How To Guides

How To Read Guitar Tabs (A Complete Guide)

Posted on September 19, 2019

One of the biggest challenges when learning to play guitar or any other instrument can be reading standard notation (aka sheet music) – those little black dots. This is especially tricky on guitar and is something that lots of guitarists avoid.

While it’s great to learn standard notation too, most guitarists tend to use ‘tablature’ (‘tab’ for short), as it’s so easy and intuitive to read. With the guitar tab, you can learn chords, single-note melodies, and double stops (more on that later). There are also special notations with guitar tab that shows you how to play almost any type of articulation or effect that you can think of – such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, and bends.

What Does Guitar Tab Look Like?

Traditional guitar tablature will look like the image below:

Traditional Guitar Tablature

Don’t be intimidated – a quick review of how it’s laid out will show you how easy it truly is to understand!

The first line at the top looks like regular sheet music, right? That’s because – bingo – it is! The second line is actual guitar tab. Having both types of notation at the same time is really a good thing, as it will help you to correlate fretted notes to those shown in sheet music.

The tab line itself is laid out intuitively. There are six lines that run horizontally (left to right) across the page. Each line represents a string on your guitar: the line on the bottom is the 6th string (the thickest), and the line at the top is the 1st string (the thinnest). It’s like looking down at your guitar laying in lap, with the big E-string closest to you, and the little E-string furthest away.

You’ll see numbers on each of the lines as well. These are the frets that a note is supposed to be played on. In our image above, the first two notes (played one after the other) are the 6th string/5th fret, and then the 6th string/8th fret. Open strings would be written with a zero (‘0’).

Pretty simple, right? Trust us – it is!

How To Read Chords with Guitar Tab

Our first example showed how to play single-note lines. But what about guitar chords?

With tab, any time that you see two (or more) numbers stacked on top of each other means that they are to be played at the same time. Look at the last set of numbers above:

Am Chord Guitar Tab

This is how the guitar tab represents a basic Am chord, just like the one shown under the ‘Cowboy Chords’ section in Yousician. A key point to remember here is that if there is no number on a line, then the corresponding string is not to be played. In our Am example, there is no number on the bottom line representing the 6th string – that’s because it isn’t part of the chord.

Double-stops (two notes only, played at the same time) are depicted exactly in the same manner. What you’ll typically see here is something similar to this:

Guitar Tabs Double Stops

What is shown here is two double-stops, played in order.

What About Other Techniques?

Playing melodies and solos on the guitar has a distinct advantage over other melody instruments such as the piano. With the guitar, you can physically manipulate your fingers on the strings to create amazing effects that you won’t be able to coax out of a keyboard!

This is another reason why the guitar tab is such a flexible tool – it shows you exactly what to do in order to execute articulations that will make your playing have much more expression and emotion. Let’s take a look at a few of the basic ones that you will run into:

Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs

With hammer-ons, you will strike a note, let it ring, then ‘hammer’ another finger on your fretting hand up to a higher fret. This technique will increase your playing speed and also let your lines sound more ‘legato’ (or smooth) as you aren’t picking each note. Pull-offs are the exact opposite: Strike a note, then pull-off your finger to a note that you already have fretted a little lower on the neck.

With guitar tab, this is how hammer-ons and pull-offs are notated:

Hammer On Pull Off Guitar Tabs Techniques

Slides and Bends

With slides, you start at a note and ‘slide’ your hand either up or down the neck, keeping enough finger pressure on the string to have the note ring out as your hand is moving:

Guitar Tab Slides Technique

Bends are where you strike a note and – while you are still holding the string down – actually bend the string up across the neck. This increases the string tension and will give you a note that has a higher pitch. Be careful here though – if you bend too much you might just find yourself with a string that has broken in half!

Guitar Tab Bends Technique

Putting It All Together

Learning how to read guitar tabs is fast, easy, and one of the best things that you can do to help kickstart your playing. It is an incredibly efficient way to show you how to do just about anything you will ever do on the guitar.  You’ll find tab integrated into the Yousician app as well, which is even more proof-positive that it works – and works well!

To your success!