If you’ve just picked up the guitar, you’ve probably heard of guitar tabs. You’ve also probably been told to track some down to learn your favourite songs. But maybe you can’t make sense of all the numbers you see.
Thankfully, guitar tablature (or tabs for short), are super easy to read. You’ll probably get the reading down in no time, getting your fingers to do what you’re reading is the next step and slightly harder part.
The Difference Between Guitar Tabs And Chord Sheets
Some songs just lend themselves to strumming chords. Because of that, you’ll often find songs with the lyrics printed and the chords you’re supposed to play written above the lyrics. These are a great place to start once you learn your beginner guitar chords. If you’re looking for some songs to start with once you learn your chords, check out my lists of easy guitar songs.
Guitar tabs are different from just listing the chords. The tabs show you what note to play and on what string. This is different from sheet music though. Sheet music just tells you the note to play, but doesn’t give the guidance on string choice and position. Because of this, guitar tablature is easier to read for beginners. You don’t need to worry about finding the right note or making decision position.
Understanding Guitar Tablature
Guitar tabs are written with the 1st string (the thinnest string, the high E) at the top and the 6th string (the thickest string, the low E) at the bottom. This may feel like you’re reading things upside down, but it actually makes a lot of sense. On sheet music, lower notes are lower down on the stave, so the lower strings in tabs should be lower as well. It also kind of makes sense because when you’re playing guitar, you’re kind of looking at the fret board upside down.
Here’s an example of some basic tablature:
Above is a minor pentatonic scale starting on the 6th string and going up to the 1st string. To play this tab, play the 5th fret on the 6th string, then the 8th fret. Then play the 5th fret on the 5th string and so on. You’ll notice there’s no rhythm present.
Unfortunately you’ll often find that with online guitar tabs. But, if you’re learning your favourite song, you can usually work the rhythm out for yourself. If you’re lucky enough to find higher quality guitar tabs that have rhythm, use it!
Here’s an example of a tab that was made using proper software. It’s a lot better! And you read it the same way.
Other Symbols You May See On Guitar Tabs
Guitar tabs aren’t limited to just the fret you may be playing. Somethings you’ll also be given directions on slides, hammer ons, and pull offs.
The above example goes through the same pentatonic scale with various other techniques added. I’ll go through it note by note:
- Play the 5th fret on the 6th string, then hammer onto the 8th fret. A hammer on is when you forcefully fret the next note, but don’t pluck the string. If you’re forceful enough the note will sound.
- Play the 7th fret on the 5th string then pull off to the 5th fret. A pull off is the opposite of a hammer on. Pull your finger off so the note sounds without plucking the string.
- Play the 5th fret on the 4th string then slide up to the 7th fret.
- Play the 5th fret on the 3rd string then bend the string up a semitone.
- Play the 8th fret on the 2nd string then slide down to the 5th fret.
- Play the 5th fret on the 1st string with vibrato (bend the string slightly then unbend it over and over).
Going back to better quality tabs, you have notation to say similar things.
- Bend the 12th fret on the 3rd string up a full tone then bend back down.
- Play the 12th fret on the 3rd string then pull off tot he 10th fret.
- Play the 12th fret on the 4th fret, then the 12th fret on the 3rd string.
- Play the 10th fret on the 3rd string then bend up a quarter tone.
- Play the 12th fret on the 4th string and hold with vibrato.
And That’s Reading Guitar Tablature
As you can probably see, reading guitar tabs isn’t that difficult. What you’re going to have trouble with is reading and playing at the same time. As you practice more, you won’t have to look at your hands as much so you should just be able to read and play. Have fun!