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How to Read Guitar Tabs: Simple Guide for Beginners

August 4, 2023
How to read guitar tabs

Have you just started learning how to play guitar?

Do you want to be able to read guitar tabs so you can finally play the music you love?

You’ve come to the right place – we will show you how to read guitar tabs in a very simple way.

By the end of this article, you’ll have all the skills you need to read guitar tabs with ease.

What are Guitar Tabs?

As a guitar beginner, one of the first things you will learn is that there are several ways of writing down guitar music.

In fact, there are three common ways of writing down music in guitar playing: 

  • guitar TAB
  • standard notation
  • chord charts

Tablature (or tab) is a form of musical notation widely used for string instruments. 

Unlike sheet music, tablature indicates instrument fingering rather than musical pitches. Therefore, learning how to read a guitar tab is much easier than becoming familiar with standard notation.

That said, guitar tabs allow beginners to learn new songs in a quick and easy way. 

guitar in a chair

Is It Hard to Read Guitar Tabs? 

Compared to reading guitar sheet music, learning how to read tablature is fairly easy.

It might be confusing in the beginning, with different symbols and all, but you just need to get used to it.

The most important thing is that guitar tabs are very straightforward, and once you get a hang of it, learning new songs will seem relatively easy.

But of course, just like any new skill, learning guitar tabs takes time and dedication, and it will take some practice before you feel completely comfortable with it.

Guitar Numbering Systems 

In order to learn how to read guitar tabs, you need to be familiar with the three basic numbering systems for guitar players.

Frets are metal strips located on the guitar’s fretboard (or fingerboard.) And the fret closest to the head is the 1st fret.

guitar frets

And regarding string numbers on guitar, the string closest to the floor (the thinnest string) is the first string. So the thickest string is actually the sixth string. 

guitar string numbers

Finally, if you want to know how to read guitar tabs, you’ll need to know which fingers to use.

When you play the guitar, the index finger on your left hand is your first finger, the middle finger is your second finger, the ring finger is your third finger, and your pinky is your fourth finger.

animated hand

Once you memorize the numbers of guitar strings, frets, and fingers, you’re ready to tackle guitar tabs.

And if all of these numbers seem confusing, don’t worry – the more you practice, the easier it gets. Eventually, these numbers will come naturally to you, which will ultimately allow you to read guitar notes much faster.

How to Read Guitar Tabs 

In essence, the guitar tab is a visual representation of the guitar’s neck, strings, and fretboard.

The guitar tab staff looks similar to the staff used in standard notation. However, the staff lines represent 6 strings rather than actual notes. 

So the basic layout of the guitar tab will show you strings and frets. 

guitar tab

Guitar tabs are read as though you’re looking down at your guitar while playing. So, the thickest and lowest string (low E) is at the bottom, while the thinnest and highest string (high E) is at the top. 

In other words, the top line is the 1st string and the bottom line is the 6th string.

Furthermore, you always need to read Tab from left to right. 

On the top of each string, you’ll also see a number. These numbers will tell you which fret you’re supposed to press.

So for example, if you see the number 3 on the second line counting from the top, you should press the third fret of the B string with your left hand and play that string with your right hand.

guitar tabs

When numbers appear in sequence, you must play one note after another. In that case, you are supposed to play a melody line or a solo.

And when the numbers appear on top of each other, you need to play them all at once. That means you came across a chord.

As you can see, playing notes and chords using a guitar tab is fairly simple. You just need to know which line represents which string and how numbers translate to guitar frets.

Other Elements 

Besides chords and guitar notes, there are some other important elements you’ll have to recognize in guitar tabs.

Apart from showing what you should play, a guitar tab can also show the techniques used to play each note.

So let’s take a look at the most common guitar tab symbols and techniques.

person playing guitar

Muting

Muting guitar notes are very common in rock music as well as in genres such as heavy metal, punk, and alternative.

This technique will add dynamic to your playing, and it’s very useful when you want to produce rhythmic sounds.

Finally, muting techniques also prevent unwanted noise or feedback during live performances. 

Now, muting can be done in two ways.

