How To Read Guitar Tabs

 


Learning how to read guitar tabs is an essential part of learning how to play guitar. The best part is that it’s simple and easy to understand, even for beginners.

So what’s a guitar tab? Guitar tablature, or tabs for short, is a visual representation of guitar music that doesn’t require any knowledge of how to read musical notation. This is especially helpful for beginners since they’d be able to learn how to play a song on guitar right off the bat. Guitar tabs look a little like standard musical notation and are represented by six lines that run horizontally. Each of these lines represent a string on a guitar.

e|------------------------|
B|------------------------|
G|------------------------|
D|------------------------|
A|------------------------|
E|------------------------| 

Notice how the high e string is the top most string on the tab. Guitar tabs are displayed this way because it goes from the highest pitch to the lowest. Also, if you set your guitar down on a flat surface, that’s the way your strings would be laid out, with the high e string at the top, and the low E string at the bottom.

But aren’t there little numbers on tabs? Yes! The numbers you see on guitar tabs represent the fret, and what the player (that’s you!) should play. Check this out:

e|------------------------|
B|----1-------------------|
G|------------------------|
D|------------------------|
A|------------------------|
E|------------------------| 

What is happening here? Why is there a little 1 on the B string? The 1 represents the 1st fret on a guitar. And since this 1 is placed on the B string, that means, this tab is telling you to play the 1st fret on the B string, which is a note, the C note to be exact. It’s not necessary to know exactly which note you’re playing here if you’re a beginner, it’s more important to learn how to read the tab first. Anyways, the above diagram isn’t really exciting, is it? Let’s throw in some more notes.

e|------------------------1--|
B|-----1---------------------|
G|------------2--------------|
D|------------------3--------|
A|---------------------------|
E|---------------------------| 

Notice there is now a 1 on the B string, a 2 on the G string, a 3 on the D string and finally another 1 on the high e string. Again, all of these numbers represent a note on the guitar, and each of these numbers represent a fret. One question you might ask is: “What note do I play first?” You play notes on a tab from left to right. So how would you play this? You’d first start by playing the 1st fret of the B string (it’s the furthest to the left), then the 2nd fret of the G string, then the 3rd fret on the D string then finally the 1st fret on the high e string. You play from left to right, just as if you were reading a book. Go ahead and try to play the diagram above. And remember, play the notes from left to right. For the most part, that’s how you read and play tabs!

It can’t be that easy right? Well, it is that easy, but more advanced songs require more advanced techniques like bending notes, sliding, pulling off, or even using hammer-ons. Let’s dive a little bit into that as well.

You’ll most likely see tabs that look something like this:

e|------1---1----------------|
B|---------------------------|
G|--------------------3/5----|
D|---------------------------|
A|---------------------------|
E|---------------------------| 
Alright, so you first play the 1st fret of the high e string, and then you do it again because it’s the same note and then, WAIT A MINUTE WHAT IS THAT?! What the heck is that forward slash doing between the notes? If there’s a forward slash between two notes on a tab, that means you must slide! In the example above, you must slide from the 3rd fret on the G string up to the 5th fret on the G string.

But what if it was like this instead:

e|-----1---1-----------------|
B|---------------------------|
G|------------------5\3------|
D|---------------------------|
A|---------------------------|
E|---------------------------| 

Notice the forward slash is now a back slash. This indicates that you’ll be sliding from a high note to a lower note. This means you’ll have to slide starting from the higher note, the 5th fret on the G string, to the lower note, the 3rd fret on the G string.

Pull-offs and hammer-ons This is where it starts to get kind of crazy but not too crazy.

e|---------------------------|
B|---------------------------|
G|------------------5p3------|
D|---------------------------|
A|---------------------------|
E|---------------------------| 

When you see a “p” between two notes on a tab, that means pull-off from the first note to the second note. The tab above is telling you to pull-off from the 5th fret of the G string to the 3rd fret of the G string. Now, let’s throw in a hammer-on.

e|---------------------------|
B|---------------------------|
G|------------------3h5------|
D|---------------------------|
A|---------------------------|
E|---------------------------| 

The “h” stands for hammer-on and it’s the same principal as the pull-off. The tab above is telling you to start from the 3rd fret of the G string and hammer on the 5th fret of the G string. Again, you play it from left to right. Hammer-ons and pull-offs are generally played together so let’s put them together.

e|---------------------------|
B|---------------------------|
G|--------------5p3h5--------|
D|---------------------------|
A|---------------------------|
E|---------------------------| 

Notice that we’ve added the “h5” to the end of the original pull-off tab. This tab is telling you to pull-off from the 5th fret of the G string to the 3rd fret of that string, and then hammer-on the 5th fret.

The last symbol we’ll look at is “b” for bending.

e|---------------------------|
B|-------------2b4-----------|
G|---------------------------|
D|---------------------------|
A|---------------------------|
E|---------------------------| 

So the “b” stands for bending, and in the tab above, it’s telling you to start on the 2nd fret of the B string, and then perform a bend, that is pushing the strings up towards the ceiling, on the 4th fret. Generally, when reading a tab like this, you want to position your first finger, or your index finger on the first note before the bend. For example, in this tab you’ll start by playing the 2nd fret of the B string with your index finger, and then bending the 4th fret of the B string with your third finger.

There’s a lot to learn when it comes to reading and playing guitar tabs but hopefully this was a good primer on getting you started. It’s super important to understand all of the symbols and elements of a tab but with some more practice you’ll be on your way to reading tabs without a problem. Bookmark this page for future reference and keep practicing!

For a full list of guitar tab symbols go here: Guitar Tab Symbol Guide