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How To Read Guitar Tablature (A Complete Guide)
Posted on September 19, 2019
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One of the biggest challenges when learning to play guitar or any other instrument can be reading standard notation, or sheet music—aka, 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’ or ‘tabs’ 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 tabs that show 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 looks like the image below:
Don’t be intimidated. A quick review of how it’s laid out will show you how easy it 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 the actual guitar tab. Having both types of notation at the same time is useful, 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. The lines on a guitar tab represent the six strings 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 a guitar laying in your 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 other words, the numbers represent the position on the guitar neck where you’ll be playing each note.
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’).
When reading guitar tabs, you might encounter other symbols as well. If the tab includes the letter x (‘x’), this means that the string is muted. When muting a string, you’ll use your picking hand to stop the string from playing. By pressing down the palm of your picking hand, the string will then produce a short thumping sound.
Pretty simple, right? Trust us, it is!
How to read chords with guitar tabs?
Our first example showed how to play single-note lines. But what about guitar chords?
When reading tablature, two (or more) numbers stacked on top of each other means they are to be played at the same time. Look at the last set of numbers above:
This is how the guitar tab represents a basic Am chord. A key point to remember here is that if there is no number on a line, then the corresponding string is not 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. When strumming the Am chord, you leave out the lowest E string.
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 like this:
Here are two double stops, played in order. In the first double stop, on the left in the above example, you play the first fret on the B string as well as an open E string. When playing the second one, you play the third fret on the B string and the first fret on the higher E string. Pretty simple, isn’t it?
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 give your playing more expression and emotion. Let’s take a look at a few of the basic that you’ll run into as you start learning and playing along with guitar tablature.
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 playing each note with your picking hand. 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. Just like with a hammer-on, you only have to pick the string once when performing a pull-off.
This is how hammer-ons and pull-offs are represented in guitar tabs:
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.
Again, just like in the example with hammer-ons and pull-offs, you pick the string only once. However, you’ll notice that the slide sounds different because your finger will be traveling across each fret between the start and end of a slide. Make sure to listen along to the song to find out how fast you should be playing the slide.
Bends are where you strike a note and bend the string up across the neck while you are still holding the string down. 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.
As you can see in the example above, how much you bend the string matters. Figuring out just how much you should be bending the string will take some time. Once you have practiced enough, you’ll be bending those strings with ease—even more than one string at a time. Just don’t be afraid of getting your fingers sore!
Guitar tablature cheat sheet for beginners:
- The lines in a guitar tablature represent the six strings of a guitar from bottom to top, the lowest E string being the one on the bottom and the highest E string at the top.
- Individual notes are presented as numbers. Each number corresponds with a fret on your guitar, while a zero (‘0’) stands for an open string and the letter x (‘X’) represents a muted note.
- Two numbers on top of each other represent a double stop.
- In guitar tablature, chords are depicted with multiple numbers on top of each other. Remember not to play the strings without any numbers on the corresponding line.
- When playing hammer-ons, you play a note and ‘hammer’ a higher note on the same string with your finger. With pull-offs you fret two notes on the same string and release the other finger after picking the string.
- To play a slide, play a note and simply slide your finger either up or down the string to another fret. With bends, you bend the string across the neck of your guitar in order to change the pitch of a note.
There! With these instructions you should be ready to read guitar tabs and start playing your favorite songs without having to know standard notation.
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 on the guitar. You’ll find tabs integrated into the Yousician app as well, which is even more proof that it works—and works well!
Yousician’s interactive guitar tabs are one of the easiest and most fun ways to learn how to play and read guitar tabs. Just like with regular guitar tabs, you’ll see six horizontal lines, representing the six strings of the guitar. Then as the different colored numbers approach from the right side of the screen, play each note in time as the Yousician app listens and gives feedback on you playing.
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