How to Read Guitar Tabs

Staff Notation

The conventional music notation — sometimes known as “staff notation” — uses horizontal lines to indicate pitch. Each note in a song is represented by an oval. The line (or space between lines) on which the oval is placed indicates the musical pitch of that note. Pitch increases as the notes move up the staff and decreases as they move down.

An example of conventional music notation.
C major scale, in whole notes, using the conventional staff notation.

The staff notation has a lot of advantages: it is widely-used, largely instrument-agnostic and provides a standardized way to concisely represent many different aspects of musical performance (not just pitch, but duration, tempo, dynamics, musical expression and more). Most serious musicians will benefit not just from learning to read music written in the standard notation, but from investing the time to become fluent at reading music written in the standard notation.

But learning to read staff notation really is an investment. Modern, formal music notation is expressive but also complex and abstract: there are many notational details to remember and often there is no intuitive relationship between marks-on-the-page and sounds-in-the-ear, let alone fingers-on-the-instrument.

To perform music written in the conventional format, one must: convert the placement of each mark on the staff into the musical note (pitch) and then to the appropriate fingering on the instrument; read the shape, flags, dots and other annotations to determine the duration of each note; pay attention to the key signature the piece is written in (which can change the pitch that is associated with a given line or interval on the staff), layer in dynamics, ties and phrasing based on yet another set of annotations, etc. It literally can take years of practice to learn to read music fluently.

It's no wonder many aspiring guitarists are frustrated by the tedious process of "translation" (staff to note to fretboard position to fingering) required to pluck out even the simplest of songs when first learning to read standard musical notation.

Tablature Notation

Tablature (often “tab” or “tabs” for short) is an alternative way of writing music down on paper, one that is especially well-suited to describing music for guitar and other stringed instruments.note 1 Guitar tabs aren't as expressive as formal music notation can be, but tablature provides an easy-to-read format that is optimized for practical guitar, sight-reading and beginner guitarists.

Guitar tabs also use a sequence of symbols placed on horizontal lines to represent the notes of a song, and so guitar tabs look confusingly similar to staff notation, but the lines (and symbols) have a different meaning in tablature notation. The horizontal lines in the guitar tab notation represent the strings of the guitar. The bottom-most line represents the thickest (deepest-pitch) string — the one that's tuned to low E (E2) in the standard guitar tuning. The top-most line represents the thinnest (highest-pitch) string — the one that's tuned to high E (E4) in the standard guitar tuning.note 2

An example of tablature for bass guitar.
Guitar tab compared to the strings on an actual guitar. Notice that the guitar is upside-down in this picture. The top line in the tablature represents the bottom (smallest) string on the guitar.

Each note in a song is represented by a number that indicates the fret (on the corresponding string) used to play the note. (In a guitar tab, the number 0 indicates an “open string”, the note you get by plucking the string without pressing down at any fret.)

For example, here's the C major scale, expressed in guitar tablature notation.

An example of guitar tablature.
C major scale, in tablature for a six-string guitar with the standard tuning.

To play the first note indicated on this tab (C4 or Middle-C), press down on the thickest string (E2, the one closest to the top of the guitar) at the eighth fret, then pluck that string.

To play the second note (D4), press down on that same string (E2) at the tenth fret and pluck again.

To play the third note (E3), move to the second-thickest string (A2, second from the top of the guitar), press down at the seventh fret and pluck.

Bass tabs work exactly the same way as guitar tabs, just with four horizontal lines (one for each bass string).

An example of tablature for bass guitar.
C major scale, in tablature for a bass guitar with the standard tuning.

Just like the traditional form of written music, guitar tabs are read left-to-right (and top-to-bottom, when split over multiple lines.) Each note is played before the notes to its right, after the notes to its left, and at the same time as any notes it is vertically aligned with.

Unlike staff notation, there's no standard way to represent the duration of a note in tablature. Sometimes tab writers will use some version of the “flags” found in staff notation to indicate the duration (or, when tablature is shared as plain-text, the letters W, H, Q, E, etc. to represent "whole", "half", "quarter", "eight" and so on). But as often as not guitar tab transcriptions of popular song are shared without any markings to indicate the duration of each note. In this case readers are expected to listen to the original recording to get a sense of the timing, dynamics, and phrasing (if they aren't already familiar with the song).

Plain-Text Tablature Notation

One feature of the tablature format is that it is easy to "draw" guitar tabs in plain-text. For example, here is the C major scale again, rendered as a plain-text tab:

e|--------------------------------------|
B|--------------------------------------|
G|--------------------------------------|
D|-------------------------7---9---10---|
A|------------7---8---10----------------|
E|---8---10-----------------------------|
C major scale, in a plain-text tablature (ASCII TAB) format.

This format is sometimes known as “ASCII TAB”. note 3

Since it is easy to create and share text-based guitar tabs, amateur guitarists have been transcribing popular songs and sharing them online as ASCII tabs for decades, first on bulletin boards and USENET newsgroups, later on the web. Today sites like Ultimate Guitar and Songsterr contain millions of songs transcribed into ASCII tabs and related formats.

The meaning of symbols found on guitar tabs

Guitar tab music is not nearly as standardized as the formal staff notation, but there are symbols that are commonly used to mark certain dynamics, plucking-patterns and techniques. Here are some examples:

  • An h indicates a hammer-on. To play 2h4 you pluck the string while holding it down at the second fret then sharply press down (“hammer-on”) at the fourth fret without plucking.

  • A p indicates a pull-off, the opposite of a hammer-on. To play 4p2 you pluck the string while holding it down at the fourth fret and* at the second fret, then quickly lift your finger from the fourth fret without plucking.

  • A slash (/) (or sometimes the letter s) indicates a slide. For example to play 5/12 you pluck the string while holding it down at the fifth fret then smoothly slide down to the twelfth fret (without additional plucking).

  • The symbols ^ and v are sometimes used to indicate up-stroke and down-stroke strumming patterns, respectively.

  • An X indicates a palm-mute, in which you dampen the string by laying the side of your strumming hand across the string (but not so tightly to silence the note entirely).

Guitar tabs also often borrow symbols from regular (staff notation) music, including annotations for slurs, ties, dynamics and note durations.

Endnotes

NOTE 1 - While not quite as old as staff notation, tablature existed long before the Internet brought us tab-sharing websites (and before that, newsgroups). Rudimentary staff notation (using horizontal lines to represent the pitch of each note) was first used for Western music around the 11th Century. Tablature didn't appear until the 14th Century, but then again the same can be said for most of the symbols we now think of as “standard” music notation.
NOTE 2 - This means the bottom-most line on a guitar tab represents the string closest to the top of the guitar, and that the top-most line on a tab represents the string closest to the bottom of the guitar. That sounds weird when you put it that way, but it does mean that (for a given fret) pitch goes up as note moves closer to the top line of the tablature and the pitch goes down as the note moves closer to the bottom line of the tablature. Somehow it also just “feels right” when you are actually playing a song while reading from tablature and looking down at the strings rather than perspective you have when looking at a guitar from the “audience's perspective”.
NOTE 3 - More generally, this style of drawing simple pictures using the letters, numbers and symbols commonly found on typewriter keyboard is known as ASCII Art, named after the ASCII encoding for English letters, numbers and common symbols.
 

We also have some blank guitar tabs you can download and print for personal use.

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