How to Read Guitar Tabs

By Mark
Updated on

So you’ve decided to pick up the guitar. Maybe you’re in your first lessons or you’re trying to pick up as much as you can on your own.  I remember my first time picking up the guitar.  Although I was taking lessons once a week, there were still 6 days of the week where I could be learning something new. Guitar tabs were a great place to kick off what would be a lifetime of learning. Today, I’m going to help you learn how to read guitar tablature.

What are Guitar Tabs

Reading Tab Symbols

Where to find Guitar tabs

Keep Learning

What are Guitar Tabs

Guitar tabs are an easy way of communicating how to play a song on the guitar.  So for a new guitar player it’s the best place to start off.  It is similar to a musical staff but for tablature It will consist of six horizontal lines instead of five, and notes are written with numbers instead of musical symbols. You will also be reading from left to right. 

Lines = Strings

If you look at a guitar horizontally with the 6th string on the bottom you will begin to understand what the lines on a tab represent. The lines represent the six strings of the guitar. The thinnest string ( E or 1st string) is on the top line and the thickest string ((low E or 6th string) is on the bottom line. 

Lines are strings on guitar tab

Numbers = Frets

The next component of the tablature is the numbers. The numbers represent the fret that needs to be played with your fret hand.  Most guitars will have 19-24 frets, starting with 0, which means an open string or the nut, followed by 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.  You’ll take your fretting hand and use any finger you desire to fret the indicated note and pick the string with your picking hand.

Chords

When two or more numbers are stacked on top of each other vertically, they form a chord.  Play the indicated frets with your fret hand and strum the strings with your picking hand .  Most of the time, tabs will show the chord forms at the beginning so that you can easily figure out a fingering for the chord. 

Riffs

Riffs are a catchy combination of guitar notes, called a phrase, mixed with partial chords, sometimes played over chord progressions.  They are repeated throughout the song.  Many pop songs have catchy riffs.  Rock has built its foundation on catchy riffs and has a library of riffs for you to learn.  The following example is from ‘Day Tripper’ by The Beatles.

Day Tripper, Guitar tab

Rhythms

In my experience, a guitar tab will not indicate the rhythm. And while rhythm is one of the most important things in music, it is one of the things that most guitar tabs will not show you.  Guitar tabs are shortcuts to showing you how to play a certain song and can represent many techniques as we will show you in a bit.  But the best way to learn the rhythm of a song while learning it from tablature is to listen to a song. You can learn how to play the song on the guitar from a tab but listen to the song carefully to see how those notes are organized rhythmically.   

Tunings

Most songs will be played in standard tuning (EADGBE). However, if there is an alternate tuning that the song is using, it can either be noted at the beginning with a tuning guide. Another way they can be noted is at the beginning of the guitar tab itself at the beginning of each line. 

Capo Position 

Similar to tunings any capo positions will be noted at the beginning of a tab. In this case you will use your capo on the indicated fret and play the tab as written with 0 being the capo instead of the nut.  For example, if your capo is on the 3rd fret it now becomes 0 because you can play it open. In this example the 4th fret becomes 1st fret, 5th fret becomes the 2nd fret, etc. 

If you don’t have a capo, you can still play the tab as written in an open position.  What you’re playing on your guitar will sound close to how it is intended to sound but much lower.  

Reading Tab Symbols

In addition to the numbers and lines on a tab, there are numerous guitar techniques that you might see when you are trying to learn a song using a tab. 

Muting Guitar notes

An x on a guitar tab means that you have to mute a note on the guitar.  This is done with the fretting hand of the guitar and is sometimes part of a chord.  You may also see x stacked on multiple consecutive strings.  This is just a muted strum.  Put your fretting hand over top of the strings to prevent the movement of the strings and strum with your other hand to create a muted effect.  

Guitar Tab Muting

Bending Guitar Notes

Bending a guitar note is noted by a ‘b’.  Sometimes it is accompanied by a ½ (half step) or 1 ½ (whole and a half step) to indicate the size of the bend.  If there is no number on the bend you can assume that it is a whole step bend.  A bend is performed by playing the initial fret and pulling the string down or pushing the string up to alter the pitch of the string.  

Tab notation for bending

Sliding guitar notes

Sliding is indicated by a / or \. Which one is being used indicates the direction of the slide.  If a / is used then you are sliding up from the first note to the second note. If a \ is used then you are sliding down from the first note to the second note.  

