If you want to learn how to play the guitar but you don't know any music theory and reading music is impossible for you, there’s a great alternative. These we call guitar tabs - or tablature.
Whatever your nationality or playing level, guitar tabs are easy to read for everyone. They are not dependent on the vocabulary of sheet music, they are pictorial, and they are relevant to classical guitar, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar alike.
A lot of guitar players use them because they are simple, straightforward, and get you knowing how to play guitar - and how to play your favorite guitar songs - in no time.
So, how do you read guitar tabs? Are there universal symbols for everyone to understand? Are there online guitar tutorials to learn how to read tabs - or are they best picked up in a formal guitar lesson or guitar course?
Superprof has put it all together for you so that you can learn this method of playing the guitar.
What is a Guitar Tab?
It’s no longer necessary to learn to read music in order to play the guitar. Nowadays guitarists often read their music on tabs.
Although they have a few drawbacks, tabs are quick and easy to learn and you can share many different types of guitar music with fellow musicians. If you want to learn licks, guitar chords, a chord progression, or the pentatonic scale, tab is probably the easiest way for the beginner guitar player to do it!
If you’ve already taken a few guitar lessons for beginners, then you’ll know that reading tabs is necessary for any guitarist worthy of the title - as it is an important way,alongside standard notation, to share written music with other guitar players.
What’s Tab Then?
Tabs are a specialized and simplified way of reading music for a specific instrument. You can find tabs for piano, guitar, bass guitar, and even drums.
In terms of guitar, tab provides a visual representation of the fretboard. Unlike standard music notation, which uses a stave of five lines with the placement of a symbol on a different line signifying a different pitch, tab gives you a number on one of six lines.
The six lines represent the fret board - and the number shows on which fret you should place your finger. So, if there is a '1' on the top line of the tab, you put your index finger in that box on the guitar neck on the thinnest string. If there is no number on a string, don't play that string!
The benefit of this, for guitarists, is that the notes of a different guitar chord, arpeggio, or lead guitar lick, can be played in a different place on the neck of the guitar. Standard notation does not show the different places where these can be played - leaving that decision up to the musician - but tab does, showing the best guitar position or the most easy guitar position to play this at.
Reading the tab on its own isn’t difficult. You read it from left to right just like any other piece of music, and when you get to the end of the line you go down to the next one and continue following the notes in the same direction.
In fact, learning to read tabs is as essential to learning rhythm and both are fundamental guitar playing!
Playing Chords from a Guitar Tab.
As we said, each string is represented by a line on the tab, meaning that there are six lines. But, as we know about the guitar, we don't just play one string at a time.
Rather, the six strings of a guitar were designed to be played together. We can read the main chords - power chords, barre chords, open chords (the most basic chords), jazz chords - by looking at where on the tab different numbers on different lines are presented as one above the other. This will tell you that they need to be played simultaneously.
Once you have developed your dexterity through the basic chord shapes, tab provides a really easy way to see how chords are constructed all over the neck.
You just need to follow the tab and see where to put your fingers!
The Quirks of Guitar Tabs
Nonetheless, guitar tabs do have several unique features of which you must be aware:
- Most tabs don’t have any indication regarding the speed or rhythm at which you should play. The ones that do - that you can see in anything from jazz guitar to rhythm guitar, chord progressions to guitar solos - use the rhythmic notation of standard musical notation.
- The tab is broken up into measures, but it is very rare to know the rhythm to play the guitar.
- The best advice is to really listen to the piece of music that you’re trying to play. Notice how it is structured, and how many counts are in each measure (ninety of rock, pop and folk songs have four beats, or are in 4/4 time).
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- Symbols that denote rhythm are written like this: ‘w’ for a whole note, ‘h’ for a half note, ‘e’ for an eighth note, and ’s’ for a sixteenth note.
- If there’s a dot after a letter like ’w’, that means that you need to hold the note for half of its length again.
Special Symbols for Tabs
Whether you want to play Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, Metallica or Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, you're going to come across some strange notation that you might not immediately recognise.
You’ll notice that there are many different symbols on tabs that tell you how to play the notes or link them together.
It’s important to learn to recognize the symbols by heart so that reading them becomes second nature. This way you can perfectly reproduce your favorite songs and play your arpeggios on the guitar - without having to stop and think about what each one means when you are playing whichever song.
These are different guitar techniques or guitar tricks that make up the more sophisticated parts of rock guitar, blues guitar, and solo guitar.
