How to read guitar tabs for beginners

Learning how to read guitar tabs is an essential skill when you’re a beginner guitarist. Without taking years to study sheet music, you can quickly understand tab and learn to play your favourite songs: awesome! …

How to read guitar tabs

Learning how to read guitar tabs is an essential skill when you’re a beginner guitarist. Without taking years to study sheet music, you can quickly understand tab and learn to play your favourite songs: awesome!

When I started playing guitar in the early 90s, learning Nirvana songs from guitar tabs was my gateway to falling in love with guitar.

In this MAMMOTH guide, we will explore the ins and outs of guitar tabs, understand the symbols, and equip you with the tools to read and create your own tabs. That way you’ll be well on your way with how to read guitar tabs and strumming chords.

What are tabs and what are they for?

Guitar tab, also known as guitar tablature, is a visual representation of guitar music. They’re a way of writing down a guitar part so that someone else can understand how to play it. Especially if they’re in a guitar playing style you’re not familiar with.

Tabs are a way to learn a song (like one of our drop d songs) if you can’t read sheet music (like most guitarists). And even if you can read sheet music, there’s a community of millions of guitarists who helpfully ‘tab out’ songs just for the benefit of others and share them online. You won’t find sheet music as easily. 

Guitar tab is really useful for the times when YouTube guitarists haven’t provided a lesson for a particular song. And even when they have, referring to a tab, alongside learning from a video is a great way to memorise the song. Also tabs can be much quicker, as they let you jump right to the section you want, and see the exact notes in an instant. 

How do tabs work?

Before you can know how to read guitar tabs, you need to know how they work.

When you look at a guitar tab, you’ll see six horizontal lines, each representing one of the guitar strings. The top line corresponds to the high E string, while the bottom line represents the low E string. This replicates the order of the strings as you look down at the neck of your guitar. 

Here are the chords of the classic Joline by Dolly Parton. If you replicate the numbers on the strings you’ll see that it shows the chords, Am C G Em.

E|—0——0——3——0—|

B|—1——1——3——0—|

G|—2——0——0——0—|

D|—2——2——0——2—|

A|—0——3——2——2—|

E|—x——x——3——0—|

Vertical lines divide the tab into measures, organizing the music and maintaining rhythm.

The numbers on the lines indicate the frets you should play on each string. For example, if you see a “0” on a string, it means you play that string open, without pressing down any frets. If there’s a “1” on a string, you need to press down the first fret.

Reading guitar tab is a left-to-right process, just like reading a book. The notes or numbers on the lines are played in the order they appear, left-to-right. When multiple numbers align vertically on different strings, it signifies a chord. To play a chord, you hold down all of the notes shown at the same time, and strum them together. 

Understanding Different Types of Guitar Tabs

Guitar tabs come in a few different formats, each catering to different preferences and needs. The two most common types are text-based tabs and interactive tabs. Understanding the key differences essential in learning how to read guitar tabs.

Text-based Guitar Tabs

Text-based tabs are the most common and straightforward format. They use ASCII numbers and letters and symbols to write down the tab. A series of dashes are used for each of the strings like this: 

e|———————————|

B|———————————|

G|———————————|

D|———————————|

A|——2–3–5——————–|

E|—3—————————–|

Interactive Guitar Tabs

Interactive tabs let you hear a simplified version of the music as you play along. They are often found in guitar learning software, websites, or apps. Interactive tabs flow through the music at the pace you set, highlighting the notes as the song progresses. This format allows you to play along with the tab, making it easier to synchronize your playing with the music.

If an interactive tab is available, then it’s the clearly better choice. But text based tabs are far more common, particularly for more obscure songs, as they’re created by other guitarists.

Comparing Tablature and Sheet Music

Before we dive deeper, let’s understand the difference between tablature and sheet music. Sheet music, also known as standard notation, is a system of writing music using staff lines, notes, and symbols. It is a universal language applicable to all instruments. Tablature, on the other hand, is specific to stringed instruments like the guitar. It provides an intuitive way of visualizing music on the guitar’s fretboard.

Tabs simplify the representation of music, focusing solely on finger placement rather than complex rhythmic aspects and note durations as you can find with sheet music.

Components of Guitar Tablature

To read guitar tabs effectively, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the different components that make up tablature.

Symbols on Guitar Tabs

In addition to numbers, guitar tabs use various symbols and characters to provide additional information and techniques. Let’s explore some common symbols you’ll encounter when reading guitar tabs.

h = Hammer-On

The letter “h” in guitar tabs stands for the hammer-on technique. A hammer-on involves first fretting one note, and then playing a note above it on the same string by quickly “hammering” your finger onto a higher fret without picking the string again. To execute a hammer-on, strike the first note and promptly press your finger down on a higher fret of the same string – indicated by the tab.