Sliding notation for tabs

Strumming/Picking Down/Up

Strumming patterns are indicated by two symbols, one for down and another for up.  The down symbol is the table-like symbol and the up symbol is the V.  An easy way to distinguish which direction you are supposed to strum is which direction the open side of the symbol is pointing in.  Since the open side of the down symbol has its opening downwards, you strum downwards.  The up symbol has its opening in the upward direction so you strum upwards.  These symbols are also used for picking directions on riffs or guitar lines and not just strumming patterns.

Strumming patterns

Hammer-ons and pull-offs

Hammer-ons are indicated by an ‘h’ where you start with the initial fret and use one of your fingers on your fret hand to quickly fret the note followed by the ‘h’.  Pull-offs are similar however, they are performed in the opposite direction.  Fret the first note and quickly pull your current fretted note off while you have the following note fretted.  

hammer ons and pull-offs

Trill

Sometimes you might see a fret number with a hammer-on to another fret, followed by a pull-off to the previous fret, and this can be repeated.  This is what is called a trill denoted on a tab by ‘tr’.  

Vibrato

A vibrato is indicated by a series of small v’s or ~.  Fret the note and wiggle the string up and down to bend the pitch of the string and return to the original pitch quickly to create the vibrato effect.  It’s up to the player to decide how much vibrato they would like to create, it can be subtle or as aggressive as you would like it to be. 

example vibrato - tab

Tapping 

The Late, Great Eddie Van Halen popularized this wild technique back in 1970 and has been used by many guitarists ever since.  Indicated on the tablature by a ‘T’, you will be using any finger on your picking hand or you can even use your pick to quickly fret the written note on the guitar pull off to get the tapping effect.  Tapping sequences typically come in a sequence of two to four notes and used in sequence with fret hand hammer-ons and pull-offs creating a fast arpeggio.  

an example of tapping

Harmonics

Harmonics are indicated with a number in between < >. Typically 5, 7, 12 are frets where you can easily get harmonics by placing your finger lightly over the indicated fret and picking the string.  

Palm Mutes

Palm mutes are indicated above the tablature with “P.M.”.  With your picking hand, lightly place your palm over top of the bridge near the end of the strings and strum the indicated frets.  How much the strings are muted can be adjusted the further away you place your palm from the bridge.  The closer your palm is to the bridge, the less muted the notes become.  The further away you place your palm the more muted the notes become.  

Tab example of palm muting

Where to find Guitar tabs

Now that we know how to read guitar tabs, the next task is to figure out where the best place to find guitar tabs are.  There are many places to find guitar tabs on the internet.  Here are some of the more popular places to find them.  

Ultimate-Guitar.com

When I first started teaching guitar, the students who were interested enough to search for tabs would pull a lot of them from this website.  In my early days of learning to play the guitar, this was also one of my favourite places to get guitar tabs.  You’ll find a lot of free tabs and mostly songs in chord charts here.  Although I have not used the service, ultimate-guitar.com now has a Pro subscription which gives you access to the site’s interactive guitar tabs and multitrack backing tracks.  

Songsterr.com

My favourite tab site growing up was mxtabs.com, which I felt had the most accurate tabs on the internet.  Nowadays, if you go to mxtabs.com you will be redirected to songsterr.com.  What songsterr does that is unique is that it has a recording and it will highlight where it is on the tablature.  So you can hear in real-time how the song is supposed to sound.  That’s something I wish I had access to when I was learning.

GuitarTabs.CC

Finally, we have Guitar Tab Universe.  I’ve actually never heard of this site but apparently, it’s been around since 2001.  It looks like you’ll be able to find tabs and chord charts for your favourite songs.  Similar to Ultimate Guitar you’ll have the option to pay for a subscription to Ultimate-Guitar Pro.  

Keep Learning

There you have it, folks!  Now you’ve learned how to read guitar tabs and you know where to find them.  There are thousands of songs to learn.  Try to learn your favourites and remember to have fun!

More Resources

If you’re looking to step up your guitar playing please check out the following resources:
The 7 Day Practice Routine for Guitarists by Craig Smith (4.5 Star reviews)

The 7 Day Practice Routine for Guitarists

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