Palm muting is done by placing the side of your picking hand on the strings. If you do it lightly, the notes will ring out a little more, while heavy muting produces rhythmic sounds and a staccato effect. 

In guitar tabs, palm muting is represented by a “P.M.—“ marking. The dashes tell you how long you need to palm-mute the notes. 

And if you spot an X, you should play muted notes. 

Muted notes (or dead notes) technique involves muting the note with your hand and playing that note so the pitch is completely muted. 

muted music notes

Bending 

This is another common element of guitar tabs. Bending refers to raising or lowering a string with the fingers of your left hand so you can reach the sound of the frets in front of the fret that was pressed.

So, you can bend the guitar strings by pushing the strings up or down rather than just pressing straight down on the fretboard. 

String bending is indicated by a curved arrow over the note. It might be a “full” bend or a “1/2” bend, depending on the marking.

bending music notes

Sliding 

Sliding is accomplished by sliding the finger of the left hand horizontally. 

You can slide up or down to the next note until you reach the pitch you need to play.

sliding music notes

Vibrato 

Vibrato means repeatedly bending and releasing a note over and over for an expressive vocal effect. So it’s similar to bending, but the pitch remains relatively the same. 

It’s played with a single finger, but you can also use a main finger with other fingers as support.

In guitar tabs, vibrato is indicated as a zig-zag line above the staff.

vibrato music notes

Hammer-ons and Pull-offs

The hammer-on technique involves striking the string with the fretting finger with enough force to sound the note. It’s indicated by the letter “H” and an arc connecting the notes. 

On the other hand, pull-offs involve pulling off the string to an open note or a note you are fretting with another finger. They are indicated with the letter “P” and an arc connecting the notes.

Hammer-ons and pull-offs are sometimes referred to as “Legato.”

hammer music notes

Tapping 

Tapping is a technique that consists of hammering a string in a certain fret using the right hand instead of the left. So, it’s basically the same technique as legato, but you need to use your picking hand instead of your fretting hand. 

Although the technique has been used in classical guitar for a long time, it was popularized by Eddie Van Halen in the 1980s. 

In the guitar tab, tapping is notated by a letter “T” over the indicated note.

Downstrokes and Upstrokes 

If you want to play chords on the guitar, you need to master basic strumming techniques. 

There are two types of strokes used when strumming: upstrokes and downstrokes.

Downstroke indicators look like a squared-off upside-down “U”, and upstroke indicators look like a downward-facing arrow. 

downstroke and upstroke notes

There are many other techniques guitarists use, but it’s important for you to learn the basic guitar tab symbols.

After all, the meaning of less common techniques is usually indicated somewhere on the tab so you don’t have to worry about it.

Guitar Tabs vs Guitar Sheet Music 

As a guitar player, we suggest you get to know other forms of notation as well.

After all, standard notation is the main language of music. Sight reading skills are very useful, and they will help you understand how music really works.

Guitar sheet music shows you guitar notes, tempo, dynamics, and so on. Therefore, there are many symbols for you to memorize (along with the notes and note lengths) in order to read guitar sheet music with ease. 

On the other hand, a guitar tab is a simple graphic that shows you exactly what notes or chords to play and where you can find them on your guitar. And that’s why guitar tabs are generally better for beginners.

But if you want to reach advanced levels, we certainly recommend learning how to read sheet music as well. 

Where to Get Guitar Tabs? 

Another great thing about guitar tabs is the fact that you can get them almost anywhere.

Most popular songs come with guitar tabs, and sometimes you’ll come across sheet music and tab combined.

Either way, many websites offer free guitar tabs and a variety of genres and styles. 

  • Ultimate Guitar has one of the largest collections of free tabs. You can also pay for extra features. 
  • Guitartabs.cc is a simple website that offers free guitar tabs. You can search songs by artist and song title. 

Final Thoughts 

We hope this guide helped you realize how straightforward guitar tabs actually are.

If you’re familiar with string names, frets, and the most common guitar tab symbols, you’ve already mastered the basics.

Now you just need to practice – and you’ll be able to read guitar tabs like a pro in no time!

If you want more information on guitar tabs, or even more the guitar learning journey as a whole, check out my guide on the best online guitar lessons

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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