For instance, if you see “3h5” on the high E string, strike the third fret and hammer-on to the fifth fret without picking the string again.

p = Pull-Off 

The letter “p” represents the pull-off technique in guitar tabs. Pulling-off involves playing a note by “pulling off” your finger from a higher fret to a lower fret on the same string. To execute a pull-off, strike the first note and flick your finger off the string from the higher fret to reveal the lower fret.

For example, if you see “5p3” on the high E string, play the fifth fret and pull off to the third fret without picking the string again.

/ or \ = Slide Up or Slide Down

A line connecting two notes means that you slide between them, holding the note down and either sliding up, or sliding down to the second note, allowing you to smoothly transition from one note to another. 

If the line goes down, you need to slide backwards down the neck, to arrive at a lower note. If the line goes up, you need to slide up the neck to a higher note. 

For a slide upwards, strike the first note and slide your finger up to the specified fret while maintaining contact with the string. For example, “3/5” on the high E string means strike the third fret and slide your finger up to the fifth fret.

For a slide downwards, strike the first note and slide your finger down to the specified fret. For example, “5\3” on the high E string means play the fifth fret and slide your finger down to the third fret.

b = Bending

The letter “b” in guitar tabs represents the bending technique. Bending a note involves pushing or pulling the string to change its pitch, adding an expressive effect. The number following the “b” indicates the pitch to which you should bend the note.

For instance, if you see “7b9” on the high E string, play the seventh fret and bend the string to reach the pitch of the ninth fret.

With interactive tabs, a bend is shown with an arrow that curves up. 

x = Muted or Deadened String

The letter “x” denotes a muted or deadened string in guitar tabs. When you encounter an “x” on a string, you should either lightly touch the string without pressing it down on any fret or avoid playing that particular string.

For example, if you see “x” on the A string (5th string), mute or skip that string while playing the other notes.

() = Ghost Notes or Muted Notes

Parentheses () are used in guitar tabs to indicate ghost notes or muted notes. Ghost notes are played by lightly touching the string without pressing it down on any fret, producing a muted or percussive sound.

For instance, if you see “(5)” on the D string (4th string), lightly touch the string without pressing it down on any fret to produce a muted sound.

~ = Vibrato 

The tilde “~” symbol in guitar tabs represents the vibrato technique. Vibrato adds a subtle and expressive touch to the sound by rapidly fluctuating the pitch of a note. To perform vibrato, move your finger back and forth while maintaining pressure on the string.

For example, if you see “7~” on the high E string, play the seventh fret and apply vibrato by moving your finger back and forth to create a fluctuating pitch.

<> = Natural Harmonic 

The angled brackets “<>” in guitar tabs indicate a natural harmonic technique. Natural harmonics are produced by lightly touching a string over a specific fret, without pushing it down, and plucking the string to create a bell-like tone.

For instance, if you come across “<12>” on the high E string, lightly touch the string over the 12th fret and pluck the string to produce a natural harmonic.

t = Right Hand Tapping 

The letter “t” in guitar tabs represents the right-hand tapping technique. Tapping involves using your picking hand (usually the right hand for right-handed guitarists) to fret a note on the fretboard instead of using your fingers on the left hand.

For example, if you see “t12” on the high E string, tap the string at the 12th fret using your picking hand to produce the note.

PM = Palm Mute Technique

The abbreviation “PM” in guitar tabs denotes the palm mute technique. Palm muting involves lightly resting the edge of your picking hand near the bridge of the guitar to dampen the strings’ vibrations, as you play the strings, creating a muted and percussive sound.

This is that famous ‘chug’ sound we all know and love from metal and rock. 

PM will be indicated above the tab to show that the corresponding chord or note needs to be played with a palm mute. 

Understanding Guitar Tab Symbols: A Summary

To recap, here are the common symbols you’ll encounter when reading guitar tabs:

– “h” = hammer-on.

– “p” = pull-off.

– “/” = slide upwards.

– “\” = slide downwards.

– “b” = bend.

– “x” = muted or deadened string.

– () = ghost notes or muted notes.

– “~” = vibrato.

– “<>” = natural harmonic.

– “t” = right-hand tap.

– “PM” = palm mute.

Get to know these symbols and you’ll be well on your way to playing songs from tabs more like the record.

Writing Your Own Guitar Tab

Creating your own guitar tabs allows you to document your compositions, transcribe songs, or share musical ideas with others. To write a formal guitar tab, follow these steps:

1. Begin with a blank sheet of paper or a tablature editor program.

2. Draw six horizontal lines to represent the strings of the guitar.

3. Label the lines with the appropriate string numbers or letters.

4. Use vertical lines to divide the tab into measures.

5. Write the numbers on the lines to indicate the frets and strings to be played.

6. Add symbols and characters to indicate techniques such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, and more.

