How to Read Guitar Tab

Learning Guitar Tab

Ahh, the blessed gift to guitarists everywhere: guitar tab.

If you’re reading this, then surely you must be a guitarist. And if that’s the case, then we can take a moment and have a little heart-to-heart here:

Reading Music Notation for the Guitar is @#%&!@ Frustrating!!!

There. I said it.

And so, guitarists developed tablature.

There’s a pretty common sense among guitarists that tablature is cheating. It makes reading music for the guitar too easy, so it must not count.

Well, that’s ridiculous!

Tab came about to fill a need guitarists have–being able to read music for the guitar based on how the guitar works.

Standard music notation caters to the keyboard players. It works fantastically well for piano players, but for guitarists, reading standard notation often feels like torture.

There is a time and a place for guitar tab just as there is a time and a place for standard notation.

If you’re a guitarist, learn both.

Take the time to fight through the steep initial learning curve to read music on the guitar. But definitely take advantage of the fantastic benefits of tablature right out of the gate.

Let’s jump right in and learn the basics of reading tablature for the guitar.

The Basics of Guitar Tab

Guitar tablature recreates the layout of the guitar neck. The six lines of tablature coincide with the six strings of the guitar.

Tab resembles the exact layout of the guitar neck. Imagine a guitar laid out like so:

Tab mimics how the guitar neck appears when you look down at it as you play.

The six horizontal lines on guitar tab coincide with the six guitar strings:


The bottom line is the low E string while the top line is the top E string.

When a number appears on a given string, that means that you place your finger at that fret in order to create the desired note.

Take this tab for example:


This tab indicates that you should place your finger on the 3rd fret of the low E string and play that note.

Tab reads from left to right, and if there is space between the numbers on the tab, this means that you should play those notes in order one after the other. Check out this tab excerpt:


To play this tab, you start on the low E string and play it open.

Next, you play the first fret and then the third fret of the low E string.

Next, you move to the A string and play it open.

After that, play the second and third frets in order.

Continue on to the D string and play it open.

Then, play the second and third frets of the D string.

Since all of those numbers are spread out left to right, you know to play them in order one after another.

When notes appear vertically, then you’re supposed to play those all at once like you’re strumming a chord.

Here is how a simple chord progression looks in tab:


To play along with this tab, play the first stack of notes all together and then move on to the next stack of notes and so on.

This tab is telling you to play an E chord.

Then, you play an A chord.

Next, play a B chord.

Then, return to the A chord and finish up by returning to the E chord.

Notice how there are three notes in the first E chord indicated by a ’0′. When you see a ’0′ this means you should play the open string.

Going Deeper with Guitar Tab

That’s it for the basics of guitar tab!

If you like, you can stop reading and go find tabs for your favorite songs.

However, if you’re interested in learning a bit more about how guitar tabs work, then keep reading–we’re going to look at how tab indicates specific guitar tricks such as hammer-ons or pull-offs.

Using Tab for Guitar Licks and Tricks

Tab’s capabilities extend beyond merely displaying the notes on the neck. Tab also allows guitarists to note typical guitar tricks like hammer-ons, pull-offs and slurred notes (slides).

Here’s a tab that contains those tricks:


The 1/3 indicates a slide up from the 1st to the 3rd fret on the B string. And the 31 indicates a slide back down from the 3rd fret to the 1st fret.

0h1 indicates a hammer on fro the open B string to the 1st fret–you play the open string, let it ring for a moment and then “hammer” your finger onto that string at the 1st fret to change the note.

The 3p1 indicates a pull off. You play the 3rd fret note and then pull your finger off of that fret while your index finger is ready holding down the 1st fret.

The more you read guitar tabs, the more familiar you’ll become with the guitar tab vocabulary for different licks and tricks.

The Bad News About Guitar Tablature

Unlike standard notation, guitar tab makes it extremely clear where you should play any given note in a passage of music on the guitar.

However, tab has some serious drawbacks that I should mention.

First off, you don’t know which finger you should use to play the tabbed notes.

Tab leaves fingering choices entirely up to you, and that can be extremely challenging in certain tricky musical passages. Sometimes, you’ll find that enterprising tab creators will include numbers up above the tab.

Those numbers can indicate which finger you should use for particular notes.

Here’s an example of that:

1             2                            1              3           4

For this quick passage, the numbers above the tab indicate that you should use your index finger for the note on the 5th fret of the A string. By doing so, you won’t have to shift in order to reach the notes at the 7th fret.

Although that fingering method does provide a workaround for the problem tabs have of not telling guitarists where to finger notes, you won’t usually encounter fingers in most of the tabs you encounter.

If your playing difficult music, then not knowing how to finger passages can result in serious frustration.

The most glaring drawback of guitar tab, however, is the fact that it doesn’t indicate rhythm. You usually just have to have the song in your mind’s ear as you play along with the tab.

Where standard musical notation contains an extremely powerful method for noting virtually any rhythm imaginable, tab leaves you in the dark on rhythm.

For this reason, the best case scenario for guitarists is to have both tab and notation and be able to at least read how the rhythms work in standard notation.

Many books of guitar sheet music include both standard notation and guitar tab stacked on top of each other.

How to Get Better at Reading Guitar Tab

This overview is intended to get you started reading tabs for the guitar.

However, if you’re going to become comfortable reading guitar tab, then you’re going to need to dive in and start using it to learn your favorite songs.

There are tons of sites on the web that boast oodles and oodles of guitar tab–but buyer beware. Many of the tabs you find on the web are inaccurate. You’re going to need to check the tabs against the actual song you’re wanting to play to make sure it’s accurate.

If you’re just getting started on the guitar, there’s a fantastic course that can help you not only become more comfortable reading tab but also learn to play the guitar from the ground up with fantastic habits–all while having a blast. It’s called Jamorama. Definitely check it out if you’re interested in learning how to play guitar.

Here are some of the most popular sites for guitar tabs on the web: