How To Read Guitar TAB
The information in this lesson is included in my Beginner Guitar Course, but it’s so important to the practical study of music theory that I have included it here as well. I will only cover the foundations here and we’ll discuss further things in the course as we encounter them.
TAB (or Guitar Tablature) is a way of writing music that is specific to fretted instruments like the guitar. It is a perfect system for musicians that do not read traditional, standard music notation, and it often offers more information than that notation could. I read music well, but I prefer to use TAB for writing out or reading solos because it tells me exactly where the note is played, not just which note to play (we’ll cover how the same note can be played in several different places on the guitar neck very soon!).
TAB has six horizontal lines that represent the six strings on the guitar. Here’s an example of TAB:
This kind of TAB is known as ASCII TAB and is the most popular form for users to share online. I use it for this explanation because that is what I assume most of you will be reading (although I try to use properly presented TABs with the traditional notation on my site as well).
As I mentioned, the six lines represent the six strings of the guitar. The top line represents the thinnest (1st) string and the lowest line represents the thickest (6th) string.
Bass at the Bottom, Treble at the Top
I often write the letters T.A.B. (as shown above) at the end of the lines to represent Treble (T) And (A) Bass (B). This might help you remember that the Bass strings (the fattest strings with the lowest sound) are shown at the bottom and the Treble strings (the thinnest, with the highest sound) are at the top. Another thing to think of is that a tab ‘stave’ shows the strings of the guitar as you’re looking down on them when you’re playing.
The numbers that are placed on the lines tell you at which FRET to play a note. You will only ever play the strings with numbers on. If nothing is shown on a particular string then you won’t play it at all.
An ‘0’ on a string means that it is played ‘Open’, that is, with no fingers on it.
Notes that are vertically aligned on top of one another are played at the same time - i.e., a chord - and other notes are played one at a time. In the TAB example above, you would first play all of the strings of the guitar, holding down the frets shown (which make an E Chord!) and then you would play strings 3, 2, 1, 2 and 3 in turn.
Where's The Rhythm?
The most confusing thing about internet TAB is its lack of rhythmic information, which is why I include standard notation in most of my books (occasionally I incorporate rhythm notation into the TAB). I would recommend you spend some time learning about reading rhythm as part of your study, but we won’t be covering that in this course.
The lack of rhythm makes this kind of TAB very easy to write. This is great for writing down licks or solos as you transcribe and learn them but it also means that many inexperienced students post their TABs online, so you need to be very careful about selecting TABs from a reputable source, or you might put a lot of effort into learning something completely wrong.
Many people find TAB a little confusing when they first see it, but it doesn’t take much practice to get it figured out and for the vast majority of beginner guitarists, reading TAB is far easier than learning traditional notation.
Here’s the kind of more professional TAB that I use, which includes standard notation as well (the ‘dots’) and the rhythm. But it obviously takes considerably longer to make and requires knowledge of notation, rhythms and the software needed to make it!
This example is pretty simple, but TABs may include all kinds of other technical information, which you’ll learn about later; string bends (an arrow pointing up from a note), slurs (Hammer-Ons and Flick-offs) which are curved lines going from one note to another, (as you can see in the example above) and slides (straight lines between two notes), picking directions (shown above the notes), finger tapping (usually a + above a note) and more.
My shorthand for individual notes
One shorthand you will often see in my lessons is, for example, (S5/F8), which simply means String 5, Fret 8. It’s a useful way of specifying a note when you don’t need to write out a full TAB but it's not something commonly used by other teachers.
Should I learn to read standard music notation?
This is a very common question asked by students starting out on guitar and theory. I don’t recommend that everyone gets into reading traditional notation; it presents difficulties for guitar music primarily because most notes on the guitar can be found in more than one place on the fretboard, and while for some styles it’s essential, for most amateur (and many professionals) it’s not particularly useful, and can simply be a massive waste of time.
I learned to read music because I wanted to play classical and jazz guitar and for those styles, you absolutely need to learn how. However, I believe it’s a lot easier to learn how to read when you can already play at a reasonable standard (which you’ll need to be for those styles) than when you’re just starting, as it can suck the fun out of learning guitar!
So my recommendation is not to get bogged down in learning to read until you find a point where you really need to! Consequently, I won’t be using traditional notation in this book as a primary method (though I might include it for those that already read). If you do want to learn to read notation, then you might want to check out my book Note Reading For Guitarists on my official store!
The biggest advantage of TAB is that it tells you WHERE to play a note, not just what the note is. Have a look below and you’ll see the same note (an E), shown in six different places on the neck - standard notation shows the same dot, but the TAB shows you where to play it.
You’ll also find that standard notation can end up looking very complicated when trying to notate something that sounds quite simple, e.g. in blues music where the rhythm is very free and writing it down ‘correctly’ is very difficult (and reading it even more so!). So often for blues, plain TAB, without notation of rhythms is the easiest to communicate an idea - but you’ll have to do some listening to understand how it’s to be played.
Check out this example below - which looks pretty terrifying - but it's just a complex rhythm to explain a "loose and free" improvised solo on a very slow tempo blues! Take away the notation and rhythm and it doesn't look too bad at all, and while not 'easy', it's not that hard to play (as far as complex technical guitar stuff goes!).
In the last 30 or so years, a number of alternative guitar notation systems have been created, but TAB is by far the easiest to understand. I would suggest avoiding other systems (unless you are desperate for material which you can only find in a particular format), purely to avoid the frustration of learning a new system that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else!
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