7. Include any additional information, such as chord names or lyrics, above or below the tab.

By following these guidelines, you can create clear and comprehensive guitar tabs that accurately represent your musical ideas.

Using a Guitar Tab Template

Using a guitar tab template can simplify the process of creating tabs and ensure consistency in your notation. You can find pre-designed tab templates online or create your own using software or word processing tools.

By using a template, you can focus on the creative part, playing your guitar and writing music, while maintaining an organized format.

Exploring Online Resources for Guitar Tabs

We’re in a golden age of guitar tabs, with millions of songs out there on the internet for you, tabbed out and ready to learn. 

Here are some popular platforms and websites where you can find guitar tabs:

Ultimate Guitar (www.ultimate-guitar.com): This website offers a massive collection of guitar tabs, chords, and lessons for a wide range of songs and genres. It provides interactive features, user reviews, and multiple versions of tabs to suit different skill levels.

Songsterr (www.songsterr.com): Songsterr provides high-quality interactive tabs with synchronized playback, allowing you to follow along and play songs in real-time. It offers a vast catalog of popular songs, along with features such as playback speed control and looping.

Guitar Pro (www.guitar-pro.com): Guitar Pro is a popular software program that allows you to create, edit, and play back guitar tabs. It also provides a vast library of tabs from various genres, along with advanced features for learning and practicing.

YouTube: Many guitarists share video tutorials featuring tab on YouTube. You can search for specific songs followed by “guitar tutorial” or “guitar cover” to find video lessons or performances that include guitar tabs in the video description or as on-screen annotations.

Remember to use these resources responsibly and respect copyright laws by using tabs for personal learning purposes and not for commercial distribution.

Conclusion: how to read guitar tabs

We hope this guide has helped you read guitar tab. Mastering the skill of reading guitar tabs is a vital step in becoming a great guitarist. By understanding the different types of tabs, deciphering numbers and symbols, and using online resources, you can confidently read and create guitar tabs. So grab your guitar, find a tab for your favorite song, and start playing! The world of music awaits you.

FAQs: How to read guitar tabs

Can guitar tabs convey rhythm and timing?

Guitar tabs focus primarily on finger placement and note identification, rather than providing detailed rhythmic information. However, by listening to the song and following along with the tab, you can develop a sense of timing and rhythm.

Can I rely solely on guitar tab to learn to play the guitar?

While guitar tabs are an excellent resource for learning songs and building repertoire, it’s also beneficial to supplement your learning with other resources. Combining tabs with music theory, ear training, and proper technique will enhance your overall understanding of the instrument and help you become a well-rounded guitarist.

How accurate are online guitar tabs?

The accuracy of online guitar tabs can vary. Many tabs are created by enthusiasts and may contain errors or interpretations. However, websites with user ratings and reviews, such as Ultimate Guitar, can help identify more accurate and trusted tabs. Always listen to the original song alongside studying the tab to ensure you’re capturing the right sound.

Is it legal to share or distribute guitar tabs online?

Sharing or distributing copyrighted songs in tab form without permission can infringe on copyright laws. Always ensure you have the right permissions and use tabs responsibly, primarily for personal learning and not for commercial distribution.

Why are some tabs labeled “pro” or “official”?

These labels typically indicate that the tab has been professionally created or reviewed, ensuring higher accuracy. “Official” tabs might be sourced directly from the artist or publisher, whereas “pro” tabs are usually made with higher attention to detail and may come with additional features like play-along tracks or interactive tools.

Do guitar tabs show strumming patterns?

Most basic guitar tabs don’t show strumming patterns. However, some advanced or detailed tabs may include annotations for strumming patterns, especially if it’s essential for playing the song correctly. Often, these patterns are indicated above the tab with arrows (up or down) or with abbreviations like “D” for downstroke and “U” for upstroke.

Are there tabs for different tunings?

Yes, guitar tabs can be created for any guitar tuning. Check the letters labelling each string to see what tuning it’s in. For songs that use open tunings, drop tunings, or other alternate tunings, it’s essential to adjust your guitar accordingly to match the tab and achieve the right sound.

How accurate are online guitar tabs?

The accuracy of online guitar tabs can vary. Some are created by professional musicians and are highly accurate, while others are transcribed by enthusiasts and may have errors. Websites that offer user ratings or reviews can help you judge the reliability of a particular tab. Always cross-reference with official sources or use your ear to verify a tab’s accuracy.

How do I know which fingers to use for each note in a tab?

Guitar tabs usually don’t specify which fingers to use for each note. Players often determine finger placement based on comfort, ease of movement, and the need to play subsequent notes. Over time, as you become more familiar with playing, you’ll develop a sense of which fingerings work best for different situations.