How to Read a Guitar Tablature in Under an Hour

Learning guitar tabs is a MUST for all beginners.

Which is why you’ve come to the right place!

In this lesson, we’ll learn all about tablatures, especially how to read one.

Let’s go!

how to read guitar tabs

Now:

Guitarists use guitar tabs to read music effortlessly.

In music, musicians generally use a music sheet (standard notation) to read and write music.

However, for beginners, learning how to read the standard notations is not easy, and that’s where tablatures come in. 

Note:

You can definitely read tablatures after this lesson. 

But! To be fully proficient, that’s gonna take some time and lots of practice!

Tablatures

Guitar tabs are guitarists’ own way of writing down music instead of the standard notation of music. 

It can also be used when playing bass, drums, ukuleles, etc. It is sometimes simplified as “tab” or “tabs.

guitar tabs - arpeggio sample g7 and d7

The figure above is an example of standard notation and tablature

Here’s the thing:

With this kind of notation, you’ll know the note’s length, making playing much more comfortable.

Here’s another example of a guitar tab that you will definitely encounter most of the time.

e|------------------------|
B|------------------------|
G|------------------------|
D|------------------------|
A|------------------------|
E|------------------------|

Compared to standard notations, tablatures have six horizontal lines that represent each string in a guitar

Each string has corresponding notes and numbers. 

From top to bottom, the first line is the 1st string (e), which is the highest sounding string (thinnest string).

The last line would be the 6th string (E), the lowest sounding string (thickest string). 

Better yet:

You can quickly memorize these notes with “Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good By Eddie.”

If you’ve noticed, in the guitar, the top string would be the 6th string. 

This is where beginners are usually confused.

So, remember:

When reading a tablature, the tablature’s top line would be the bottom-most string (e). 

The last line of a tablature would be the top-most string (E) of your guitar.

For this article, I’m gonna use the latter type of tablature.

Frets and Strings

Tablature uses a numbering system mainly for frets, strings, and sometimes for fingers (generally for a chord diagram).

(1) e|-----------0------------|
(2) B|---------0--------------|
(3) G|-------1----------------|
(4) D|-----2------------------|
(5) A|---2--------------------|
(6) E|-0----------------------|
6th string, open, 5th string 2nd fret, 4th string 2nd fret, 
3rd string 1st fret, and 2nd and 1st string open.

Now:

Using the tab (as shown above), there are 2 different sets of numbers. 

The one on the left specifies the number of each string. 

This is especially useful if you are being instructed orally as to which string to fret.

For example:

“2nd fret on 5th string.” 

This means you have to press the second fret of the 5th string.

The numbers within the line are the fret’s number that you have to press.

Example:

In the 4th string (D), you have to press the 2nd fret and pluck the string.

“0” means you don’t have to press that particular string, or more like, it must be played as an “open” string.

If you look closely, the tab is actually an E major chord.

reading tab blog header

Here’s the kicker: 

It’s an advantage if you know the chord because you don’t need to press the strings one by one when playing.

You simply fret the chord and pluck the strings according to the tab.

Advantages

As a beginner, it is much easier to learn. Compared to a standard notation that has a really long learning curve.

Most tablatures around the internet are free.

Disadvantages

Not all the tabs tell you the rhythm or dynamics of note(s).

Not all music has tablatures.

Typically, tablatures only show you one way of playing a particular note.

It’s not that bad to learn how to read a tablature first.

If you want to play any music, you’d still have to learn the standard notation of music somewhere down the line.

How to Read Guitar Tabs

You could either play the harmony and melody of a song with tabs.

Better yet:

Both harmony and melody! 

Let’s look at this example:

(1) e|-----------------------------------------|
(2) B|0-0-1-3-3-1-0---------0-0----------------|
(3) G|--------------2-0-0-2-----2-2------------|
(4) D|-----------------------------------------|
(5) A|-----------------------------------------|
(6) E|-----------------------------------------|
Snippet of Ode to Joy

This is an example of a simple melody tab since it plays one note or string at a time.

Just like standard notation, tabs are read from left to right.

In this tab, you first have to play B string open, twice, then still in B string, 1st fret, next, same B string 3rd fret, twice, etc.

Sadly:

Tabs don’t tell you the rhythm of notes nor its dynamics.

Simply put:

You have to listen to the song itself to figure out the correct way to play it.

Some tabs may have lyrics and chords. You can use those as a reference for the length of a chord or note.

Here’s another example:

      C        Am      Cmaj9/G     F
e|----0--------0----------0---------1------|
B|----1--------1----------1---------1------|
G|----0--------2----------0---------2------|
D|----2--------2----------0---------3------|
A|----3--------0----------2---------3------|
E|------------------------3---------1------|

Compared to the first tab, this second tab has to be played multiple strings at a time. 

Hence it is the harmony of the song that uses chords.

First, You’d have to fret the B string at 1st fret;

D string at 2nd;

Then, A string at third;

Lastly, play it by strumming for the first chord.

Here’s the deal:

If a particular string doesn’t have any number, it means that you shouldn’t strum that specific string and must be muted. 

It will, most of the time, have an “X” symbol, which specifies that you have to mute the string.

Sometimes, tabs won’t specify what chord shape it may be, so it’s essential to learn the necessary chords.

Symbols

Here are the symbols that you will encounter the most:

h (Hammer-on) – a guitar playing technique that means tapping the string with your fretting hand instead of picking it.

p (Pull-off) – opposite of the hammer-on, it is a technique in which you pull the string using your fretting hand rather than picking the string.

x (Dead note or mute) – a technique in which you have to touch a string lightly so that it won’t produce any sound.

b (Bend) – a guitar technique that raises the pitch of a note by pushing or pulling the string across the fret while firmly holding the note.

This technique creates a vibrato effect.

s (Slide) – a guitar playing technique in which you use a finger to slide down or up the string(s) without releasing the pressure.

Sometimes they use (/) and () as a symbol for sliding up or down.

Let’s try this example:

e|------------------------------|
B|------------------------------|
G|----0h2---2h3---2p0-----------|
D|----------------------2p0-----|
A|----3-------------------------|
E|------------------------------|

First:

You’d have to play G string and A string simultaneously with G string as open and A string on the third fret.

Then: 

Tap or hammer on the 2nd fret of the G string.

Second:

Pick the 2nd fret of the G string then hammer it on at the third fret of the same string.

Next:

Pluck the G string at the 2nd fret and pull the string to play it as an open string.

Lastly:

Play the 2nd fret of the D string and pull the string off the same string to play the open note.

Here are the rest of the symbols:

  • ~ – vibrato
  • + – harmonic
  • pb – Pre-bend
  • br – Bend release
  • pbr – Pre-bend release
  • brb – Bend release bend

Exercise

You can try these easy songs (mostly fingerpicking) with tablatures:

Final Words of Advice

Tablatures or tabs are guitarists’ own way of reading and writing music.

Better yet:

It’s one of the necessary things that all beginners must learn. 

Although the main disadvantage of tablature is that it doesn’t tell the rhythm or dynamics of a song.

If you’ve just started, you may not be as fast as the others but give it time. 

You’ll notice that you won’t need to look at the strings when picking and fretting strings after some practice.

Keep on playing!

Here are some other articles that may help you:

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