How to Read Guitar Tabs and Tablature


A complete, easy-to-follow guide on how to read guitar tablature.

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Last Updated: April 2022

Want to learn how to read 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 on your guitar.

So let’s get to it….

How to Read Guitar Tabs

Learning Guitar Tablature

Learning to read guitar tabs 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.

Super frustrating…

That’s why learning tablature notation is essential.

Types of Guitar Tabs

Reading Tabs

Tablature can be used for pretty much any stringed instrument.

Since we’re talking about guitar for beginners, we’re mostly concerned with tabs for 6-string guitars. But tabs exist for 12-strings, ukuleles and other instruments.

The picture above is what a very basic guitar 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 before moving forward.

As a quick refresher here’s the notes on a guitar:

  • 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)

You should also know about basic picking, strumming and parts of the guitar.

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  • Easy Access Cheat Sheets – quickly reference the cheat sheets anywhere, anytime you need to refresh how to read guitar tabs and chord diagrams.
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    A Close Look at the Tab Diagrams

    There are 3 (sometimes 4) parts to any guitar tab diagram:

    • lines
    • numbers
    • symbols
    • 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.

    Tab Lines and Numbers

    When you’re looking at a guitar tab the first thing you’ll notice is the lines and numbers on it.

    The lines represent each guitar 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 of the guitar!

    It’s confusing, but it’s the way it is.

    So…

    Tab Lines

    What the Numbers on Tabs 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:

    How to Play Tabs

    You read guitar tabs 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?


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    Guitar Tab Symbols

    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 on guitar tabs.

    • / – 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 guitar skills that you probably don’t know yet (you’ll learn them with proper online guitar lessons).

    But let’s quickly take a look at some of these symbols in action:

    Guitar Tab Symbols

    So in the above guitar tab 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:

    Bends on Tablature

    You may also see guitar tabs where the hammer-ons and pull-offs are notated a bit differently:

    Hammer On and Pull Off

    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.

    Downstrokes and Upstrokes

    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.

    Yours FREE:

    Guitar Chord Diagram & Guitar Tab Cheat Sheets + Practice Plan

    • Easy Access Cheat Sheets – quickly reference the cheat sheets anywhere, anytime you need to refresh how to read guitar tabs and chord diagrams.
    • Step-By-Step Instructions – we explain exactly how to read guitar tabs and chord charts, step-by-step.
    • A Complete Practice Guide + Timeline – know exactly what part of your guitar playing you should work on, and when/how to move on.
    • Additional Guitar Playing Tips & Resources – sign up and we’ll keep in touch with our latest guides, tips and resources for getting better at playing guitar!

    ENTER YOUR NAME AND EMAIL BELOW

    “Yes! Send me my free guitar cheat sheets and sign me up for more music making tips, resources and guides from Deviant Noise!”

      We won’t send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

      How to Read Guitar Tabs Conclusion

      And that’s that – exactly how you can read guitar tabs.

      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.

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      Omar Zulfi

      Omar Zulfi is a music producer, rapper, singer, songwriter and digital entrepreneur. He is the founder and head writer at Deviant Noise. Learn more about what he's doing by clicking here.