How to Read Guitar Tabs – Guitarists have their own special system of music notation called guitar tablature, or “guitar tabs” for short. Using guitar tabs, a guitarist can play a wide variety of music without ever having to learn how to read standard sheet music.
Though guitar tabs aren’t a perfect way of describing music, they’ve allowed newer generations of guitarists to quickly and easily share information about how to play songs across the globe via the internet.
Every guitarist should have at least a basic understanding of how to read tablature – it’s the de facto shorthand for much of the guitar music you’ll find written out online.
How to Read Guitar Tabs
Definitions you need to know
Tablature (orÂ tab) writing is widely used in string instruments. And it could not be any different, after all its reading is quite simple and practical, as we will see below. We will show the guitar tab here, because this is the writing usedÂ here in the website. The tabs for other string instruments follow the same principle.
The form of writing by tab consists ofÂ 6 lines representing the 6 loose strings of the guitar. The order of the strings in the tab, from top to bottom, is as follows:
The thickest and lowest string (low E) is at the bottom, while the thinnest and highest string (high E) is at the top. The other strings follow the same logic that the instrument presents.
On top of each string, a number is placed that represents the guitar fret that must be pressed. Please see below:
In this example, you should press the third fret of the A string with your left hand and play that string with your right hand. When other numbers appear in sequence, you must play one note afterÂ another. Observe:
In that case, you should play the 5th fret of the D string, then the 7th fret of the D string, then the 5th fret of the G string, and so on.Â Note: the number zero represents the loose string (without pressing any frets), for example:
Here, the B string should be played loose. When the numbers appear on top of each other, it means thatÂ they must be played at the same time. See the example below:
In this case, you should press all of these frets on their respective strings and play them at the same time. Notice that this is how we represent hop-am. If a line appears empty at that moment, it should not be played.
Very well, this is tab writing. See how simple it is? In the tab, in addition to showing what you should play, we can also show theÂ techniquesÂ used to play eachÂ note.
Below are the most common techniques and symbologies.
This technique consists ofÂ hammering the string in a respective fret with the left hand, without the aid of the right handÂ (the one who plays the note is the left hand only). It can be represented by the letter h next to the number that shows the fret to be played, or by a line connecting one note to another:
Consists ofÂ sliding the finger of the left hand down on a stringÂ that was being pressed, in order to play that stringÂ without the aid of the right hand. Look at the example below (the notation is identical to the hammer-on):
In this case, the finger that was pressing on the 5th fret of the A string should slide downwards (vertical) so that the 3rd fret is played. Notice that this finger on the left hand is taking on the function that it would be playing on the right hand to play the 5th string when the 3rd fret was being pressed.
A Pull-off can also be represented by the letter p. This technique represents the opposite of the Hammer-on.
These two techniques are oftenÂ used together and are called âlegatoâ. For example:
Consists ofÂ raising or lowering a string with the fingers of your left hand, with the aim of reaching the sound of the frets in front of the fret that was pressed. When the Bend reaches the sound of one fret ahead, it is called aÂ half Bend. When it reaches the sound of two frets ahead, itâs called aÂ whole step Bend,Â orÂ Full Bend. Higher notes can also be reached. The higher the string is raised, the higher the sound becomes, that is, more steps ahead are possible to be reached. Its notation is an arrow that tells you how manyÂ stepsÂ to reach:
In this example, the Bend should be half-step. When you want to lift the string and then return to the starting position (reverse bend), the notation is as follows:
Consists ofÂ sliding the finger of the left hand horizontally, going from one fret to another, sliding the finger through the frets of the instrument until reaching the destination. Its notation is a dash:
In this example, you should press/play the 5th fret on the 3rd string and then slide your finger to the 9th fret of that string (letting that string sound in this whole process).
Consists of vibrating the finger after pressing and playing a string and a specific fret. This oscillation is achieved by âshakingâ your finger, as if you were making many very short bends quickly up and down. Its notation is a slight wave after the note to be pressed:
Consists of hammering a string in a certain fret using the right hand instead of the left. It is the same technique that we saw for the legatos (Hammer-on and Pull-off), only performed by the right hand instead of the left hand. Guitarist Eddie Van Hallen spread this technique in the 1980s. However, there are records of this technique being used long before that, even before Van Hallen was born, so he cannot be considered the âinventorâ of Tapping. The fact is that, after him, this technique ended up being widely disseminated and incorporated into the solos of thousands of guitar and bass players.
Tapping is represented by the letter âTâ, indicating which fret and string should be pressed with this technique:
Generally, tapping is used in conjunction with Hammer-ons and Pull-offs on the left hand, allowing a âwalkâ through the fretboard of the instrument using the legato techniques with both hands, as if playing a piano. Therefore, this technique is also known as Two-Hands.
There are dozens of less common techniques that are not standardized. The author of the tab must, in this case, indicate the meaning of the notation somewhere on the tab to avoid confusion.
We recommend that every musician alsoÂ learn sheet music, as the tablature does not inform the beats and rhythms associated with the song. Although there is also the notation of times in the tab, but it is less popular.
So, donât limit yourself to the tab and also read our article that clearly teaches you sheet music, unless you are a beginner in music studies. In that case, we recommend that you spend more time practicing the tab and studying music through it, until you feel comfortable with the notes on the fretboard of your instrument. That way, when you learn sheet music, the process will be much more productive and faster.
Using Tabs to Fret Notes and Chords
1.View tab notation as a representation of the guitar’s strings.
written using six horizontal lines, each corresponding with a string on the guitar. The bottom line represents the lowest, thickest string, while the top string represents the highest, thinnest string. For standard tunings, this means that the lines will represent, from the bottom up, the low E, A, D, G, B and high E strings.
2. Use the numbers on the tab to fret spaces on the neck.
Unlike normal musical notation, guitar tabs don’t tell you which notes to play. Instead, they tell you where to put your fingers. Numbers on the lines correspond to frets on the fretboard. Each number represents a specific fret on the line it’s written on. For instance, a “1” on the bottom line means to fret the first fret of the lowest string and play that note.
- If the number is greater than 0, (1, 2, 3, 4, etc), then press your finger on that fret when you play, with “1” being the fret closest to the stock and fret numbers increasing as you move towards the guitar’s body. If the number is 0, then pluck the open string without fretting any notes.
3. Play vertically stacked numbers at the same time.
When reading tabs, many times, you’ll come across numbers that are aligned vertically. These are chords. Fret every note in the chord as written, then play the notes all at the same time. You’ll get a fuller sound then. You might see the chord name written as well. See Example 2 below.
4. Proceed from left to right.
Tabs are read like sentences in a book – read them from left to right, across the page, dropping down to the next line only when you’ve reached the end of the previous. Play the notes and hop-am in sequence as you read them from left to right.
- Note that most (but not all) tabs don’t display the rhythm with which you should play the notes in the tab. They may break the tab into measures (usually signified by vertical lines in the tab between measures, but they won’t tell you the rhythm of the notes within the measures. In this case, it’s best to listen to the song while you read the tab to find the beat.
- Some advanced tabs do count out the beat for you – this is usually done by including rhythmic markings along the top of the tab notation. Each marking is vertically aligned with a note or a rest to give a sense of how long the note or rest lasts. Typical rhythmic markings include:
- w = whole note h = half note q = quarter note. e = eighth note. s = sixteenth note. Sometimes & markings are included to show that a note or rest lies on the “and” of a certain beat.
- A dot after the rhythm marking means the corresponding note or rest is dotted. For instance, q. = dotted quarter note.
