How to Read Guitar Tabs
If you’re learning to play the guitar, reading tabs is going to be a big part of that journey. It can look overwhelming: all those lines, numbers and funny symbols. However, the truth is that it’s really, really simple.
Here we will take a look at all the aspects of tab (or tablature if you’re feeling posh), to give you the confidence to learn the songs you love!
Arguably the most important part of a tab is the lines going across.
These lines represent your strings. But you probably already realized that, didn’t you?
The full order of the six lines are as follows:
Something that confuses some beginners, though, is the ordering. The line at the bottom of the six strings signifies your low E string. It’s kind of like holding your guitar backwards, looking at yourself. The second string up is your A string, the next one up is your D, and so on.
So, the tune on the string above is played on your A string. Do you recognize it? If you’re not sure how to play it yet, fear not. It’s time to explain what the numbers mean.
So, arguably the second most important thing in tablature (I’m feeling posh) is the numbers. As you can see in the picture, there are 7, 7, 10, 7, 5, 3, 2… But what does that mean?
These numbers are telling you which frets to play. So, we know which string we’re on (A), we know which frets to play according to the picture… Let’s give it a go!
Did you recognise it? It was Seven Nation Army, by The White Stripes!
Sometimes, tabs have additional numbers, beneath the strings, like this.
What do you think those might mean?
These extra numbers, which you don’t always get but they sometimes appear, are telling you which fingers to use. They can be very handy (excuse the pun), but they’re only ever a suggestion.
Chords as Tab
What can look really confusing when you’re a beginner is seeing loads of numbers on top of each other on the lines. Something like this:
All this means is that you’re playing chords, not single notes. And look, the chord names are even written above!
Phew. There are usually no finger numbers on chords written as tab, but you do very often get the chord names written above all the numbers. If you don’t, don’t panic. Just take your time to work out which fingers go where then see if you recognize the chord. Let’s have a go at that.
So, we have one finger on the G string, fret 2…
…we have one on the B string, fret 3…
…we have one on the high E string, fret 2…
…and it says 0 on the D string!
So, when your fingers are in place and your pick is resting on top of the D string ready to strum them all together, go for it!
You might already recognize it. That’s your D chord.
What about Rhythm?
Unfortunately, tab doesn’t quite tell you everything you need to know. One of the downfalls with this method of reading is it can’t really tell you the rhythm. Sometimes, numbers are spaced out a bit to signify long gaps between them, and sometimes there are even notes saying things like, “Hold,” but when it comes to rhythmic precision, it doesn’t compete with traditional notation.
However, there are two ways to deal with this.
One is to look at premium tabs which also contain notation above them. This means you can look at the rhythm of the notation (which I realize you may need to learn, that’s for another article!), whilst looking at the numbers and lines on the tab below, joining all the information together.
The second option is by far the most common, particularly among beginners. The simple solution is to make sure you know what a song is supposed to sound like, before you try to play it.
If you have the tune you’re supposed to be playing in your head, it’s much easier to play it as you follow the frets on the tab.
As well as the simple stuff, tabs have symbols to tell you when to play tricks. The most common ones are pull-offs, hammer-ons, slides and bends.
Pull-offs are when you play one note with one finger, then pull that finger off, flicking the string as you go. On the picture above, you can see a 4 and a 2, both on the B string. You can also see a small arch above the tab; this is how you know to pull off. Often, but not always, these arches say ‘PO’ above them.
To pull off this pull-off (sorry), put your index finger on fret 2 of the B string and your ring finger on fret 4. Now, strike the string, then flick your ring finger off, keeping your index in place on fret 2. You should be able to hear the note you strike, then a lower note as you flick your ring finger off.
A hammer-on is pretty much the opposite of a pull-off. This time, strike your fret 2 before putting your fret 4 on. Use the same fingers as before.
You shouldn’t pick the string again during this trick, just play your fret 3 and put fret 4 on. If you place it towards the bottom of the fret and use the tip of your finger, you should get a clear sound.
Slides are really cool. This time, we’re using frets 3 and 5, on the B string. So, start by playing fret 3. It doesn’t matter which finger you use, but I’d recommend finger 3 as it’s strong and you’re quite likely to use that finger there in songs. When the note is ringing, stare into your 5th fret. When you’re ready, slide your finger up so that it lands in fret 5. Just like with the hammer-ons and pull-offs, you only strike your string once: at the start of the trick.
Bends are also really cool :D. They sound quite similar to a slide, though not exactly the same. You can see a 15, a bendy arrow and a small ‘full’. The ‘full’ tells us that we need to bend our 15th fret a full tone. This will make it sound like fret 17.
NB. If you’re on an acoustic guitar, feel free to try this on a lower fret! Maybe 5, instead of 15.
So, use your ring finger to play fret 15 (or 5). You can also have your middle finger on fret 4 for extra strength. When you’ve got the note ringing out, try pushing the string up whilst you still push into the fretboard. It can take a bit of practice but keep going and you’ll soon hear the magic. Bends are a key part of many, many guitar solos, so it’s well worth gritting your teeth through the pain and persevering with the technique!
Sometimes, a tab will say the note it’s bending to in small numbers, to let you know that it’s a full bend. For example, the 15 and bendy arrow would be followed by a small ‘17’.
If it says ‘half bend’, you only need to bend the string so it sounds one fret higher. If it says ‘quarter bend’, you need to bend it even less. Half and whole bends are the ones you see most often.
So, as you can see, reading tab is really simple. The lines are your strings – with the lowest one being at the bottom and the highest at the top – and the numbers are your frets. Some tabs also have finger numbers written underneath.
When there are many numbers on top of each other, that means playing different strings and frets simultaneously, AKA a chord. Rhythmic direction is limited in tabs but can be best fixed by combining the tab with traditional music notation.
Pull-offs, hammer-ons, slides and bends all have their own symbols, usually written just above the tab lines. There are additional symbols for more advanced techniques, but what you have here is plenty to get you started. The longer you play the guitar and read tabs for, the quicker you will respond to each of these symbols as their meanings become embedded into your memory.
Now you understand how to read tabs, and recognize how easy it is, what are you waiting for? Check out some of these easy tabs for beginners, plug in and get rocking!