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How to Read Guitar Tabs

Reading standard notation, or sheet music for guitar, can take a long time. The good news is that guitar tablature, or “tabs” for short, allows guitarists to learn songs quickly without any prior study.

What Are Guitar Tabs?

Guitar tabs are an alternative system of learning songs and exercises on guitar in which notes, harmonies, and chords are indicated by numbers placed on a staff of six horizontal lines.

The main visual difference between guitar tablature and standard notation is that tabs use a system of numbers and lines to represent notes on the guitar fretboard rather than “shape notes” on a traditional staff or clef. Numbers are placed on a system of six horizontal lines which represent the strings on the guitar, with the numbers indicating which fret to play.

When two or more notes are to be played simultaneously, such as in a chord, the numbers are stacked atop one another. In this regard, reading harmonies and chords is similar to standard notation, except you don’t have to go through the split-second mental gymnastics of processing where to play the notes, which is one of the things that makes sight-reading standard notation so difficult.

Orienting Yourself

Reading guitar tabs is simple so long as you understand the orientation of the lines themselves. When you look at a set of tabs, the line closest to the top of your screen (or paper) represents the 1st string “E,” and the line closest to the bottom represents the 6th string “low E.”

Let’s take a few examples to make sure you’ve got the hang of it. Suppose you see the number 2 on the top line. That means 1st string, 2nd fret. Try the second line from the top, number 3. That’s 2nd string, 3rd fret. Finally, you see the number 4 on the next line down. That’s 3rd string, 4th fret.

Cool, but what about guitar chords? It’s simple. Suppose the three numbers/notes we just played were stacked atop one another, 2-3-4, in a vertical line. Place your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers on those notes and you’ll find that you have a nice B minor triad.

The Importance of Listening

Here’s a crucial piece of information when it comes to reading tabs: Unlike standard notation, they don’t represent rhythm, which means you really need to know the song you’re trying to learn by ear.

Sure, you can play tabs without knowing the song, and you might discover some cool sounds or patterns — but without the rhythm, you’re not really going to have a piece of music.

That said, most up-to-date tab software comes with standard notation printed above the tabs so that rhythm is notated as well. If you don’t know how to read standard notation, you can simply play the audio for the tabs, which goes back to the point made above.

Special Notation Symbols

As you become more adept at reading tabs, you’ll eventually encounter some special notation symbols. The most common tab symbols are those that represent the ornaments typical of the guitar, which include forward and backward slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bends.

A forward slide is notated with a forward slash “/” while a backward slide uses a backslash “\” to connect the fret numbers on the staff.

Hammer-ons and pull-offs use the same symbol, which is a half moon turned on its side, connecting the fret numbers to be included.

Bends are represented with an upward pointing arrow, sometimes including an indication of how far to bend the note. “1” indicates a whole-step bend, “½” indicates a half-step bend, and so on.

Now you’re ready to dive into the wonderful world of guitar tablature and take your playing to the next level. Check out these helpful resources, and have a blast!

Ready to dive into some guitar tabs? Click the links below, and get strummin'!


Blackberry Blossom

The Shuffle

Boogie Woogie Lick

ArtistWorks offers Guitar instruction in 11+ styles. To explore all of our guitar offerings, click here.


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