Guitar tablature, also known as “tabs,” are vital for guitar players. You want to learn a song quickly but don’t have access to the full sheet music? There’s probably a tab floating on the internet, waiting for you to find it. Alternatively, let’s say you want to notate some cool licks you working on for a friend or bandmate, and they don’t know how to read music? Tabs provide an easy way for even novices (who might not have much training in note reading or music theory) to get an idea of how to play something on the guitar.
There’s still a learning curve for tabs, though, and if you’re particularly green when it comes to guitar, all those numbers and symbols might come across as confusing. If you’ve never read tab before, or find yourself needing a refresher on the basics, keep reading, as we dive into everything you’ll need to know to start reading (and playing) tabs like you know what you’re doing.
To understand your tabs, you’ll first need to understand your guitar. A tablature diagram is designed to mimic a guitar — in a sense — so if you can visualize your guitar (and how your fingers will interact with it) easily, you’ll have a better go of trying to make sense of your tabs.
Here’s what you should remember…
Your guitar has six strings of varying thickness. If you’ve got your guitar resting on your knee like you’re going to play it, the thickest string — the 6th string — should be the one closest to your face. From there, the strings descend in order: 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. Tabs us a visual representation of the strings to show you what notes to play.
Now think horizontally. The metal dividers on the front of your guitar create separate sections called frets. The fret closest to the headstock is fret number 1. The frets increase in number the further away from the headstock you go. You’ll need to know where your frets are to understand what notes a tab is instructing you to play.
Even your fingers have numbers. Remember, your index finger is number 1, middle finger is number 2, ring finger is number 3, and pinky is number 4. These don’t always come into play when reading your tabs, but if a tab has any chords associated with it, you’ll need to remember your finger numbers to read the chord diagrams.
Now it’s time to take a look a tablature diagram. You should see six horizontal lines, with the word TAB written vertically at the beginning. These horizontal lines represent your strings. The bottom-most line is your 6th string, while the top-most line is the 1st string (you should be able to figure out the others from there).
You’ll read your tab from left to right, and the numbers show which fret you should put your fingers on to play the correct notes. For instance, if a tab shows a 10 on that bottom-most string, you’ll need to play the 10th fret on the 6th string of your guitar.
After playing that note, you’ll read the next note to the right and play it, then the next, and so on and so forth. Your tabs will generally show one number after then next, but there are exceptions, such as when a song requires that you play a chord. In these instances, you’ll see a series of numbers stacked in a line. The numbers still represent your frets/notes, but you’ll be playing them all together like a chord.
As you can see, reading tabs is a relatively simple prospect, as long as you’ve got a clear understanding of where your strings and frets are located. If you find yourself searching frantically for notes while reading tabs, refresh yourself on your string and fret positions before proceeding.
Notes: The notes on our sheet music are single numbers that go left to right which represent a melody line or solo that you might play.
Chords: The chords are shown in stacked numbers which represent a chord of some kind.
You’ll see any “special moves” you have to perform while playing represented by different symbols on your guitar tab. Here are a few of the most common ones you’ll encounter when you’re starting out:
These dexterous finger motions are marked on your tab by a small arc between two or more notes. Work carefully to ensure the timing of your hammers and pulls is precise.
If you need to muffle a note temporarily, you’ll see that indicated by a small “X,” just as you would on a chord chart. Expect to run into this symbol frequently if you’re learning strumming patterns or particularly rhythmic leads.
Sometimes you need to use your palm to mute a series of notes. If that happens to be the case, you’ll see a reminder on the tab, in the form of the letters “PM,” followed by a few dashes. Those dashes indicate how long you should continue palm muting notes.
Slides can look (and sound) impressive when you pull them off correctly. You’ll see a long, slanted line connecting two fret numbers when you’ll need to slide from one pitch to another.
This is an easy symbol to intuit. You’ll see that you need to bend a particular note when you see an arrow pointing up next to one of your fret numbers. The arrow will further indicate how heavy a bend you should apply, so be sure to look for this subtlety and play those bends accordingly.
This is a cool effect, and you’ll have a chance to try it for yourself whenever you see a squiggly line over a note. The thicker the squiggle, the more intense the vibrato is supposed to be.
Sometimes you can get by strumming the guitar however you feel. If there’s a very particular strumming pattern a part requires, however, you’ll see downstrokes noted with an upside down “U,” and upstrokes indicated by a downward-style arrow.
Remember to commit those special symbols to memory, and, whenever you are practicing your tabs, try to incorporate those “special moves” to the best of your ability. It might be tricky at first, but with some time, you’ll be reading and playing tabs like a true professional.
As a fundamental part of music theory, learning how to read music helps you play some of your favorite tunes and even write your own music. Once you get through this lesson, you'll understand the most common and important elements found when reading sheet music.
Some guitar players find it difficult to read guitar music. However, it's a great skill to have even if just the basics. Try not to get too frustrated with all of the terminology, especially if you're interested in learning how to read guitar tabs.
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Making sense of all those lines, dots, and numbers is one of the first skills you'll need to master on your way to guitar greatness.
Let's begin by making sense of what you're seeing when you look at a chord diagram. All "dressed up," a chord chart is a visual representation of how any given chord looks when played on the guitar. Strip away all the dots and symbols, though, and you're left with 6 vertical lines and 5 horizontal ones.
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