- For rhythm basics, see How to Read Music
5.Look for lyrics or chord changes
Many songs have guitar parts made up solely (or mostly) of chords. This is especially true for rhythm guitar parts. In this case, the tab may forgo typical tab notation in favor of a simplified list of chord changes. These chords are almost always written in standard chord notation (Amin = A minor, E7 = E dominant 7, etc.) Simply play the chords in the order that they’re listed – if it’s not noted otherwise, try playing one chord per measure, but if the changes don’t sound right, listen to the song for the strumming pattern.
- Sometimes, these chord changes are printed above the lyrics of the song to give you a sense of when these chords are played, as in this snippet from a tab for The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout:”
- Well shake it up baby, now (shake it up baby)
Reading Special Symbols
1. Look for additional symbols in the tab.
As you can see in the example above, many tabs aren’t just collections of lines and notes. Tabs use a wide variety of special symbols to tell you how to play the notes in the tab. Most symbols refer to specific playing techniques – to make a song sound as much like the recording as possible, pay attention to these special markings.
2.Learn the symbol for Hammer ons.
In a tab, an “h” inserted between two notes (e.g. 7h9) means to perform a hammer on. To hammer on, play the first note normally, then use a finger on your fretting hand to tap down on the second note without using your strumming hand to pluck the note.
- Sometimes “^” is used instead (e.g. 7^9).
3. Learn the symbol for Pull offs
– A “p” inserted between two notes (e.g. 9p7) means to perform a pull off, which is essentially the opposite of a hammer on. Pluck the first note while using another finger to fret the second note. Then, quickly lift the finger fretting the first note. The second note will sound.
- As with hammer ons, sometimes “^” is used instead (e.g. 9^7). In this case, know to perform a pull off if the second note is lower and a hammer on if the second note is higher.
4. Learn the symbol for string bends.
If a “b” is inserted between two fret numbers (e.g. 7b9), fret the first note and bend it up until it sounds like the second.
- Sometimes the second number is in parentheses, and occasionally the “b” is omitted altogether. If there is an “r” it denotes what the note should be released to (e.g. 7b9r7).
5. Learn the symbols for slide techniques.
Perform a basic slide by striking a note, moving your finger up or down a string without releasing it from the fretboard, then striking another note. An ascending slide is marked by a forward slash “/” and a descending slide is marked by a backwards slash “\” (e.g. 7/9\7).
A lowercase “s” usually means to perform a legato slide. This is like a normal slide, but you only strike the first note with your pick. Let your target note sound simply from the motion in your fret hand.
- There is debate among guitarists over whether a light pick strike is appropriate for the target note. The most important thing is to remember to leave no gap between notes.
Shift slides are signified by an uppercase “S.” In this case, strike the target note without striking the initial note of the slide.
6. Learn the symbols for tremolo bar techniques.
If your guitar has a tremolo bar, (also known as a “whammy bar” or “vibrato bar”) follow these symbols to achieve some remarkably out-there effects.
If you see a “\n/,” where n = some number, perform a tremolo bar dip. Quickly hit and release the bar to dip the note’s pitch. The number between the slashes gives an indication of the pitch you should dip to – dip the pitch by “n” semitones (a semitone is the same as the pitch between two adjacent frets.) For instance, “\5/” means to drop the pitch by 5 semitones, which will be the same tone as 5 frets below the original note.
- If you see a “\n,” where n = some number, fret note “n,” then strike it and depress the tremolo bar deeply to dramatically drop the pitch.
- If you see “n/,” raise the tremolo bar up after striking note “n” to raise the pitch. On some guitars, you can also put your bar in “inverted” position first so that hitting the bar raises the pitch rather than lowers it.
- If you see “/n\,” perform a tremolo bar inverted dip by first depressing the tremolo bar, then raising it. As above, this also works in inverted position.
7. Learn the symbol for vibrato.
Look for “~” or “v”. If you see these symbols, perform vibrato on the preceding note. Strike the note, then use your fretting hand to rapidly bend and unbend the string, vibrating the pitch of the note.
