How to Read Guitar Tabs

For many easy songs, all you need are the chord diagrams. However, chord diagrams have their limitations, and many more complex songs need a better way to understand them.

That’s where tablature or ‘Tab’ comes in, giving you a much greater understanding of the song (without needing to understand music theory or read sheet music). It’s hard to get a feel for the rhythm from these diagrams – you do need musical notation for that – but for the beginner who wants to learn how to play a new piece of music, it’s ideal.

There are tons of lessons available online that use Tab, so in this post, we show you how to read them and explain all the ‘need to know’ symbols.

The 3 Basic Numbering Systems

Before we go on, check you understand these three numbering systems:

Frets

Frets are the metal strips on the neck of your guitar. If you’re holding the guitar, the first one is nearest the headstock and they go up the neck one by one. In Tab, you’re told which you need to press.

Fingers

You’ll often, but not always, be shown which finger to use. The numbering system goes like this: the index finger is 1, middle is 2, ring finger is 3, and pinky is 4.

Strings

Strings aren’t referred to by the key they’re in, they are numbered 1 through 6. The thinnest string is number 1, all the way through to the thickest string (number 6).

The Basic Layout

Let’s look at the basic layout of Tab. When you see one of these diagrams, notice there’ll often be a standard notation on top and a Tab at the bottom. Unless you’re able to read music, you can just ignore the standard notation.

The six strings are represented by six horizontal lines, from top to bottom. The top line represents the high E string (the thin one), and the bottom line represents the low E (the thick one). This is sort of like holding the guitar facing towards you, instead of away from you, and can confuse people to begin with as it seems to be upside-down.

basic-tablature-explainer-graphic

How to Read Tabs

Whenever a number appears on any of the six lines, you play the corresponding note. Take this as an example. The first note you play is at the 3rd fret on the bottom E string (which is a C note), the second is the 2 on the A (a B note), the third note is the 0 (a G note), and so on.

how to read tabs

Sometimes, you have multiple numbers on top of each other. This means you need to play them all at once (as a chord) like this.

Chords into tabs example

As you can see, the chord names are also written above.

Tablature Symbols Explained

As well as numbers telling you where to put your fingers, there are also symbols which inform you which techniques to use as you play the piece. Here we’ll explore the most common.

Slides

Slides are commonly seen, and – like most of the other fundamentals – they are written in a way that is logical and easy to interpret.

See how, in the picture above, there is a diagonal line leaning upwards from 3 – 5 on the B string? That means slide up from 3 to 5.

Next to it is the opposite: a diagonal line leading down from 5 – 3. This means to slide down from 5 to 3.

Sometimes, you see slides annotated, but it doesn’t tell you where to slide from/to, like in the examples below:

slide up and down exp

A general rule when you’re not instructed where to slide up from, is to go from two frets before it. You can slide further if you choose, but two is almost always appropriate. When there’s a slide down, you can slide down as far as you like.

Bends

Bends are symbolized in a couple of ways. Sometimes, they’re simply written as a letter ‘b’, which is common in the kind of Tabs you get for free online. When they are written in this way, it might say, for example, ‘b9’. This means to bend the current fret (e.g. 7) upwards so that it reaches the same pitch as fret 9. It might be more specific, and say ‘bu9’, clarifying that your bend will be an upwards bend.

On more sophisticated Tabs, there are curvy arrows to signify bends, like this:

 

full bend

A full bend

 

half bend

A half bend

 

quarter bend

A quarter bend

 

On the first example, you can see that it is a whole tone bend, the second, a halftone bend and on the third example a quarter-tone bend is what’s required. They’re all simple upwards bends.

Sometimes, you are required to bend up and then back down again, and that’s written like this:

bend up and down again

Hammer-Ons

On the kind of Tab where you’re only dealing with font, a hammer on is written as letters ‘H’.

When you have one which includes symbols, the two notes which are joined together via a hammer on have a curve above them, like this:

hammer on

A hammer on

This is called a ‘slur’ in music, and the hammer on is what makes the notes ‘slur’ into each other.

