How To Read Guitar Tabs And Their Corresponding Symbols

TABs. You've heard guitarists talking about them, you've seen them advertised online, you understand that it's a big part of learning to play the guitar, but... how do you read them?

Here we will talk you through all that's involved in Guitar Tablature, and you'll be reading it and playing your favourite tunes in no time.

What Is Guitar Tablature (or 'TABs') And Why Should You Learn It?

Guitar tabs show your fingers' movements on the strings as they go along.

There are 6 lines – one for each of your 6 strings – and there are numbers written on some of the lines, like this:

1 7 NATION

See how all of the numbers are written on one line here? That's because all of the notes in this tune are played on one string: the A string.

The first thing the TAB tells us to do is to play fret 7 on the A string.

The second thing it tells us to do is to play fret 7 on the A string, too.

Next up there's fret 10, on the same string because it's on the same line, and so on.

Of course, sometimes (most of the time), you have numbers on multiple strings when you look at a TAB. Like this:

2 ENTER

Here, as you can see, we start with a '0' on the bottom line. This bottom line represents your low E string, and the '0' means to play it without ANY frets, AKA open.

Then, just like in the first example, we have a '7' on the A string. As we already know, this means to play fret 7 on out A string. Next we have a '0', two lines up. Can you tell which string it's on?

That's right, it's on G. Play an open G, then continue. Congratulations – you just played the notes for Metallica's 'Enter Sandman' riff!

However, there is a chance that it didn't sound anything like 'Enter Sandman', and this is where one of the drawbacks of learning songs using tablature comes in.

But what about rhythm?

Although TAB is great for telling you which notes to play, it doesn't really tell you anything about rhythm. There's an aural element required when using TABs to learn songs, that isn't required in more informative methods of notation like stave manuscripts.

When you read notes on a stave, like this:

3 STAVE

The symbols tell us how the durations of the notes. This is how sight reading is possible, when musicians don't already know how the piece they are playing sounds. However, TABs lack this information, meaning that a knowledge of how the song sounds is almost essential in order to follow the tab 'correctly'.

a knowledge of how the song sounds is almost essential in order to follow the tab 'correctly'

Some would argue that TABs do offer this information, in the spacing of their notes. This is true: decent, 5* rated TABs often leave spacing between two notes which are spaced out, but it is far less informative and far less consistent than sheet music, making it more of a guide to be used in combination with the aural familiarisation of a song.

Of course, you don't have to choose between TABs and sheet music. Many sources provide both, handily on top of each other. Like this:

4 STAVE AND TAB

This enables you to read the rhythm of a piece using the stave, and to read where to put your fingers using the TAB.

Because all of the information is there, you can play this piece completely correctly, without ever having heard it.

How To Read Guitar TABs: The Fundamentals

You've already - quite naturally - read a little TAB, in the diagrams above. Now let's break down that process a bit more:

5 TAB

The strings on the diagram go 'upwards', from low E to high E. This is sort of like holding your guitar facing towards you, instead of away from you, and can confuse people to begin with as it seems to be upside-down. However, the other way would work like a mirror image, and that would be likely to be even more confusing. Anyway, this way round is how it is.

So, the E at the bottom of the diagram is your low E string. If a number appears on that string on your TAB, you play that fret on the E string.

You read across the TAB in the same way as you'd read sheet music, or a book, and every time there is a number written on a string it means to play that fret on the string it's written on.

Sometimes, you have multiple numbers on top of each other, on different strings. This means you need to play them all at once, i.e. as a chord.

Here's a real life example of some chords written as tablature:

6 CHORDS AS TAB

As you can see, the chord names are also written above the fret numbers for the chord here, which is helpful and, thankfully, quite common.

As well as numbers telling you where to put your fingers, there are also symbols to tell you which techniques to use as you play the piece, as we'll explore in the next section...

The Most Common TAB Symbols

Slides:

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

7 SLIDE 3 5

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 leaning down from 5 – 3 on the B string. 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:

8 AND 9 SLIDE UP AND DOWN

A general rule when you're not instructed where to slide up from, is to go from 2 frets before it. You can slide further if you choose, but 2 fret slides are almost always appropriate.

When there's a slide down, but it doesn't tell you where to slide to, you can slide down as far as you feel comfortable, as long as you make sure that you are also gradually coming off the string. This can take a bit of practice, and many beginner guitarists slide a bit too far and end up not coming off the string, therefore landing on fret 1 and adding an unwanted note. Practise slowly releasing your finger from the string as you slide down. You can also use your right palm to mute the strings mid-slide if you find that easier.

Bends

Bends are symbolised in TAB 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 your 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:

10 FULL BEND

A full bend

11 HALF BEND

A half bend

12 QUARTER BEND

A quarter bend

On the first example, you can see that it is a whole tone bend, the second, a half tone 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 in TAB like this:

13 BEND UP AND DOWN

Hammer Ons

On the kind of TABs where you're only dealing with font, a hammer on is written as letters 'HO'.

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

14 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.

15 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 fret 4 to fret 2, with or without the 'P'.

Some beginner guitarists get confused here and pull off again, from 2 to 0. There's no need! A pull of doesn't always mean that you need to literally pull your entire hand away from the fretboard. If it's from one fret to another fret, just make sure you have both your fingers ready first.

Other Guitar TAB Vocabulary

There are a couple of other terms to be aware of when you’re learning to play guitar via guitar TABs:

1. Capo Fret X

Often, to play a song in the same key as the original recording, you will need to put a capo on your fretboard to make the TAB fit.

This is easy to do, and capos are cheap and readily available. After you’ve applied 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,” the frets that you will really be playing will be ‘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 away.

2. Tuning: XXXXXX

Similarly, some songs will require that you tune to something other than standard if you want to fit with the recording. This is probably even more important than applying capos; 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”. This goes from low to high, so the first ‘D’ is your low E string, and so on.

Advanced Tab Symbols And Notation

In more advanced TABs, there are some other symbols to looks out for:

Vibrato

16 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

17 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 fret 2 to fret 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

18 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

19 NATURAL HARMONIC

Natural harmonics - written in tab as ‘N.H’  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, 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. Just remember: gently, on top of the metal part, at the end of the fret. Don’t push down.

Artificial Harmonics

20 ARTIFICIAL HARMONICS

Artificial harmonics can be a b***er to get, but they’re worth it if you want to play heavy metal like Pantera.

Written in tab as ‘A.H’, 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

21 PALM MUTING

Palm muting - written in TAB 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 on the tab, there are ------- dash marks to let you know how long to palm mute for.

Let Ring

22 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.

This is one thing that makes the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ intro sound so cool.

You might come across more than these, as well. This isn’t a complete list of tab terminology, it’s just intended to get you started. There is usually a key attached to any TABs which include unusual or advanced symbols, so there’s never any need to feel lost.

Final Thoughts / Recommendations

So, as we've discovered, TAB is a great tool for learning songs with – when it's combined with other great tools, like your ears or musical staves.

The ultimate is to have both a TAB and a stave in front of you, and for you to know how the guitar part sounds in your head. This will speed up the learning process massively.

Some places where you can find this perfect trio are:

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 enable you to see visually the parts that you hear, and picture how they will be played, without panicking about not hitting the notes yourself the first time.

Something very important to consider when you're searching for TABs online is the star rating of the TAB. Sites like Ultimate Guitar, guitartabs and guitaretab have customer ratings which are accurate and useful. Don't settle for less than 4*. What's the point?

Once you get used to reading TABs written by other people, why not have a bash at creating your own?

There’s some fantastic software out there which allows you to do just that. A popular, free of charge one is Power Tab Editor.

Have fun!

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.

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