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How To Read Guitar Tabs: A Complete Guide to Guitar Tablature
Posted on September 19, 2019
One of the biggest challenges when learning to play guitar or any other instrument can be reading standard notation, or sheet music — a.k.a. 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, double stops, solos, and so much more. There are 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.
Table of contents
- What do guitar tabs look like?
- How to read guitar tabs?
- From chords and strumming to solos and melodies
- What’s the difference between guitar tabs and sheet music?
- Guitar tablature cheat sheet for beginners:
- Master the guitar tab with Yousician
What do guitar tabs look like?
Traditional guitar tabs look something like the image below:
The first line at the top looks like regular sheet music, right? That’s because that’s exactly what 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 at the bottom is the 6th string (the thickest string), and the line at the top is the 1st string (the thinnest string). It’s like looking down at a guitar sitting in your lap, with the big E string closest to you and the thin 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 (or fretboard) where you’ll be playing each note.
In our image above, the first two notes (played one after the other) are the 5th and 8th frets on the 6th string (that is the low E string). An open string is written with a zero (0).
When reading guitar tabs, you might encounter other symbols as well. If the tab includes the letter X, this means that the string is muted. When muting a string, 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.
How to read guitar tabs?
Let’s take a more detailed look at how to read guitar tabs in practice. Although there might be a lot to unpack here, reading guitar tabs will make it so much easier to learn new songs. Whether you want to play guitar using chords, practice complex fingerpicking patterns, or shred away like a maniac, a guitar tab can show all of that and more.
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 mean that the string should be played at the same time. Look at the last set of numbers below:
This is how the guitar tab represents a basic Am chord. A key point to remember here is that if there’s no number on a line, then the corresponding string is not played. In guitar chord charts, the strings that are not played at all are marked with an X. In a guitar tab, this would refer to muting.
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 played at the same time) are depicted exactly in the same manner. What you’ll typically see here is something like this:
Here we have two double stops played in order. In the first double stop on the left, you play the 1st fret on the B string as well as an open E string. When playing the second one, you play the 3rd fret on the B string and the 1st fret on the higher E string. All other strings without a number or any other symbol aren’t played at all. Pretty simple, isn’t it?
One technique that’ll add more complexity to your playing is muting. Knowing how to mute the strings is an essential skill, especially if you want to play rock, punk, and metal songs with your guitar. Muting is also one of the most important skills all rhythm guitarists should master. Although you can mute strings with both your fretting and picking hand, let’s focus on using your picking hand to mute the strings.
A technique known as palm muting involves using — you guessed it — your palm to mute the strings. The strings are not allowed to ring as they do when they are played open or fretted without muting, which creates a thumping sound. There are generally two ways to indicate muted notes in guitar tablature: either with an X symbol or with the letters P.M. above the tab.
To mute strings with your palm, simply play the string using a guitar pick or the fingers of your picking hand and press the palm of your hand against the strings. As you get the hang of it, you can try applying more or less pressure on the strings to control the level of muting.
When muting with your fretting hand, apply a little pressure on the string to stop it from ringing. Muting with the fingers of your fretting hand requires some adjusting and getting used to. If you apply too much pressure on the string, it will be pressed against the guitar fretboard, and you can hear the note you’re supposed to mute.
Up and down strokes
Sometimes it can be helpful to show when chords or individual notes are played by stroking up or down. In other words, this refers to whether you play a note or a chord with an up- or downward motion of your picking hand. In traditional guitar tablature, these are indicated with a symbol above the tab sheet. A V symbol above the tabs stands for a downstroke. Meanwhile, an upstroke is indicated with a table-like symbol. Tabs don’t often include the symbols for up and down strokes. In this case, use the picking or strumming pattern that feels most intuitive to you.
From chords and strumming to solos and melodies
Playing melodies and solos on the guitar offers 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 wouldn’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 some of the common ones 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 your finger off 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 pressure on the string to have the note ring out as your hand moves.
Again, just like in the example with hammer-ons and pull-offs, you pick the string only once. In addition to sliding guitar notes across a single string, slides can be performed on two or more strings simultaneously as well.
You’ll notice that the slide sounds different because your finger travels 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 play the slide.
A bend is a guitar-playing technique where you strike a note and bend the string up across the neck while still holding down the string. 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 bend 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!
Tapping is one of those guitar-playing techniques that every guitarist wants to master from day one, whether they admit it or not. And we admit, pulling off an intense tapping solo with the guitar is an impressive feat. Tapping involves using both of your hands on the fretboard.
Before advancing to tapping, make sure to learn the hammer-on technique. This is because in tapping, your fretting hand performs a hammer-on, while your picking hand taps strings higher up the guitar fretboard. In guitar tabs, the letter T is used to indicate tapping.
What’s the difference between guitar tabs and sheet music?
Both guitar tabs and sheet music are two different ways to represent music in written form. Because guitar tabs use numbers and symbols to provide a visual representation of chords and individual notes, they are easier to learn and play. Tabs don’t include some of the more complex musical notation that sheet music does, such as information about rhythm or timing. This makes tabs great for playing guitar and bass.
Tabs for the guitar are also better because learning a song’s chord progression is much easier using tablature rather than sheet music. Overall, tablature is a more intuitive and beginner-friendly way of reading music for the guitar. On the other hand, the complexity and additional details in sheet music allows it to be used with a variety of instruments.
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 the fretboard of your guitar, while a zero (0) stands for an open string and the letter X represents a muted note.
- With guitar tabs, you only play the strings that are marked with either a number or some other symbol. No other strings should be played.
- Chords are depicted with multiple numbers on top of each other. Remember not to play strings that don’t have 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. Pick only the first note when playing a hammer-on or a hammer-off.
- 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.
Master the guitar tab with Yousician
Learning how to read guitar tabs is fast, easy, and one of the best things that you can do to help kickstart your playing. Reading guitar tabs is an incredibly efficient way to learn 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. 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 your playing. With Yousician, you can also learn songs using standard notation by changing notation styles from the app’s settings!
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