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Introduction: How to Read Guitar Tabs

Guitar TabsTablature (Tab) is a tool designed to help guitarists, and other fretted musicians, learn how to read music and master their favorite songs. Tab helps associate fret positions with the notes on the staff and provides annotation on the way the notes are expressed. There are two different kinds of tablature, but they work the same way which we will touch more on in this article.

The history of Tab stems all the way back to the 16th century to famous lute composers, like John Dowland, who used tablature notation throughout his work.

John Dowland Tablature

What you’re seeing above is an example of Dowland’s work from the 17th century. If you look closely, you can see that the top line is for a vocalist, so there is text and note shapes that indicate rhythm. This is referred to as a five line staff that the singer is working from. The bottom system is the tablature notation for the lute. There are six lines, one from each string (in this case the lute has six strings) and the rhythm here is indicated by stems and flags which parallel what the singer is singing. So in this case, in this tablature, rhythm is shown lined up to what the singer is singing.

ArtistWorks Tablature

Above is an example of banjo tablature. Here you can see there is a table clef and the notes are indicated as you would play it on any other instrument (with note heads and stems, so notes and  rhythms are indicated). The bottom system is banjo tablature and again the rhythm is notated. As you can see, the numbers correspond to frets. And you can see in the middle, this is typical for a banjo tablature too, it tells you for your right hand what finger you’re going to play with. So “T” is for the thumb, and “I” is for the index, and “M” is for the middle finger.

ArtistWorks Tablature

Here is a diagram that shows a little more detail about banjo tablature. Again the “T”, “I”, and “M” for thumb, index and middle finger tells you exactly which finger on your right hand to play with.

ArtistWorks Tablature

The lines represent the strings on the banjo, so the top line is the first string all the to the bottom line, which is the 5th string. The numbers sometimes on top of the staff notation, or the tablature notation, indicate which left hand fingers to place on the frets below. Zeroes typically indicate the open string, so there's no fret being played in those cases.

ArtistWorks Tablature  ArtistWorks Tablature

Guitar tab works a little differently. There are six strings on a guitar, whereas banjos have five, so there are six lines for a guitar, similar to the lute tablature. The bottom line is the low E string and the top line is the high E string. The number’s are similar to the other forms of the tablature and show you where to place your fingers, but there are some additional articulations that are typically shown on guitar tablature such as:

ArtistWorks Tablature

ArtistWorks Tablature

ArtistWorks Tablature

There are different forms of tablature. Sometimes people use the easiest possible keyboard characters to show tablature.

ArtistWorks Tablature

For example (above), you might see “5p4” indicating a “pull-off” or an “H” for “Hammer-on”, and slides are usually indicated by a straight line. This method is typically used if there is no graphical representation.

ArtistWorks Tablature

Sometimes arrows and lines indicate where you want to bend a note. There are all kinds of variations in the types of articulations in tablature. They’re pretty self explanatory and intuitive, but sometimes you might have to ask a specific person who created that example what they mean by a particular type of notation, but usually you can figure them out on your own.

ArtistWorks Tablature

Sometimes guitar tablature show finger picking and specific rhythms, and sometimes they’re only shown in chords charts above a vocal line or above a piano score.

ArtistWorks Tablature    ArtistWorks Tablature

Those are chord charts. Those don’t indicate any kinds of rhythm or any kind of finger picking. Those can be picked, or strummed, or played in any rhythm accompanying the singer or along with other instrumentalists. Often accompanying chord charts are what called chord symbols. So next to a chord chart you might see “Cm7”, sometimes the “m” is upper case and sometimes its lower case, or just “A” with a lowercase “m” next to it. Those are the names of the chords, let's say C major 7, or minor 7, or A minor. Stay tuned for more on chord symbols and how to name chords in our next chord symbol notation blog!

Are you ready to dive into the exciting world of guitar tablature and take your playing to the next level? Click the links below, and get started!

Phrasing

Blackberry Blossom

The Shuffle

Boogie Woogie Lick

ArtistWorks offers Guitar instruction in 11+ styles. To explore all of our guitar offerings, click here. For FREE ONLINE SAMPLE LESSONS, click here!

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