Guitar tablature is the most intuitive way for guitarists of all levels to learn their favorite songs! This guide will show beginners how to read guitar tabs by breaking it down into a few parts and make it easy to understand.
Table of Contents
What Is Guitar Tablature?
Guitar tabs, in some aspects, look quite similar to the standard notation that you’d find for every instrument, but instead of focusing on the pitches, tablature involves the fingerings that you’ll use.
Historically, tabs have been around for a long time for older stringed instruments, such as the lute or baroque guitar. In fact, tablature is actually older than standard notation as we know it. Nonetheless, modern guitar tablature would later derive from these older forms.
Even more recently, guitar tabs have evolved to be more detailed and easier to read. I remember back when I was a young beginner trying to learn guitar and coming across tabs like these:
While these do give you the frets to play, the problem with these tabs is that they lack a lot of critical information. The most significant one being the rhythmic notation. Unless you’ve heard a song before, there’s no way to know how long the note is supposed to last for with these outdated forms of tabs.
Nowadays, with excellent software like Guitar Pro and Power Tab, we can get more accurate tablature that tells us everything we need to know.
Many forms of software will also play the songs back for you in MIDI, so while they’re also great learning tools, they can even be extremely useful for composing music, especially rough drafts. You won’t need to record multiple takes, and they’re easy to edit.
Like the software, songbooks that are centered around tablature will also give you the most ideal-looking ones and will sometimes even include the standard notation along with it, just like this:
Notice the difference between this one and the previous example? This tab is much cleaner, and it tells us a lot more about how a piece of music is supposed to sound. You might also come across tabs that look like this and don’t include the standard notation, but add the rhythm nonetheless:
When trying to learn how to play guitar music, you’ll always want to go with these kinds of tabs. While there is more stuff on it, it will make your life easier – trust me!
Now that we’ve briefly discussed what guitar tabs are, we can go into detail about what everything means by dissecting the different parts of guitar tablature.
The lines on the guitar tab, while they look like the musical staff, actually represent the guitar strings. Normally, you’ll have 6 lines, but if you’re working with a song that uses an extended range guitar, it’s not uncommon to see 7-strings and up. Bass tabs will have 4 to 6 of these lines.
On a guitar with standard tuning, the strings (from top to bottom) go E B G D A E. You can easily remember this as Every Body Gets Drunk After Easter or whichever mnemonic device you’d prefer to use. Just remember that the top-most line represents your high-E string, and the bottom one is the low-E.
Even with alternate tunings, people will often still call the strings by their standard-tuning names, but always be aware that it’s technically not correct and that the actual notes will be shifted over depending on how your guitar is tuned.
On the lines of guitar tablature, there will be numbers. As mentioned before, these correspond to the frets on your instrument, and they will be assigned to a particular string. Let’s take a look at an example:
This specific segment only utilizes two different strings – your low-E and the A ones. If we take a look at the very first measure, we’ll be starting with the 2nd fret on the E, you play it twice before moving up to the A string and hitting the 4th fret twice. In the same measure, you’ll descend back to the low-E string and hitting the 5th fret two times and then go back to the A where you’ll play the 2nd fret.
It may sound a little wordy, but it’s actually quite straightforward. Once you see these enough times, it will become much more comfortable.
Another aspect that I want to point out is open notes. Open notes, as you probably know already, are not fretted and are signified by the number 0 on the tablature. We have a couple of these in the 3rd measure, which means you’ll play the open low-E and A strings when its time to. They simply refer to the E and A notes, respectively.
You’ll also come across chords when learning how to read guitar tablature too. They still follow the same rules that we’ve just learned, and it’s easy to recognize them. On a tab, chords will be two or more pitches that are stacked on top of another. Earlier, there were a couple of examples that used chords, but here’s another for good measure (pun-intended):
Let’s go over the first measure, or bar. In this one, we have the 1st fret A-string, 3rd fret D-string, 3rd fret G-string, and the 1st fret B-string. It just repeats itself, and you’ll strum this until you get the next measure where you’ll transition to the next chord. If you’re curious, this chord is a Fsus4, and while it’s pretty easy to play, it’s not exactly one of the basic kinds you’ll typically learn as a beginner.
The chord names will sometimes be listed on the tablature, but not always! Therefore, it’s a good skill to learn how to identify them for yourself. Tabs are just one way of understanding chords, but you should also become familiar with chord charts and standard notation.
The rhythmic notation, in my opinion, is just as important as the actual frets that you’ll be playing. If one part goes missing, there is a lot of ambiguity, and to paint the best picture possible and make reading tabs easy, we need both.
