How To Read Guitar Tabs

If you've ever tried to play the guitar, you were probably confused by the code-like look of guitar tabs. Lines, black dots, letters, numbers - what do they all mean? Here's an inside look at how to read guitar tabs.

Step 1

Relate the lines to the strings on your guitar. Guitar tabs are really just a picture of the chords you need to play on your guitar. All you need to understand is that the tabs (or the 6 lines) are the same 6 lines on your guitar.  The top line corresponds to the E string, which is the thinnest string on your guitar, and the bottom line corresponds to the other E string, which is the thickest string on your guitar. In order, the tab lines relate to the strings of E, B, G, D, A, and E.

Step 2

Look at the number on each line. Now that you understand that when you're looking at tabs, you're just looking at a picture of your guitar strings, it should be easier to decipher the numbers on each line. Each number corresponds to a fret on your guitar (the sections under your strings separated by a vertical line). The first fret (1) is closest to the stock or the body of your guitar, and each fret after that grows by one number (2, 3, 4 etc.)

Start by referring to the number on each line to help you put your finger on the right fret. If the number is 0, then you will have to pluck an open string (pressing nothing down). If it isn't 0 (such as 1,2,3,4 and so on), then put your finger on that fret as you play a specific note on the guitar.

Step 3

Stacked numbers need to be played at the same time. If you are looking at your guitar tabs and you see numbers stacked directly on top of each other, that means that they need to be played at the same time. Guitar music is read left to right, and anything lined up vertically (up and down) is played together.  If you see a letter above these vertically stacked notes (sometimes accompanies by a sharp or flat sign), this is just the chord name.

Step 4

Understand what the other symbols mean. Along with notes on your guitar tabs, you might also notice some symbols from time to time.

  • An ‘h' between the original fret number and the fret number that you need to ‘hammer on' is printed as ‘7h9' or ‘'7^9'.
  • If you need to ‘pull off' when playing the guitar, it is written as a ‘p' inserted between the original fret and the fret you pull off (‘9p7' or ‘9^7').
  • When you are expected to bend a string, a ‘b' is similarly inserted between the two frets, and if you are required to release a note afterwards, you'll see an ‘r' inserted (to look something like 7b9r7).
  • Slides are also quite popular, as you will find when you read guitar music. They are written with a forward slash / for an ascending slide, and a backward slash \ for a descending slide.
  • Sometimes the letter ‘s' is used but this doesn't show which type of slide you'll need to do.
  • If you see an ‘x' or a dot below a number, that string won't be played so it is mute.
  • A letter ‘t' indicates that you should tap (or pull on, hammer off) on your guitar.
  • Tremolo picking is written with the letters ‘TP' and palm muting is indicated with the letters ‘PM'.

The short forms for reading guitar tabs are fairly straightforward. In most cases, the first letter of the required action is shown on the guitar tablature, along with the number of the fret you're require to perform the action on. Over time, you should be able to read guitar tabs quickly so that you can pound out your favorite tunes.


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