How Are Guitar Tabs Read?

guitar-tabs-read Credit: Bengt Nyman/CC-BY 2.0

Guitar tablature is a visual representation of a guitar neck, created with text, that shows the string and fret positions of notes and chords. Tabs are read by looking at the text representation and then determining which notes to play and in which order to play them.

Basic guitar tablature consists of six horizontal lines that represent the six strings of a guitar. The lowest line corresponds to the guitar's low E string, while the highest line corresponds to the guitar's high E string.

Numbers arranged on the different strings indicate which fret should be played on which string. Guitar tablature is read left to right, indicating the order in which the notes should be played. Numbers that appear alone, without any other notes positioned on strings above or below, indicate single notes that are played by themselves.

In tablature, chords appear as sequences of numbers stacked vertically. For example, 0, 2, 3 and 2 stacked vertically on the 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st strings indicate an open D chord. In many tabs, common chords are transcribed at the beginning of the tab but written using only their chord names throughout the rest of the tab.

Tablature is useful because it is easier to read than conventional musical notation, but its biggest drawback is its inability to communicate the time value of notes. Many tabs include lyrics in order to indicate when notes or chords are played.

Tablature employs a range of symbols to represent specific techniques. P and H, for example, symbolize pull-offs and hammer-ons, two of the most common guitar effects. Similarly, forward and reverse slashes stand for pick slides, and B indicates a string bend. Bends are sometimes also illustrated with swooping arrows indicating direction. To start learning tablature, begin with simple chord and solo arrangements, and try to follow the music note for note.