If you're reading this, one thing is certain. You are a guitar player. You have endless hours of practice under your belt. You know most of the oh-so-many chords that exist along with their countless variations; eight or nine of your fingertips are calloused, and your neighbors are continually complaining about the loud noise at unthinkable times of the day.
In other words, you’ve already accomplished the most demanding part, which is learning how to play! However, you undoubtedly want to be able to play the popular songs that inspired you to become a guitarist in the first place.
Now, there are two types of guitar players when it comes to figuring out how to play a song. Those who were gifted with the amazing ability to play or reproduce the song without looking at a music sheet (this is called “playing by ear”), and those who, well, weren’t.
Fortunately, you have absolutely nothing to worry about if you fall into the latter! There is an amazing resource that has helped millions of guitar, bass and ukulele players of all skill levels learn how to play their favorite songs. It’s called ‘guitar tablature’ (or ‘tab’ for short) and it’s a simplified graphic representation that shows you exactly what, how and when to play.
Without further adieu, let’s dive in and learn how to read guitar tablature (Spoiler alert: It’s extremely easy once you get the hang of it.)
Types of Guitar Tab
There are three main types of guitar TAB that have become widely popular. They may all look similar in format but you will see notable differences among them as we go.
Text-based Guitar Tab
This is the most simplified type of guitar TAB, and the first one that became popular on the web. It is written in simple text like so.
The disadvantage of this style of TAB is that it usually lacks information about rhythm. Other types of guitar TAB include this information, so try to choose those instead of the text-based tab for a more complete learning experience.
Interactive Guitar Tab
This type of guitar TAB looks somewhat different from text-based guitar TAB.
As you can tell, the above Guitar TAB resembles the text-based Guitar TAB from earlier, but it is easier to understand and employs different symbols.
When compared to the text-based Guitar TAB mentioned earlier, you'll note that this TAB has a lot more information. This is why, if at all feasible, we recommend avoiding text-based Guitar TAB. Formal Guitar TAB, such as this, is much more useful.
Tablature and Standard Notation
You’ll probably see this format in a typical Guitar TAB book. As you can see in the diagram below, two staffs are linked together.
The song is written in Standard Notation on the top half and Tablature on the bottom half.
This is the best of both worlds because it allows you to read the same music in two distinct ways. This approach is preferred by many guitarists since it provides the most information on how to perform a song on the guitar.
This is also advantageous because you can simply disregard the top staff and read the lower Guitar TAB staff if you don't know how to read standard notation.
Guitar TAB layout
We can’t go any further on learning how to read guitar TAB until you have understood its basic layout.
The six horizontal lines on the guitar TAB reflect the six strings on the instrument.
To match different instruments, there may be more or fewer lines. TAB for a bass or ukulele has four or five lines, while TAB for a seven-string guitar has seven horizontal lines.
The six lines correspond to the six strings on your guitar, as seen in the image below.
The string tunings will sometimes be displayed on text-based and formal guitar TAB as shown below.
The most important thing to remember about Guitar TAB is that the top line corresponds to the highest pitch string on your guitar, while the bottom line corresponds to the lowest pitch string.
The meaning of numbers on guitar TAB
Guitar TAB has a line for each string on your guitar. A number on a line in Guitar TAB indicates that you should play a certain note on that string.
The fret numbers on a string are represented by the numbers on the Guitar TAB. The fifth fret on your guitar is represented by the number 5. The twelfth fret is represented by the number 12. The open string would be 0 in this case (zero fret).
The below diagram shows examples of different guitar TAB numbers and how each number matches a note on the guitar.
There are two methods to write numbers in Guitar TAB, and each has an impact on how you play them.
Numbers Stacked on Top of Each Other
When you see numbers stacked on top of each other on a Guitar TAB, it means you should play all of them at the same time. To put it another way, strum a chord.
All of the above numbers are stacked on top of each other, and if you play them all at the same time, you'll get a chord.
Numbers Written Left to Right
Guitar TAB tells you to play the notes one after the other from left to right when numbers are written side by side (on the same string or separate strings).
Guitar TAB is read the same way you read everything else. From left to right, one word at a time.
