How to Read Guitar Tablature

Young Man Writing in Song Book

Michael Sharkey/Getty Images

The following tutorial will help to explain the basic concept of how to read guitar tab. Although it may seem complex, learning tablature is quite simple, and you should find yourself reading guitar tab in no time. 

Guitarists are a unique breed. Chances are if you play guitar, you are either self-taught or have learned the basics from friends. If you were a pianist, you would have learned the instrument through years of private study, which would include both music theory lessons, and with a heavy focus on "sight reading."

There is nothing wrong with taking a more informal approach to learning music, but one of the basic skills that invariably gets ignored is learning to read music. Learning to sight read takes a reasonable amount of work, without immediate benefit, and it is these sort of skills that self-taught musicians tend to avoid.

If you want to get serious about a career in the music industry, learning to read music is essential. For the casual guitarist, however, there is a guitar-centric method of music notation called guitar tablature, which while flawed, provides a simple and easy to read way of sharing music with other guitarists. Read on to learn more about how to decipher guitar tablature.

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Understanding the Tab Staff

Understanding the Tab Staff

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A tab staff for guitar has six horizontal lines, each one representing a string of the instrument. The bottom line of the staff represents your lowest "E" string, the second line from the bottom represents your "A" string, etc. Easy enough to read, right?

Notice that there are numbers located smack dab in the middle of the lines (aka strings). The numbers represent the fret the tab is telling you to play. For example, in the illustration above, the tab is telling you to play the third string (third line) seventh fret.

Note: When the number "0" is used in tablature, this indicates that the open string should be played.

This is the concept of reading tab, at its most basic. Now let's examine some of the more advanced elements of reading tablature notation, including how to read chords in a tab.

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Reading Chords in Guitar Tab

Tablature E Major Chord

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Reading chords within a guitar tab is a relatively simple process. When a tab displays a series of numbers, stacked vertically, it is indicating to play all these notes at the same time. The above tablature indicates that you should hold down the notes in an E major chord (the second fret on the fifth string, second fret on the fourth string, first fret on third string) and strum all six strings at once. Often, tablature will also include the chord name (in this case E major) above the tablature staff, to help guitarists recognize the chord more quickly.

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Reading Arpeggiated Chords in Tab

Arpeggiated Guitar Tab

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The above tablature contains the same notes as the first E major chord presented on the previous page, but it will be played differently. In this situation, the notes in the chord will be played one at a time, rather than all together. "How fast should I play these notes?" you may ask. Most guitar tab won't tell you this. But, more on that later.

Generally, when you see arpeggiated chords like this, you'll want to hold down the entire chord shape at once and play the strings one at a time.

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Hammer-Ons in Guitar Tab

Hammer Ons for Guitar

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It is most common in guitar tab to see the letter h representing a hammer-on, located within the tablature between the original fret, and the hammered-on fret. So, if you were to see 7h9, you would hold down the 7th fret and pluck/pick the appropriate string, then hammer-on to the 9th fret without re-picking that string.

Occasionally, you'll see the ^ symbol used for a hammer-on (e.g., 7^9)

Sometimes, in more formally printed guitar tab (like in sheet music books or guitar magazines), you'll see hammer-ons written as "slurs" (see above), with a curved line appearing over the top of the initial and subsequent hammered-on notes.

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Pull-Offs in Guitar Tab

Pull Offs for Guitar

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Similar to the hammer-on, the pull-off is generally represented by the letter p in guitar tab, appearing between the originally fretted note and the pulled-off note. So, if you were to see 9p7, you would fret and pick the 9th fret, then without re-picking pull off your finger to reveal the note behind it on the 7th fret. Occasionally, you'll see the ^ symbol used for a pull-off (e.g., 9^7).

Sometimes, in more formally printed guitar tab (like in sheet music books or guitar magazines), you'll see pull-offs written as "slurs" (see above), with a curved line appearing above the initial and subsequent pulled-off notes.

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Slides in Guitar Tab

Slides Guitar Tab

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Generally, a / symbol is used to notate an ascending slide, while a \ symbol is used to notate a descending slide. So, 7/9\7 indicates sliding from the seventh fret, up to the ninth fret, and back to the seventh fret. If no number precedes the slide symbol, this indicates sliding from an indiscriminate fret.

It is also not uncommon to see the letter s used to notate a slide. This is somewhat less concise, as when sliding from an indiscriminate point (e.g., s9), it is unclear whether to slide up to the note or down to the note.

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String Bends in Guitar Tab

String Bends on Guitar

 Dan Cross/ThoughtCo

String bends are notated several different ways in guitar tablature. In the formal guitar tab found in guitar magazines, generally, string bends are shown with an upward arrow, accompanied by the number of steps the string should be bent (1/2 step = 1 fret).

In ASCII (text-based) guitar tab, a b is often used to signify a string bend. This b is followed by the fret at which the original note should be bent to. For example, 7b9 would indicate that you should bend the seventh fret until it sounds like the ninth fret.

Sometimes, this target note is included in brackets, like this: 7b(9).

Occasionally, the b is omitted altogether: 7(9).

An r is generally used to indicate a return of a bent note to its unbent state. For example, 7b9r7 indicates a note on the seventh fret being bent up to the ninth fret, then returned to the seventh fret while the note is still ringing.

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Vibrato in Guitar Tab

Vibrato in Guitar Tab

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The use of vibrato can be notated in several different ways in tablature. In formal guitar tab, a series of "squiggles" appears above the tab staff, directly above the note you should apply vibrato too. The bigger the squiggles, the more vibrato should be applied.

In ASCII tab, most often the ~ symbol is used, generally strung together to appear as ~~~.

Although it doesn't appear frequently, sometimes vibrato will be simply notated with a v in ASCII tab.

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Miscellaneous Notation

A string mute is almost always notated with an x. Several x's in a row, on adjacent strings, is used to notate a rake.

Right-hand tapping (for right-handed guitarists) is generally notated in the tab via a t, in conjunction with the pull off and hammer on techniques used when executing right-handed tapping. Thus, 2h5t12p5p2 represents traditional tapping technique.

When notating the tab for harmonics, the <> symbols are usually used, surrounding the fret which the harmonic is played at.

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Fundamental Flaws of Guitar Tab

The lack of rhythmic notation is the biggest flaw you'll find in guitar tab around the web. And it's a doozy of a flaw. Most guitar tab doesn't notate rhythm in any way, so if you haven't heard how the guitar part to the song you're playing goes, you have no way of knowing how long to hold each note. Some guitar tab does attempt to include rhythms, by putting stems on each number (to indicate quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.), but most guitarists find this cumbersome to read. And besides, if you're going to include a traditional rhythmic notation in guitar tab, why not just go the extra step and write the whole thing in standard notation?

Another major problem with guitar tablature: only guitarists can read it. While "standard notation" is readable by those who play any instrument, a tab is native to guitarists, so those who don't play guitar won't be able to comprehend it. This makes any sort of musical communication with a piano player, or another musician, very difficult.