Rhythm is represented by symbols that represent a duration of time. Typically, they’ll be found underneath the notes, as shown in nearly all of these examples. You’ll also run into “rest” symbols in tablature which signify how long there will be silence. Like, rhythmic notation, rests have specific symbols that are assigned to a particular duration (i.e., 8th notes & 8th note rests).
While this article won’t go into detail about how rhythm is counted, I have another guide that goes covers rhythm and how to play along with a metronome. Metronomes are your friend, and they are something you should practice with very often to develop your sense of timing.
Learning how to count rhythm will be crucial in interpreting the tablature that you are reading, and it’s a vital skill to have because all musicians need to be aware of it, not just the rhythm section. Even lead guitar has rhythm and timing to it; if the rhythm is disregarded, the lick, solo, or melody will sound completely off, especially in relation to the other instruments.
That being said, it’s important to take the time to develop this skill because it will be beneficial not only for reading tablature but for communicating with other musicians as well.
Time signatures are closely related to rhythm because it gives you the value of the beat and how many fit within a measure. They appear somewhat like a fraction at the beginning of a piece of music, and the top number is how many beats while the bottom is the value of it.
Therefore, in a 4/4 time signature, which is by far the most common type you’ll come across, it represents four quarter notes. It doesn’t mean you can only play those; instead, it must fit within that criteria. In order to understand this, you’ll have to know about the various rhythmic subdivisions – which is a fancy word for how pieces of time can be broken down.
You may also come across some different (and sometimes unusual) ones. With a 6/8 time signature, which is also used in plenty of music, the 8th note is designated as the beat and it will be valued at 6 of them. Different time signatures can also affect how you feel and count things. Check out this example:
Other Symbols You Should Be Aware Of
You will also come across additional musical symbols in your tablature, and while some aren’t as significant as the others, they do tell us information about how things should be played.
This includes techniques such as:
- Legato (hammer-ons and pull-offs)
- Palm-muting and dead-notes
- Up and down strokes
- Bends, vibrato, and whammy bar
- Various types of harmonics
Many of these greatly affect how notes should sound, and using them gives the music a lot of expression and flavor. Therefore, it’s useful to indicate that in guitar tablature, so that the reader can play the music as intended.
Tablature vs. Standard Notation: Which Is Better?
While people have their preferences, you can look at both objectively and realize that both types of musical notation have their advantages.
Tabs are great for guitarists and bassists because they are basically designed for fretted instruments. They also have a shorter learning curve and won’t take nearly as much time and effort to become familiar with it, which is why most people would recommend it for beginners especially.
Standard notation requires a lot of practice to become fluent with it. With repetition, you’ll recognize the pitches on the staff. One of the main advantages of it is that you’ll be able to communicate ideas with the non-fretted instruments.
Have a keyboardist in your band? It’ll be helpful to have your ideas written down on sheet music because their craft doesn’t use frets.
If I had to give only one piece of advice, I think you should understand both of them.
While you’ll probably use tablature the most, knowing how to read music will come in handy if you plan on becoming a professional musician, such as a studio guitarist, or if you end up diversifying and learning other instruments, like the piano. Additionally, classical guitarists will also need to know how to read music on the staff as well.
Conclusion: Why You Should Learn To Read Guitar Tablature
As mentioned in the introduction this guide, tablature is a very intuitive way to learn how to play guitar, and in my opinion, it’s the easiest way to get a beginner started, especially one who has no prior musical experience.
Standard notation is useful, and I urge guitarists to learn it down the road but to get the ball rolling, guitar tabs are the way to go, and learning how to read it takes significantly less time than learning the notes on the musical staff. Since it lists the frets instead of pitches, it doesn’t really require much memorization, if any.
Even to this day, I use tabs more than standard notation not only for learning new songs but for writing my own stuff as well. It helps to use a program like Guitar Pro since it can automatically include the traditional staff if you need. There are also millions of Guitar Pro tabs online for free, and while they are created by guitarists like you and me, they are typically accurate for the most part.
I’ve been using this program since GP4, which was about 15 years ago, and currently, they are at Guitar Pro 7, which has certainly come along way since those days.
Overall, tabs are practical and convenient for guitarists and have plenty of different applications. Whether you’re writing ideas down or learning someone else’s material, they get the point across very quickly. The only downside with tablature is that you may develop a tendency to think with frets instead of pitches; however, if you spend time learning the notes on the fretboard, and eventually, standard notation, you’ll become a very well-rounded player.