How To: Read Guitar Tab

Read Guitar Tab

Guitar Essentials

My friends and I would secretly scribble tab in the darkly lit practice rooms in our university even though we were educated musicians. So, being able to read tablature, or tab, is essential for beginning guitarists.

Tab is a curious way to write down music for guitar or bass players, that involves lines and numbers. For serious musicians it's kind of a sinful way to annotate but many of us still do it anyway. Putting the guilt aside, tab is great because with it you can quickly and universally note and share your music with others.

Why is it important? Well, if you are searching the Internet for instructions on how to play "Sweet Child 'O Mine" or "Stairway to Heaven," you will probably encounter two ways to learn it, video and tab. Video is great, but if you want to be able to take something with you to your bands rehearsal or to a gig, you will need something printable.

Keep in mind that if you pull your tab off of the Internet that it is usually user created and not always 100% correct. Check it out and make your own corrections. Other great sources of tab are offered in guitar magazines like Guitar World, and in books of sheet music.  Tabs found in commercially available sources are usually free of errors.

Lets get started:

Step 1 The lines

Tab for guitar is laid out with six lines.  Each line represents a string on the guitar. Look at this example:

How to Read Guitar Tab

The letters on the left side indicate the name of each corresponding string. For example, the last line represents the low 'E' string on your guitar, the 'A' is the next string, which is higher in pitch than the low 'E', and so on.

Step 2 The numbers

The numbers written on the lines represent which fret is fretted on that line, refer to the example:

How to Read Guitar Tab

Here there are two lines that have numbers on them. The '0' on the low 'E' means that no fret is fretted, but the string is played.

The '2' on the 'A' string means that you place your finger on the second fret, on the 'A' string.

How to Read Guitar Tab

Step 3 Chords and single notes

Looking again at the above example, we see that there are two notes that are aligned in a column. This means that these two notes are played together simultaneously, as a chord. What if the notes are not aligned? Like in this example:

How to Read Guitar Tab

Simple, play the note that comes first, the '0' on the low 'E' string, then the other note, the '2' on the 'A' string.

Step 4 The high notes

Notes can be placed anywhere on the fretboard, if you see double digits simply count it out and put your finger in the indicated place.

How to Read Guitar Tab

How to Read Guitar Tab

Many tabbers take liberties when trying to express things like hammer-ons, pull-offs, string bends, vibrato and all of the other tricks that guitarists are capable of. Often there will be a legend somewhere in the tab that will tell you what symbol they use and what it means. Lets look at an example:

How to Read Guitar Tab

OK, so here we have an illustration of hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends and vibrato. Here the 'h' represents a hammer-on from the 5th fret on the 'B' string to the 7th fret on the 'B' string. Then there is a pull-off from the very same 7th fret back to the 5th. Cool?

Next comes a note on the high 'e' string, but its loaded. Play once the 8th fret on the high 'e' string, then bend that note up (^), make it squeal, then add on thick some juicy vibrato (~).


  • Be aware that there are other symbols out there, but like I said, refer to the tab's author to find out what they mean. Or listen to the music and decide for yourself.

All right there it is, now go and learn the solo to "Hotel California."

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