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How to Read Guitar Tabs

Guitar tabs are the main way in which music is transcribed for guitar players. But at first glance tablature can be a little confusing and not easy to figure out. So in this lesson we’re going to look at how to read guitar tabs. We’ll cover the basics to get you up to speed quickly and dive into the guitar tab symbols to make sense of what they mean as well.

What Is Guitar Tablature?

Guitar tablature is a way to notate music in a way that maps logically to the guitar. While the traditional music staff is appropriate for instruments such as the piano, it doesn’t convey very well to the guitar. The grid layout on the guitar makes it really difficult to determine where a specific note is to be played using the traditional music staff. Guitar tablature solves this problem by using a string/fret layout to notate the specific notes to be played.

In the graphics below, you can see the difference between guitar tablature and standard notation.

Guitar tablature and standard music notation

In order to read guitar tabs, you need to understand the two main components of guitar tablature…lines and numbers.

The Basics of Reading Guitar Tab

Like the traditional music staff, guitar tablature uses lines to illustrate the music. However, instead of the lines/spaces representing specific notes as with the music staff, the lines represent the strings of the guitar. If you’re familiar with scale diagrams, you know that they’re traditionally laid out with the low E string (thickest string) shown at the bottom of the diagram and the high E (thinnest string) located at the top of the diagram. Guitar tablature follows this same layout.

Strings numbers on guitar tabs and fretboard diagrams

As you can see in the diagram, each line represents a string on the guitar.

The Numbers on Guitar Tab

The numbers shown on the lines of the guitar tab indicate the fret number of the note to be played for a given string. In the tab below the 3 on the bottom line tells you to play the note at the 3rd fret of the 6th string. I’ve included a fretboard diagram for clarity.

Tab relation to guitar fretboard diagram

Taking this a step further, we can tab out a complete scale that moves from the 6th string to the 4th string.

Major scale on guitar tab

While guitar tablature will vary in the details of the notation, these two components (string lines and fret numbers) are the foundation of reading guitar tab and will be found in all tab notation.

Stacked Numbers

Numbers that are stacked on top of each other mean they are to be played at the same time. This is how chords, double stops, etc. are notated in guitar tablature. In the case of chord strumming, a line with an arrow may be present to indicate which direction the strum should be performed (top down/bottom up).

Strumming patterns for chords as notated in guitar tabs

These are the key component of being able to read guitar tabs, but there is also more useful information that they can contain. Let’s take a look at some of the other things we can get from guitar tablature.

Reading Guitar Tab Symbols and Notation

Guitar tab can vary quite a bit in the amount of information included depending on the software used to create the tab and the individual settings of that software. In the tab above, you may have noticed some other things in the tab aside from the numbers on the string lines. Guitar tab uses symbols and other notation to provide additional information on the music in the tablature, such as bar number, time signature, note values, etc.

Time Signature

Time signature notated in guitar tablature

Some tab includes the time signature before the first bar and at any point in which it may change throughout the music. The time signature is noted by two large numbers stacked on top of each other. The top number indicates the number of divisions per bar or measure while the bottom number indicates the note that gets the beat. In standard time (4/4), the top 4 indicates 4 beats per measure and the bottom note means the quarter note gets the beat.

Notes

Most of the tablature on this site includes note information along with the fret numbers. In other words, each note is assigned a value of a quarter note, half-note, eighth note etc. This tells you how long a specific note is held when played and clues you in on rhythmic aspects of the music.

Note values for guitar tablature

Bars

The little numbers above the tab lines located at the start of each bar indicate the bar number, or measure number.

Notation for bar numbers on guitar tab

Bends

Bends are indicated by curved lines (straight lines in the case of a pre-bends) that extend up from the fret number to which the bend applies. There are four main types bends that you’ll see most frequently: bend, bend and release, pre-bend, pre-bend and release. Along with the curved/straight line will be a number indicating how many steps the note should be bent, typically ranging from 1/2 to 1, but can also go as low as 1/4 step and as high as 2 steps. You may also see “full” used in place of a 1 to indicate a full (1-step) bend.

Notation for string bends in guitar tablature

Hammer-on / Pull-off

Hammer-ons and pull-offs are noted with an H (hammer-on) and P (pull-off) with a curved line connecting the two (or more) notes to which the technique applies.

Guitar tablature notation for hammer on and pull off

Slides

Slides are notated using a straight line angled up or down going to and/or from the fret number depending on the type of slide (ie. sliding into a note, sliding out of a note, sliding from one note to another etc.) with a curved line over top. You’ll also see the abbreviation “sl.” noted above the tab lines.

Slides noted on guitar tablature

Vibrato

Vibrato is a string bending technique where you oscillate a note back and forth rhythmically. This is one of the true nuances of guitar playing and is unique to every guitar player. In fact, some guitar players can probably be identified solely based on their vibrato.

In guitar tab, vibrato is notated using a squiggly line above the tab lines.

Vibrato as notated on guitar tablature

Picking Direction

Another common symbol you may see in guitar tablature is for indicating picking direction. This is particularly useful when trying to notate a specific alternate picking pattern in the tab. In this case, you’ll see symbols like those in the tab below indicating either an upstroke or downstroke.

Upstroke and downstroke notated in guitar tablature

Palm Muting

If you’re not familiar with palm muting, it’s a technique where you rest your palm against the strings to mute the vibration of the strings as you pick the notes. In guitar tab, palm muting is notated using the initials P.M followed by a dashed line for the duration of the mute.

Guitar tablature notation for palm muting

Wrap Up

Guitar tab is an effective and quick way to notate and read music specific to the guitar. Knowing how to read guitar tabs opens up a whole new world for the guitar player. While there are many other nuances not covered in this particular lesson, the information contained here will help jumpstart your learning process using guitar tablature.

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