Because the notes are positioned one after the other in the Guitar TAB below, you should begin by playing the 1st fret note, then the 2nd fret note, then the 3rd fret note, and lastly the 4th fret note.
Whether you see a single note or a full chord, remember to read everything from left to right.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you only play a string on your guitar when you see a number on it.
The Meaning of Symbols in Guitar Tab
So far we’ve learned what lines and numbers represent on guitar TAB. Let’s now take a look at the different symbols used.
Slides, bends, hammer-ons and palm-muting are some of the guitar techniques that are represented by symbols on the Guitar TAB. When you see a sign in Guitar TAB, it means you should use a certain technique.
There are two sets of symbols to learn for Guitar TAB: one for text-based Guitar TAB and another for formal Guitar TAB.
Let's go over all of the key symbols you'll encounter in Guitar TAB.
The meaning of h in guitar TAB
The letter ‘h' in Guitar TAB stands for ‘hammer-on.' This is done by playing a note and then hammering on to a higher note.
This is represented by writing the letter ‘h' between two notes in text-based Guitar TAB. In formal Guitar TAB it is represented as a curved line across the two notes and a H above the staff, as illustrated below:
The two TABs shown above are showing the exact same thing to play.
The meaning of p in Guitar TAB
The letter ‘p' in Guitar TAB stands for ‘pull-off.' When you play a note and then pull off to a lower note, this is called a pull-off. It's pretty much the opposite of a hammer-on.
In formal Guitar TAB, the same curving line is used for hammer-ons and pull-offs, thus you can tell which technique to use by looking at whether the number is higher or lower.
A “Legato” is when you combine hammer-ons and pull-offs under the same curved line as shown below.
The meaning of / or \ in guitar TAB
In Guitar TAB, a slide is represented by a slash ( / or \).
Whether you need to slide up to a note ‘/' or down to a note ‘' depends on the type of slash used.
Consider the slash symbol as a slide that you walk up from the left to determine which is which. You slide down on guitar if the slash slopes downwards like this \. You slide up on guitar if the slash slopes upwards like /.
Text-based and formal Guitar TAB both use the same symbols, making it simple to recognize slides.
A curving line over the top of the slide in formal Guitar TAB serves as a reminder that you only pick the first note of the slide. If there isn't a curved line, it suggests you should choose both notes.
The meaning of b in Guitar TAB
A bend is represented by the letter ‘b‘ in Guitar TAB. A curving line with an arrow or number is utilized in formal Guitar TAB.
A number is occasionally offered after the ‘b' in text-based Guitar TAB to tell us what pitch to bend up to. 10b12 denotes bending the 10th fret note up to the pitch of the 12th fret.
The symbol ^ is used to represent a bend in some older text-based Guitar TAB that can be obtained online.
A number is supplied at the top of the curved arrow in formal Guitar TAB to tell us what type of bend to perform.
‘1/2’ means a half-step bend, ‘full’ means a whole-step bend, ‘1 1/2’ means a one-and-a-half step bend and so on.
When you see an ‘r’ in guitar TAB it means that you should release the bend. This is indicated occasionally when a bend needs to be sustained for a long time. That way you will know when to lower it again.
When you see ‘pb’ it means to pre-bend a note before you pick it. You push the strong up to the correct pitch, then you pick the note before releasing it or holding it.
The meaning of x in Guitar Tab
When you see an ‘x’ in Guitar Tab it means to mute a single or multiple strings at the same time.
To do this, you simply place your hand lightly over the strings and strum them (just as you normally would)
A good example of this would be a funk guitarist simulating percussion sounds on his guitar without actually playing any chords. That’s exactly how muting your guitar sounds.
The meaning of parentheses () in Guitar Tab
When a note in Guitar TAB appears inside parenthesis (), it either implies to play a ghost note or that the note is still ringing out.
The notes in parentheses in the example below are ghost notes. This means that the notes in parenthesis should be played softer than the rest of the notes.
The repeated notes you hear from a delay pedal are sometimes represented as ghost notes.
In the example below, the note you see inside a parenthesis isn’t a ghost note. What the parentheses indicate here is that the note has continued to ring out into the next bar and it wasn’t picked again.
