick 3rd string while holding down fret 12, pull off to fret 11
- pick 2nd string while holding fret 3 and add vibrato
And although we said bends can be written with a “b,” they can also be written in a different way:
You may also see hammer-ons and pull-offs are notated a bit differently sometimes:
Yup… they look identical.
Finally, you may encounter up-stroke and down-stroke symbols if you’re reading a piece of music where the composer wants you to do a specific picking pattern.
In this tab, you’d play the 5th string on the 3rd fret with a down stroke. Then you’d play the 5th string on the 5th fret with an upstroke. And so-on, and so-on.
Playing with tabs is a really easy way to learn songs on the guitar. Even if all the symbols above seem a bit weird and confusing, don’t worry about it. Pick one symbol to focus on and learn the technique through and through. Then move on to the next one you need to learn for whatever tab sheet you’re learning from.
Frequently Asked Questions
A guitar tab is simply a short way of saying guitar tablature. Tablature is a simplified way of notating music (writing out music for other players to understand what to play). It’s based on a series of lines and symbols to help you quickly understand what string and what fret is being played in a particular piece of music.
No. Absolutely not. You don’t need to learn traditional music notation if you don’t want to. Guitar tabs are a tool we can use to easily learn how to play music. There’s no concept of cheating in this regard. Some people may be “purists” who only recognize one way to do things, but there are often many ways to do any thing. If guitar tabs help you learn how to play a song as well as someone else learning through traditional sheet music, what’s the problem?
Guitar tabs can be a great resource for beginners, but they’re helpful to all skill levels. They are an easy way to notate and read music. Guitar tabs can be good for people just starting out, because they are easier to learn how to read. With traditional sheet music, it can take a long time to become fluent. It’s often much quicker with things like tabs.
When you first see a guitar tab it can be confusing since the bottom string on the guitar is the top string on the tab. The reason for this is that on a tab, the top string represents the “highest” note string, which happens to be the bottom (thinnest) string of the guitar (the high E string). Since the bottom line on a tab naturally represents the “lowest” note string, it corresponds to the top (thickest) string on the guitar since its the low E note.
Practice – there’s no really easy way around it. You just need to become so familiar with tablature (i.e. the notes and symbols used) that you’re able to read it just as easily as you’re reading this sentence. It will take time. But the more you practice reading new tabs you’ve never played before, the faster you’ll become at reading them in general.
And that’s that.
It may take you a bit to get used to the symbols and the way the strings are drawn on diagrams.
It’ll become second nature really soon. For now, press CTRL/CMD+D to bookmark this page for quick access as a reference if you need to come back to it.
If you thought this article on how to read guitar tabs was helpful, please share it and thanks again for reading!
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