Here are a few of the most common symbols.
To play a hammer-on, you need to play a string, let it vibrate, and forcefully place, or 'hammer', another finger on a fret on the same string. What happens in this hammering is that you play a different, higher, note without actually plucking it with your right hand.
Hammer-ons are often represented by the letter ‘h’, and are written between the first fret you play and the one on which you’re doing a hammer on. (for example, 4h9 means strum the 4th fret and then the 9th).
Sometimes the ‘h’ can also be replaced by a ^ (4^9).
Playing a pull-off is the opposite of a hammer-on.
To play a pull-off, pull your fingers away quickly from the fret in order to create a lower note.
Pull-offs are generally represented by ‘p’ and are placed between the first fret you play and the one on which you’re performing a pull-off.
An example could be written as either 8p6.
Bends are performed by pushing a string after playing a note, in order to change the note while staying on the same fret.
Bends are generally indicated by a curved arrow and then a notation like ‘½’ or ‘¼’ or ‘full’ to tell you how to change the note.
If the arrow curves back on itself, or is marked by an ‘R’ for ‘bend and return’, that means that you should go back to the original note after you perform the bend.
Another way of writing a bend is with ‘b’ where it is placed between the first note to play, and the second that sounds due to the bend (for example 10b12).
The letter ‘r’ for return could also be added to this combination, telling you to return to the original pitch (8b10r8).
To play a slide, you slide along the string from one fret to another, either to get a higher sound (slide up) or a lower one (slide down), by continuing to hold the string down.
Slide ups are noted by a ‘/‘ and a slide down as ‘\’ as with 6/8\6.
You can also play slides legato, meaning a slide where you don’t use your pick for the first note of the slide.
The note sounds natural, without any effect.
Some guitarists think that you should also avoid using a pick on the base note, but the most important thing is to play without leaving a gap between the two notes.
Another feature of the slide is the slide and shift, where you play a note on the same string instead of on another string, so that only one sounds at once.
This will also help you to avoid having to change your guitar strings too often.
This is marked in tabs as ’S’.
Less common symbols
Other less common symbols are also important to recognize in tabs. Recognizing them is an important part of getting the right sound as you work on improving your guitar technique.
|'~'||Vibrato||Bend and relax a string to modulate the pitch slightly on long held notes.|
|'S' or 'T'||Slap, or Thumb||A technique common in bass guitar where you slap the string with the thumb of your right hand.|
|'PM'||Palm Mute||With your right hand, you muffle the strings at the bridge - to give a crunchier sound.|
|'X'||Mute||Here you will want to completely stop the sound of a particular string.|
|'\n/'||Tremolo||A number between two slashes requires you to use the whammy bar - changing the pitch of the note by the value of the number noted.|
|'t'||Tapping||Where you tap on the neck with your right hand.|
To learn to read guitar tabs, the most important thing to do is to stay motivated at guitar.
Where Can You Find Easy Guitar Tabs?
The internet is swimming with different guitar tabs to help people play songs. The songs to tab ratio is fairly huge, with hundreds of different tabs available for every different song. For a first guitar tab, you can just pick the best reviewed ones. But, as you improve your ear training, you'll be able to discern the difference in quality of tabs by just listening.
But, in the meantime, here are some great places to find some easy tabs.
As we said, the internet is full of guitar tabs - which you can either find in Notepad-style text, or else in specialised computer programmes. These latter, such as Guitar Pro or TablEdit, are hugely useful things that combine tab with traditional sheet music.
They can play back the tabs to you too, so you know exactly how you are supposed to play the rhythm.
A Guitar Teacher.
If you start guitar lessons, either online guitar lessons or in person, one of the main ways that your teacher will aid you is by giving you music to learn. And if you are playing acoustic guitars or electric guitars, you will be provided with tab (classical guitarists usually use standard notation!).
Alongside all the theory of the major chord and major scale, and the techniques of fingerstyle, fingerpicking, and improvisation, your teacher will be able to guide you through practicing tabs too. Knowing whether to use your middle finger or first finger on the first string or second string, and how best to develop your guitar skills using tab.
Make Tabs Yourself.
If you are feeling ambitious, you can try and make the tabs yourself. This comes from listening to the music you want to play and writing it down. This process is known as transcription - and it can be the only way to learn some songs, as sometimes the tabs aren't available!
Give it a go!