Parentheses are usually used to show that a note is continuing to ring out to the next bar when it rings out to the following bar.
The meaning of ~ in Guitar Tab
In Guitar Tab, ‘~’ is the symbol for vibrato. This is commonly displayed on the line adjacent to the note in text-based Guitar TAB, and a wavy line above the staff in formal TAB.
In some old text-based Guitar TAB, a ‘v’ is placed next to the note to indicate vibrato because the ~~~ can sometimes be hard to see.
One important thing to mention is that the symbol for vibrato (~) isn’t used as much because a typical guitarist uses this technique so often that it would make the music sheet look saturated and messy if the symbol was to be written every time it is used.
If you hear a song that clearly has vibrato in it, but it has not been noted in the music sheet, that’s the reason why.
The meaning of <> in Guitar Tab
In Guitar TAB, the symbols ‘<>’ represent natural harmonics. When a note is contained between these symbols such as <7> it is an indication to play a natural harmonic on that fret.
N.H. appears above or below the staff in some Guitar TAB to indicate that the note is a natural harmonic. You will often see A.H. for artificial harmonics.
You may also observe that when a harmonic is utilized, the notes on the normal notation staff appear as diamonds.
Another common use for the <> symbols is to indicate volume swells. To know which is more likely, just to listen to the song.
The meaning of t in Guitar TAB
In Guitar TAB, the letter ‘t’ is the symbol for tapping. This is sometimes shown with a capital T above the staff, while other times it is shown next to the note (usually on text-based TAB).
In formal Guitar TAB, the curving line above all of the notes informs us that this is all played without picking (legato).
As you may have already noticed, tapping can get really confusing and hard to read in Guitar TAB. It is recommended that you print the tab and use a highlighter to make the notes that were tapped stand out.
The meaning of PM in Guitar TAB
The symbol for palm muting in Guitar TAB is 'PM.' This is normally displayed above or below the staff, and if the palm muting is held for a long time, it is followed by a dashed line.
Palm muting is only used in the illustration above when there is a PM or dashed line below or above the staff. The rest of the notes are played without using the palm mute.
In earlier text-based Guitar TAB, this symbol may not be used at all if the song heavily uses palm muting.
For example, palm muting is used almost entirely in some metal songs. Because adding a dashed line to every note would be inconvenient, it is frequently omitted.
Guitar TAB Symbols Summary
Here's a rundown of the most common symbols you'll come across in text-based Guitar TAB:
- h = hammer-on
- p = pull-off
- b = bend
- / = slide up
- \ = slide down
- PM---- = palm muting (above or below TAB)
- ~~~ = vibrato
- x = muted hit
- <> = natural harmonics
- t = tapping
- () = grace note or let the note ring
There are many more symbols that can appear in Guitar TAB, but the ones listed above are the most common ones.
Guitar tablature is a fantastic method of learning to play the guitar that eliminates a lot of the guessing and tension. It's specifically created and tailored toward guitarists (and bassists...don't worry, we won't leave you out in the cold), and it's a highly intuitive manner of learning that takes very little time to grasp.
To be entirely honest, understanding how to read sheet music properly is a skill that any musician may benefit from acquiring. It would be irresponsible to minimize that skill, especially if your musical ambitions include performing professionally. But it's difficult at first, almost as if you're learning to write and speak a foreign language. Another thing to consider - it can even be more challenging to learn with an instrument like the guitar where you can play the same note (at the same pitch) in multiple locations on the neck (unlike a piano where each note is unique to a specific piano key).
This is when Guitar TAB becomes advantageous. It's quick, simple to understand, and it can help you get to your end goal a lot faster when you're just getting started.
If you've combed every corner of the web trying to find a tab for that song you're dying to learn and it's nowhere to be found, our musicians at PaidTabs.com can create it in no time! Submit your song request for free, plug your guitar and get ready to jam along!
So, like we said at the beginning, it is extremely easy once you get the hang of it, don’t you think? Now that you’ve learned the basics and have a great guide for reference, why don’t head over to paidtabs.com and make your free tab request? You will be playing your favorite songs in no time!