TABs: How To (Easily) Read Guitar Tablature | Quick Beginner Guide
Understand how to properly read guitar Tabs - the best music notation tool for guitar players who can't read music
What Is Guitar Tablature?
Guitar tablature (aka - tab or TAB) is a unique way of writing out music specifically designed for guitar players. It's an easy way to write down single notes or chords and is a form of music notation that makes it quicker and easy for guitarists to learn how to play songs, riffs and solos.
READ ME: Watch the video for a break down of how to read tablature for absolute beginner guitar players. Read through the post, and by the end of it, you'll understand how to quickly and easily read TAB on your own.
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How Do You Read Guitar Tablature?
If you know how to guitar read guitar chord boxes and scale diagrams, just think of the the basic guitar tablature grid (aka stave or staff) as being similar to a horizontal scale box.
Take a peep at the diagram below (Fig 1.0). The 6 horizontal lines represent your guitar strings, and the open string notes are laid out from the bottom (bass) strings to the top (treble) strings.
Pro Tip: Avoid a common beginner mistake: always remember the thickest low E string is at the bottom of guitar tablature and the high E string is located at the top, not the other way around.
Fig 1.0 - How to read guitar tablature: fretboard diagram showing what the lines mean, order of the guitar strings and fret numbers.
The Different Types Of Guitar Tablature
There are a few different types of tablature design you’ll see online and in books. With that being said, let’s now explore those main tab variations to get rid of any confusion for you down the line.
1. Text-Based Tablature
The first and most common type of tablature isn’t the prettiest and is known as text tablature or text-based tablature which created in a simple text editor. See the diagram below in Fig 1.1:
Fig 1.1 - How to read guitar tablature: traditional text-based tab notation example
2. Tablature Creator Software
The second example of tablature design as shown in Fig 1.2 is guitar tab that has been created using a special tablature making software. This looks more professional than old fashioned text-based tab and is easier to read as a result. Tabs with this type of design are created in tablature creation software such as Guitar Pro™.
Fig 1.2 - How to read guitar tablature: tab design created in tablature music notation software such as MuseScore, Finale and Guitar Pro 7.5.
3. Tablature Plus Standard Notation
Tablature variation number three features two staffs (Fig 1.3). The lower staff shows tablature, whilst the upper one displays standard music notation. This version of tab is especially handy for guitar players who can read music.
Fig 1.3 - How to read guitar tablature: tab design with tablature notation plus standard music notation
4. Tablature Showing String Notes & Numbers
The tablature diagram below is my personal favourite tab design because it’s user-friendly for beginners thanks to the string note names and string numbers to the left of the stave.
Fig 1.4 - Tablature example showing open string notes and numbers down the side particularly easier for beginner guitar players to understand
Pro Tip: Some tablature you'll find online may contain alternative symbols because they're created by a mix of different individuals and tablature creation software.
What The Numbers and Lines Mean In Tablature
Now you’ve seen the different types of guitar tab, let’s look at what everything means:
Fig 1.5 - How to read guitar tabs: what the details mean in tablature
Here’s a complete rundown:
- Horizontal Lines - The six horizontal lines in tablature represent the six guitar strings.
- String Order - The low bass (6th) E string is at the bottom of the tab, whilst the top thin (1st) E string is at the top (like in a scale diagram).
- Numbers - The numbers on the horizontal lines (strings) represent single notes and which fret number that note is to be played on.
- 0 - “0” in tablature means to play the open string.
- X - “x” in the tab stands for ‘mute’ and means the string should not be played.
- Staggered numbers - Numbers arranged left to right in tab notation mean that you play each note separately, one after the other. Usually this signifies that the notes are to be picked.
- Stacked numbers - Notes stacked vertically on top of each other in tab as shown at the end of the diagram in Fig 1.5 mean that you should play all the notes at the same time. That is to say, you should strum a chord shape.
- 4/4 - When you see 4/4 at the start of guitar tablature staff, it is telling you the time signature of the piece of music will be four beats to every bar.
What The Most Common Tablature Symbols Mean
Every symbol in guitar tablature represents playing techniques such as bends, vibrato, slides and hammer-ons. Let's have a look at the most common symbols used in tab.
Hammer-ons and Pull-offs
Hammer-on: When you see a curving arc above two notes connecting them, this indicates you are to pick the first note and hammer-on the next note by firmly hitting your finger down onto the fret.
Pull-off: A curving arc underneath two adjacent notes in tablature means you should pull-off the note. This is achieved by playing the first note then pulling your finger off the fret to produce the sound of a lower note.
Alternative text tab symbols: Hammer-on = “h” (e.g. 3-h-5)
Pull-off = “p” (e.g. 9-p-7)
Slides - Up and Down
When you see a slanted slash sign between adjacent notes you must fret a note and slide up or down the string to the next note without releasing pressure. An upwards slope “/” indicates you ascend up to the next note, a downwards slope “\” means descend down.
The curve over the slanted lines in the tab above indicates a legato slide (long and flowing slide not plucking the destination note).
Alternative text tab symbols: Slide up = “/” (e.g. 3-/-5)
Slide down = “\” (e.g. 9-\-7)
A curved line with an arrow is the tablature symbol for a bend. The distance (amount) you should bend the note is indicated by further information next to the arrow. This is because there are a variety of bends you can execute when playing the guitar.
The most common bend variations are shown in the tablature example above. From left to right they are “Full bend”, “Half bend”, “Full bend and full release”, and “Half step bend and release”. Full bend means you bend the note to the distance of a tone, whilst ½ bend means to bend the note the distance of one semitone.
Other bend types consist of release, prebend, prebend and release, and hold.Alternative text tab symbols: Bend = “b” (e.g. 3-b-5) Prebend = “pb” (e.g. 3-pb-5)
Vibrato and Palm Mute
Palm-muting: This technique is illustrated by the abbreviation “P.M-” with the dash’s indicating how long the palm mute should continue for.
Vibrato: When you see a wavy line by a note this indicates the vibrato technique. Vibrato is typically played on a note(s) at the end of a single melody phrase such as a solo or riff.
Alternative text tab symbols: Vibrato = “~” or “v” (e.g. 3~ & 7-v-9)
Downstroke & Upstroke
Downstrokes: These look like a tabletop with two legs and indicate you should pick the note in a downwards direction. Some tablature also uses the downstroke symbol to represent a down strum also.
Upstrokes: When you see a “V” in tab, this is telling you to play the note with an upwards pick motion towards the ceiling. When this symbol is above stacked notes this is telling you to strum the indicated strings with an upwards motion.
Alternative text tab symbols: Downstroke = “v or D”
Upstroke =” ^ or U”
Summing It Up
Whilst it can’t be denied, tablature is a great guitar player tool, but don't solely rely on tabs alone to learn pieces of music.
Because tablature doesn't show you how to play the correct timing, rhythm or dynamics in a piece of music, unless you’re already a highly accomplished musician, tabs on their own won't teach you how to play songs exactly how they should sound.
Take the guesswork out, either learn how to read music notation, develop your ear training, and/or get yourself a good guitar tutor to help you.
What other reasons do you think guitar players shouldn't rely solely on Tabs for learning songs on guitar? Tell us what you think in the comments section below...
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