As a new guitar player, you’ve probably come across songs you want to play and wondered how to read guitar tabs (or tablature if you want to get fancy). Guitar tab is a simple form of music notation that only tells you the notes that you need to play for the song.
In a guitar tab, there is no notation for which fingers to use or what rhythm to play. Most songs you will be learning on the guitar are simple enough that you can learn them with tabs, and you can save yourself the time of having to learn how to read sheet music.
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The Basics of Reading Guitar Tabs
When you are looking at a tab, you will see six horizontal lines. These lines represent the strings of the guitar. The bottom line is the 6th string (the thickest string on your guitar, low e) and the top line is the thinnest string (the first string, high e).
You will also see numbers placed on the lines to indicate which frets on the fretboard need fretting. These are referred to as fret numbers. Fret numbers start at the first fret (which is closest to the headstock) and goes up from there.
Here is an example from the tab for Enter Sandman by Metallica.
The first thing you will notice is that the first note is a zero. Zeros indicate open strings.
The next note is marked as a 7 on the 5th string, so place a finger on the 5th string 7th fret. The third note is the 5th fret 4th string. By now you are probably realizing that in order to play this riff, you need to use your 3rd finger on the 7th fret and your first finger on the 5th fret.
You can then finish out the riff by grabbing the 6th fret on the 6th string with your second finger, then the 5th fret with your 1st finger, and finally the 7th fret 5th string (a string) with your 3rd finger.
If you are wondering what the vertical lines are, they are to mark the measures. Unfortunately in this example, the person that created the tab marked the measures in the wrong spots. This is also something to get used to when looking at tabs. Most of them are not 100% correct.
Congratulations, you just read a guitar tab and also played the opening riff to Enter Sandman. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is still a lot more tab notation to learn.
Hammer Ons and Pull Offs
There are a number of other things you may see in a guitar tab.
Hammer ons are two notes that are played from one pick stroke. The finger comes down hard on the fret, like a hammer, to sound the note without picking. You will see hammer ons marked with an h.
Below is an excerpt from the intro to Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin. The intro is full of hammers ons and pull offs.
Pull offs are sort of the opposite of hammer ons. With a pull off you are picking the note that is being fretted, then pulling your finger off the note to create the sound. You can sort of pull your finger down and off the note to give it a little extra articulation. You will see pull offs marked in the tabs with a p.
To tie these two together, you can play the first three notes of the above tab. It starts on the G string open, and you hammer on your finger onto the 2nd fret G string and then pull it off to go back to the open note. Remember, these three notes are played with one downward pick stroke.
Sliding Up and Down
As you progress as a guitarist you’ll be learning more difficult songs, and surely you will come across slides. You see these as the forward slash and backslash markings in the tabs.
A slide up is marked with a / and a slide down is marked with a \.
In the tab example below (Intro to Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix) you see two slides right away. 3/5 and 5\3 means you slide from the 3rd fret to the 5th fret, then back down from the 5th fret to the 3rd fret. If you see a without a note after it, it simply means to do a quick slide down the neck.
Chords and Multiple Notes
When you see numbers situated above and below each other, that means those notes are played at the same time. This can be done to notate chords or multiple notes that should be played at once.
In tabs, you rarely see chords notated. If it is a simple song consisting of chords that are strummed, the chord names are usually written above the lyrics. Tabs are mostly for learning the single notes that make up a solo, intro, or riff in a song.
If you look back up at the example from Enter Sandman, you will see pm notated towards the end of the intro. Pm stands for palm muting, and it simply means to let the edge of your palm (on the pinky side) rest lightly on the strings to provide a subtle muting effect. There is a dashed line to indicate how long the palm muting should be applied.
Strumming in Guitar Tabs
Occasionally you will see strumming marked in guitar tabs. Most times this is done with a “D” for down and a “U” for up. You may also see symbols that look like an “n” for down and a “v” for up. You may also see strumming marked with up and down arrows.
If the song you are learning is only chords and strumming, you can listen to hear the strum pattern. If you can’t pick out the strumming pattern with your ear, try searching for a video of the song being performed and watch to see what the guitarist does with their strumming hand.
Vibrato and Bending
Another more advanced technique you may see noted in guitar tabs is vibrato and bending. Vibrato is marked with a squiggly line ~~~~. Vibrato is when you slightly bend the note up and down to give it some texture and soul. It’s an advanced technique that’s better to learn after you’ve been playing a while.
Bends are marked with a “b”. If the b is between two notes, it means to bend the note up to the second note. If the second note is lower in pitch than the first, it means you need to prebend the note and bring it down to the second note.
Pros and Cons of Using Guitar Tabs to Learn
The biggest benefit to reading tabs to learn songs is that there are thousands of songs available to learn for free. You don’t have to pay for guitar lessons when you know how to read tabs. You can sit down and teach yourself, one song at a time.
The biggest drawback is that there is no rhythm or fingerings marked. You have to listen to the song and use your ear to play the right rhythm. You’ll have to figure out the fingerings on your own as well.
The second biggest drawback is that you have to be careful you don’t learn from a tab that is incorrect. Thankfully, the tab sites have implemented rating systems. If the tab has lots of good ratings, it is likely correct.
Do You Have to Learn to Read Music Too?
No. With guitar playing, you can get really far with just knowing how to read tabs. If you are playing classical guitar you will want to learn to read music, but for just learning your favorite songs tabs will be just fine.
A plus to learning to read music notation is that it can transfer over to other instruments. It also gives you access to song books that come with notation but no tabs.