[Series] Guitar for Beginners > Lesson 2: How to Read Guitar Tabs
Learning how to read guitar tabs – or tablature – is a critically important part of learning to play the guitar. Tablature is musical notation created specifically for stringed instruments – in this case, guitar.
While guitar tabs might look a bit confusing at first, once you break them down into separate components, they actually become pretty easy to understand.
With that in mind, let’s look at how to read guitar tabs.
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Guitar tabs, also known as guitar tablature, is a form of musical notation used by all guitar players to learn and write songs.
Learning how to read tabs as opposed to learning how to read traditional sheet music, allows you to quickly and easily understand how to play any song on the guitar.
Tabs show you what notes to play, how to play them, and which fingers to use.
Think of them like shorthand musical notation, which makes them especially useful for beginners.
Let’s take a closer look.
Guitar Tabs Terminology
Before we get on to the nuts and bolts of reading tabs, it’s helpful to first understand a few terms.
A tab is a visual representation of where to put your fingers in order to play a song, a solo, or a musical idea.
It is usually displayed on a tablature staff, which consists of six horizontal lines.
Each of those six horizontal lines represents a string on the guitar. Here’s the order starting from top to bottom:
- High E string = 1st string
- B string = 2nd string
- G string = 3rd string
- D string = 4th string
- A string = 5th string
- Low E string = 6th string
Frets are the thin strips that run laterally along the neck of the guitar.
If you’re right-handed, the fret furthest to your left is the first fret. The next one closer to you is the second fret. And so on.
If you’re playing on a left-handed guitar, the same applies except the first fret is the one furthest to your right.
Tabs show you exactly what finger you should be using for each note. It’s pretty easy to remember the numbering system for your fingers:
- Index finger = 1
- Middle finger = 2
- Ring finger = 3
- Pinky finger = 4
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Now that we’ve gone through all the terminology of a guitar tab, let’s have a look at how to read guitar tabs.
To make sure you hit the ground running, here are a few simple tips:
- Read from left to right: To read a tab, you read from left to right, as you would a book.
- View it the right way around: The tab is displayed as if you’re looking down at your guitar neck to make things easier for the player.
- Fret numbers: The fret numbers on a tab represent the fret that is going to be held down on that specific string. For example, if you see the number 3 on the bottom line, that means that you’ll be holding down the third fret on the low E string.
- Stacked numbers: Vertically stacked numbers represent chords. So as with all chords, you’ll play multiple notes at once.
- Lyrics and chord changes: For parts of songs that consist only of chords, you’ll notice the tab is omitted and there will be a list of chord changes in its place (e.g. Bm, D7, Am).
- Rhythm: It’s difficult to discern the rhythm of a song using tablature – the best way is to listen to a song with the tabs in front of you to hear how the rhythm is played out,
Reading Special Tab Symbols
There are a couple of special symbols that appear in tablature that might be new to you. Let’s have a look at some of these:
The hammer-on requires you to play the first note as normal, but for the second note you press down – or hammer on – with another finger on the same string. The sound is quite different from picking the note as it’s the fretting hand that produces the sound rather than the picking hand.
A hammer-on is displayed as either an “h” or “^”. For example, 5h7 or 5^7.
The pull-off requires you to play the first note as normal, but then pull off your finger to sound a second note that’s lower than the first without picking again. The pull-off is essentially the opposite technique to the hammer-on.
In tablature, the pull-off is indicated with a “p”. For example, 7p5.
If you’d like to improve your technique, check out these pull-off exercises.
Bending requires you to bend the note up or down a half note or whole note and can be performed on any string.
It is a very fun technique that’s often used in blues and rock, amongst other genres.
A bend is indicated with a “b”. For example, 5b7.
A slide involves playing a note and sliding your finger up or down the fretboard on the same string without releasing it.
An ascending slide going up the fret is denoted with “/” – for example, 5/7.
A descending slide going down the fret is denoted by “\” – for example, 7\5.
A vibrato is a simple effect that can really help you add some personal flare to your guitar playing. To perform a vibrato, simply play a note and use your fretting hand to bend it rapidly up and down repeatedly.
It’s indicated by the symbol “~” or “v”. For example, 5~.
Tapping is a technique where you use one of the fingers on your picking hand (usually your index) to tap down hard on a fret ahead of a note that you just played. You can use this technique in conjunction with hammer-ons and pull-offs to really get creative with your technique.
Tapping is indicated by the letter “t” placed above the numbers of the tab.
What’s After Guitar Tabs?
Once you know your way around tabs, take your guitar practice to the next level with my guitar workshop – Tony’s Acoustic Challenge.
It’s full of guitar tips and exercises that will keep you having fun on your guitar journey regardless of what level you’re at. I designed it specifically to help guitar players of all levels see consistent, meaningful progress and have fun at the same time.
Watch this FREE guitar class for three secrets to learn guitar faster in just 10 minutes a day.