Pull-Offs

Pull-offs are the opposite of hammer-ons, although they are both annotated in the same way: with a curve/slur.

pull off

A pull off

If there is also a ‘P’ above or below the symbol, that’s one way to know it’s a pull off, but if there is no clarification it’s OK. You can tell it’s a pull off if the fret number goes down, e.g from 4 to 2. The symbol above will always mean to pull off from 4 to 2, with or without the ‘P’.

Vibrato

vibrato

This wiggly line is telling you to do just that: wiggle your finger. It can take some getting used to, but once you get used to slightly wobbling the string, up and down whilst keeping your finger firmly against the neck, it’s a trick you’ll not be able to stop using!

Trills

trill

Trills sound similar to vibratos but a bit more precise and they usually have a slightly larger range. The example above has a trill from 2 to 0 (open), which means to quickly take your finger off, put it on again, take it off, put it on again, several times until the note is over.

Tapping

tapping

Sometimes, you have a fast pull-off-y part which it’s impossible to play with just one hand. Unless you have freakishly long fingers. When you see a ‘T’ under a note, it means to tap it with your right hand. These are commonly (but not always) followed by pull-offs.

Harmonics

There are 2 main types of harmonics:

Natural Harmonics

natural harmonics

Natural harmonics – written as ‘NH’  are only possible on certain frets: 4, 5, 7 and 12.

To play these, you put your finger gently on top of the metal part of the fret (don’t push down), and play the string. If you’ve done it correctly, you should hear a high pitched sound which continues even when you move your hand away. If you haven’t done it correctly, try again. You’ll soon get it.

Artificial Harmonics

Artificial harmonics

Written as ‘AH’, to play these, you need to touch the string with the skin of your thumb as well as your pick. You can experiment with different ways of doing this, but the easiest is to hold the pick right down at the bottom, so you can hardly see the point poking through, and then to play. It might take several attempts or more, but you’ll start getting it, and the more times you achieve an artificial harmonic, the easier it gets to do one on demand.

Palm Muting

palm muting

Palm muting – written as ‘PM’ is exactly what it sounds like. As you play with your pick, you also mute the bottom of the strings, near the bridge, with your palm. This creates a muted, staccato, rocky sound, which is common in rock and metal music. After the ‘PM’ is written, there are ——- dash marks to let you know how long to palm mute for.

As well as palm muting, you also find fully muted notes represented by an “x” on a particular string. This indicates you should completely mute it so no audible sound is made from it. You often see this is strumming patterns and raked parts on lead lines.

Let Ring

let ring

Quite the opposite of palm muting is letting the notes ring. This is written as ‘let ring’ and, like with palm muting, there are dashes —– to let you know how long to do it for.

If you’re letting the notes you play ring out, that means you will need to keep your fingers on the frets for as long as possible.

Other Vocabulary

Downstroke and Upstroke

When you see a ‘U’, it indicates a downstroke.  An upstroke is shown as a ‘V’ symbol.

Capo

Often, to play a song in the same key as the original recording, you will need to put a capo. The fret that it is on becomes your new ‘0’. So, for example, if you have a capo on fret 3, and your Tab says “2, 2, 2, 4, 5,” you’ll really be playing ‘5, 5, 5, 7, 8’. However, you won’t need to think about that. Just pretend the capo really is the nut of your guitar and you’ll be fine.

Tuning

Similarly, some songs will require that you tune to something other than standard tuning if you want to fit with the recording. This is even more important when you’re using a capo; if your strings aren’t tuned the same as the Tab says, the frets you play will sound nothing like the song.

It will say at the top of your Tab if you need to tune to anything other than standard, e.g. “Tuning DADGAD”.

Summary

So, as we’ve discovered, Tab is a great tool for learning songs with. It’s always useful to put a song on and read the Tab, without playing along, before you try to tackle it on your instrument. This will let you see the parts that you hear them, and picture how they will be played.

Have fun!

Roz

Roz is a music teacher and our go-to person for anything music theory! When she's not teaching or writing for Zing, Roz writes and plays in alternative/ psyche /art rock band The Roz Bruce Infusion.