How To Read Guitar Tabs

Learning how to read Tabs, or Tablature as it is actually called, is a very straight forward business when it comes down to it.

Back in the day you had to learn notes to read music, but that’s not the case anymore. Being able to read Tabs is a very powerful skill to have for learning new songs, and is an essential tool for any guitarist.

I totally dismissed Tab reading when I started out, it seemed a bit too difficult, and even unnecessary. But, when a friend of mine finally showed me the ropes I realised what I had missed.

Getting the hang of how to read guitar Tabs is easier than you might think, and this article will outline all you need to know in order to get started.

Different types of guitar Tab

If you search the internet for guitar tabs there are a few different ones you might come across. Even though they all follow the same format they can look quite different.

Text Based Tab

This is by far the most common one, and is the type of tab that you see on most guitar tab sites. It’s very easy to read but doesn’t include rhythm . We’ll get into the different symbols in a bit.

Interactive Guitar Tab

This type of tab is typically found on sites like Songsterr, Ultimate Guitar Pro, JTC Guitar etc. They are far more interesting to use since you can, as the name implies, interact with them. That means you have audio along with the tabs, you can pause it, slow it down or speed it up, even highlight a specific section and loop it plus a number of different things. They come with the same symbols as the text based tab, and sometimes also have standard notation. Often you need to have some “all access pass” or “pro upgrade” to get access to them.

Tablature and Standard Notation

This would be the slightly fancier version found in guitar books, and is according to some guitarists the best of both worlds. It consists of two parts, where the upper part has the song written in Standard Notation, and the bottom part is written in Tablature. If you can read notes (or Standard Notation) this gives you by far the most information possible on how to play the song.

Guitar Tab Layout

Let’s take a look at the basic layout of a guitar tab. In this example a text based tab.

When you look at it, it’s like looking down at your guitar when you hold it in your hands. And provided you’re in standard tuning that means that the bottom line is your low E and the top line is your high E.

When you look at the numbers you always read from left to right.

What Do The Numbers Mean?

The numbers you see in a guitar tab refers to the fret of that particular string that needs to be played. 0 means an open string, 1 means first fret, 2 means second fret etc.

So in the example above you’ll play your high E on the first fret, then the B string on the third fret, back to E on the third fret and finally an open E. And the key take away? Only play a string that has a number, plain and simple.

Sometimes you’ll see notes stacked on top of each other, and that is simply what a chord looks like when written in tabs. Just play all notes at once and you’re home free. The example below shows G chord written in tabs.

What About All The Symbols?

Apart from the lines and the numbers you also have a bunch of weird looking symbols. There are actually quite a few of them available, but we’re going to focus on the main ones to avoid complexity. Their purpose is to indicate which specific technique to use when playing the notes.

Hammer-ons and Pull-offs

Hammer-ons and pull-offs are identified by an arc between between two (or sometimes more) notes. In a text based tab it’s indicated by an “h” and a p”. The example below shows a hammer-on from the 9th fret to the 11th fret, and a pull-off from the 11th to the 9th.

Tapping

This is indicated by a “t”, and is combined with hammer-ons and pull-offs.

Slide

To know when to execute a slide from one fret to another, this is indicated by a slanted line between fret numbers that goes either up or down. In a text based tab it’s shown as either a “/” or a “\”. And since you’re reading from left to right, if it slopes upward slide up, and if it slopes downward just slide down. Sometimes an “s” is also used to symbolize a slide.

Vibrato

For vibratos, as in bending the string repeatedly for vocal effect, these are shown as a snaky line over the note. Sometimes this symbol is not used at all, since vibrato is so much used that it would make the Tab messy and less readable. Some older text based tabs use a “v” to indicate vibrato.

Palm muting & muted notes

Palm Muting is represented by the letters “P.M”, and the dashes you see behind it tells you how long it should be played. Completely muted notes, or dead notes, are indicated by an “X”. A muted hit can also be across multiple strings. Just put your fingers lightly over the strings and hit them. A lot of funk guitarists use this for some percussive rhythms.

Downstrokes & upstrokes

The indicators for a downstroke look a lot like a squared U that is upside down. Upstrokes look like a V, or as a downward facing arrow depending on how you want to look at it.

Bending

When you see an upward pointing arrow next to a number, this is telling you to bend it. And how much should you bend it? Well, right next to the arrow is an indicator that either says “full” or “½”, telling you to bend the note a full step or half a step. In a text based tab it is simply  indicated by a “b”, and the number of the fret to bend to. The letter “r” means release.

Natural harmonics

When you see this symbol <> in a guitar Tab, it means to play a natural harmonic. The number indicates which fret to play it at.

Parentheses and Ghost Notes

Perhaps not very common, but still worthy of a mention, is the parentheses. When you see it as shown below, it means you should play these notes softer. This is often referred to as ghost notes.

Where to find guitar Tabs?

If you’re in the pursuit of guitar tabs, these sites are excellent hunting grounds.

Ultimate Guitar

Songsterr

Guitar Tab

Ultimate Tabs

Patience

Just like learning how to read a new language, progress will be fairly slow in the beginning. And similarly, if you keep it up for a while speed will increase. Before you know it, you’ll be reading Tabs like a seasoned professional.

So, be patient and pick songs that are suitable for you. Songs that are too difficult will only be frustrating, and yield very little as far results are concerned. Songs that are more at your skill level will motivate you to continue, and motivation is a very good friend to have on your journey.

What to do next?

Hopefully guitar Tabs make a little more sense to you now, and you’ve found a bunch of songs you want to dig into. Let’s waste no time, just go and have fun. And if you’ve decided to add a few more songs to your repertoire, don’t forget to check out our guide on super easy songs for beginners.

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