8. Learn the symbols for muting techniques.
Several tab symbols indicate different methods for giving notes a “muted” sound.
If you see an “x” or a dot below the number, mute the string. Lay your fretting hand finger(s) across the designated strings so that when you strike them they produce a dull, clicking sound. Several “x” in a row, on adjacent strings, indicates a rake – just mute more than one string at once.
If you see “PM,” play using palm muting. For standard right-handed guitar playing, gently lay the edge of your right palm across the strings near the guitar’s bridge. When you strike the notes (with the same hand as is providing the mute), you should hear the tone of the note, but with a subdued, dead quality. Move your hand slightly up the strings toward the neck to deaden the notes more.
9. Learn the symbol for tapping.
Tapping is usually represented by a “t.” If you see a “t” in a string of notes, (e.g. 2h5t12p5p2) use one of the fingers on your picking hand (usually your right hand) to tap down hard on the indicated fret. This is a useful technique for making very rapid, fast changes in pitch.
10. Learn the symbols for harmonic techniques.
Guitar tabs differentiate between several different techniques for playing harmonics – bell-like tones created by special fretting techniques.
For natural harmonics, the fret is surrounded by “< >” (e.g. <7>). If you see this, lay a fretting finger across the metal line at the right of the fret, not the middle of the fret. Then, strike the string for a clear bell tone.
Pinch harmonics are signified by surrounding the fret number in brackets (e.g. [n]). To perform a pinch harmonic, strike the note with your pick hand while your pick hand thumb is also touching the note. Use vibrato from your fret hand to add sustain to the tone. Pinch harmonics are difficult. It requires lots of practice.
- Note: these are best performed on an electric guitar with distortion using a bridge pickup.
Tapped harmonics are signified by two notes, the second enclosed in parentheses (e.g. n(n)). Tapped harmonics are like natural harmonics, but shifted around the neck. Fret the first note, then use a finger on your pick hand to slap or strike the string at the second fret position.
11. Learn the symbol for trills.
When you see a “tr” written in or above the tab, it’s usually between (or above) two notes. Often, it’s accompanied by a string of tildes (“~’s.”) This simply means to strike the first note, then rapidly hammer on to the second note and pull off to the first note again and again.
12. Learn the symbol for tremolo picking.
“TP” means you should tremolo pick the note – essentially, pick the single note over and over as rapidly as you can. Sometimes, a TP symbol is followed by a string of tildes or dashes to give you a sense of how long to tremolo pick.
Reading an Example Tab
1. Glance over the tab below.
Notice that it shows several three-note chords as well as some individual notes descending on the higher strings. In the following steps, we’ll walk through this tab beat-by-beat.
2. Start with the chord at the far left.
In this case, first you would play a power chord in E (Middle finger/Finger 2 on the second fret on the A string, ring finger/Finger 3 on the second fret on the D string, and no finger on the low E string) strumming those first 3 strings (E,A,D) once. Play the chord highlighted with parentheses below:
3. Proceed to the next two chords.
The next chord you would play would be a power chord on the fifth fret of A three times. So you would play with your index finger on the fifth fret of A, your middle finger on the seventh fret of D, and your ring finger on the seventh fret of G. Then, simply shift this finger shape down one string so that your index finger is on the fifth fret of the E string with your other fingers on the seventh frets of the A and D strings. Play the chords in the sequence that they’re highlighted with parentheses below:
4. Play the individual notes at the right.
After the first 3 chords in the example, proceed to the right and play the single notes. Put any finger on the third fret of the high E string, pluck once, then play the open high E string, and so on through the six descending notes. Play the notes below in the order they’re highlighted in parentheses:
5. Put it all together.
Play the chords and notes from left to right without stopping. Tap your foot, playing each note or chord on each tap of your foot. Work slowly and carefully, only increasing your speed once you’ve mastered playing the tab slowly.
Guitar Tab Cheat Sheets
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