A complete guide to reading guitar tabs

Confused by all the symbols you see in guitar tabs? Follow this simple guide and you'll be speed-reading and playing along to your favourite songs in no time.

A complete guide to reading guitar tabs

Guitar tabs can be understood fairly easily once you understand the basics. Reading tablature lets guitarists follow entire arrangements including solos, melodic riffs and chord patterns. Therefore, being able to understand tab will help to learn all sorts of songs, classical guitar music and exercises.

Tablature vs. musical notation

A solid chunk of guitarists never learn to read standard musical notation, and with tab you don't need to. Like notation, tablature is read from left to right with vertical lines indicating the end of each bar, helping to keep time. The horizontal lines of tablature don't represent the notes of a scale, as with notation, but the strings of a guitar. In standard tuning, the six lines are E, A, D, G, B and high E reading from the bottom to the top, although other tuning arrangements can also be made using tab.

Each finger position is indicated by a number placed on one of the horizontal lines, which gives the desired fret position. For instance, a number 3 on the second line down indicates the note of D should be sounded on the B string at the third fret. However, no indication is given for the length of notes with tab, so there is no equivalent of a quaver or a crotchet symbol. Guitarists tend to overcome this problem by ear or from listening to recordings of the piece they are learning.

Chords

A string of numbers running from left to right on a tab indicates a melody. Where two or more numbers are shown on top of one another, it means more than one string—or possibly all six—should be played as a chord. For example, if the top line says 0, with 1, 2, 2, 0 and 0 showing underneath, progressing down the horizontal lines, the chord of E major is indicated.

Above the tab downward facing arrows mean a downward strum should be played, while the reverse indicates upstrokes. Use these arrows to help get the rhythm of a chord strumming pattern.

Playing melody and advanced techniques

Learning a melody tends to take longer than chord patterns. Practicing scales can help guitarists know which finger to use when a fret position is required in the tablature, especially if there's a long reach to make. Other symbols you should consider:

  • An 'h' before a number indicates that the note is hammered-on, or the fingering is used percussively to make the string sound.
  • Likewise, a 'p' indicates a pull-off which is the reverse—a technique often used in rock solos.
  • The symbols '/' and '' indicate that a note is slid up or down, a technique commonly used in country music as well as jazz guitar arrangements.
  • A staple of 1980's guitar solos, 't' indicates you should be tapping the note with the strumming finger moved up over the fretboard.
  • A 'b' indicates you should be bending a string. The number after the 'b' indicates to what tone you should be bending.
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