The traditional method of learning guitar involves scales, reading music, and other music theory skills. It’s a time-honored process that takes practice and intense study.
Think of guitar tabs as the Cliffs Notes version of guitar playing. Guitar tabs are a brief and often swift way to learn how to play songs. Basically, you’ll learn where to position your fingers to play notes, but you won’t be able to see rhythm, timing, or other musical information.
Neither method of guitar playing is wrong. If possible, it’s best to learn both methods to become the most well-rounded musician you can be. However, if there is a song you need to know today, then guitar tabs are probably the route you want to take.
How to Read Guitar Tabs: The Ultimate Guide
An Introduction to Guitar Tabs
Let’s start with what guitar tablature represents. There are six strings on a guitar and a tab is written using six horizontal lines, each representing a string.
The bottom line is meant to be your thickest string (low E), and the top line is your thinnest string (high E). The lines in between are the rest of your strings. The six horizontal lines are as follows, top to bottom: high E, B, G, D, A, low E.
To learn how to read guitar tabs you’ll need to know the parts of your guitar. This is essential for fully understanding guitar tabs. You’ll want to know what a fret is and which one is closest to the headstock.
For guitar tabs, the fret closest to the headstock will be 1. The frets are numbered 1,2,3,4 and so on as you move toward the body.
If the number is 0, you will be playing an open string (no finger on it).
Although guitar tabs are a quicker method for learning how to play the guitar, it still takes some time and practice to master. It’s important to realize that your fingers will still bear the brunt of learning.
Each day you should spend some time playing and giving your fingers, hands, and brain some exercise. There will be some pain as your fingertips toughen up. The more effort you put into it, the easier it will get. Increase your daily practice time each week.
Start off slow. Remember when your heart is begging you to attempt Jimi Hendrix, you’re probably better off starting with “Happy Birthday.”
How to Read Guitar Tabs and Play Them
Here are a few key pointers for reading and playing guitar tabs.
- Read from left to right, just like you would read a book. Once you’ve gotten to the end of the “line,” you’ll move to the next line, starting again left to right.
- Single notes will be represented by one number on one string. If you see stacked numbers, you’ll play them at the same time—it’s a chord.
- You can find full guides to guitar tabs using apps like Songsterr, or by searching the web. As you advance, you’ll need guidance for terminology and keys to decoding guitar tab symbols.
The rest is practice and more practice, and maybe even some guitar lessons. It’s also helpful to understand the basics of rhythm.
To become really proficient in playing guitar with the guitar tab method, you’ll need to understand technique. Study fingerpicking, which you’ll use to play single notes. Focus on firmly holding the string down to get the best sound from your guitar. Watch others play to see what they do.
How to Read Guitar Tabs for Chords
After you’ve mastered single notes, it’s time to move forward and try guitar chords. In tab, chords are written as shown in the diagram below, with all the notes of the chord stacked directly on top of each other.
Begin with simple chords. One of the most challenging aspects of chords as a beginner is finger placement. It can feel awkward, especially at first. What takes more time to learn is switching from one chord to the next.
Again, practice will become your best weapon to push through the awkwardness.
A few tips that will help you play chords more cleanly are:
- Square up your fingers. This is an important skill—it keeps you from hitting and muffling other strings.
- Understand ideal fret location. The ideal spot is three-quarters of the way toward the next fret (in-between the two frets). In other words, don’t actually land your finger on the fret itself.
- Place enough pressure on the string with all fingers. With whatever chord you’re playing, make sure all the fingers in use are pressing the string firmly enough. If you have a weak or muffled sound, check your fingers to make sure they are all held down securely.
Although there are general finger placements for each chord, variations aren’t unheard of. In the end, what works best for you and allows you to easily move from one chord to another is most important.
Reading Guitar Tabs for Riffs
A guitar riff is a series of notes that is repeated throughout a song. Many catchy guitar riffs are instantly recognizable, and luckily for beginning guitarists, they can be very easy to play too.
Riffs in a guitar tab will look like the tab shown above. Start from the left and work your way to the right, playing each note. With a little practice, the result should sound like this.
If you’re just getting started with guitar, don’t get frustrated if it takes you more than a couple tries to sound as good as the Beatles. Feel free to go slow and understand that mistakes are OK.
Again, guitar tabs only show you the order of the notes; they do not show rhythm. To get a feel for the rhythm of a song, you should always listen to the music while you look over the tab.
Other Symbols in Guitar Tabs
As you learn how to read guitar tabs, you might start to come across letters and symbols in addition to numbers.
These letters and symbols are there to let you know about some special guitar techniques. Below are a few of the most common symbols you’ll come across and what to do when you see them.
You might see the letter H pop up between two numbers, something like this: 5-H-7. This represents a technique known as a “hammer on.”
For this example, you would play the fifth fret note and while it is still ringing out, use another finger to press down the seventh fret on the same string. This technique results in a quick change between notes and is popular in guitar solos.
Very similar to a hammer on, a pull off is notated with a P between two notes, like this: 7-P-5. To play the pull off in the example, play a note on the seventh fret.
While you play the seventh fret, place another finger on the fifth fret and pull your finger off the seventh fret.
Slides are represented with a forward-slash or backslash between two notes, like this: 5/7 or 75. Basically, you hold down a note with one finger and while you’re playing the note, slide your finger up or down the neck of your guitar to the other note. A forward-slash indicates that you need to slide up the neck, while a backslash is used to represent a slide down.
Bends are another popular technique used in many guitar solos. They are represented in guitar tabs like this: 5-B-7. To play a bend, hold the note on the fifth fret and as you play, push with your left hand finger to bend the string until the pitch changes to match the pitch the same string normally has on the seventh fret.
Vibrato, or a quavering effect, is achieved by rapidly bending and releasing the bend, a kind of vibration of your finger on the fret. When a piece calls for vibrato, you’ll see this symbol on the tab: ~
In guitar tabs, when you see an x over a string, this indicates a muted note. To get this sound, hold your finger on the string without pressing down a fret. This creates a soft, “muted” sound.
As always, when you come across a special symbol in a guitar tab, listen to a recording of the song as you practice the technique. If you have trouble with any of these techniques, a qualified guitar teacher can help you master them and incorporate new sounds into your repertoire.
Bass Guitar Tabs
The bass guitar rarely uses chords, making it easier to pick up. However, there are musicians who have taken the bass from ordinary to extraordinary. Musical genres like funk, soul and progressive rock often give bassists solo lines.
The bass guitar has four strings. The tablature is similar to the guitar, and again the horizontal lines are the thinnest string on the top, with the thickest string on the bottom.
In this case the strings are G, D, A, E. The frets are numbered the same, with 1 near the head of the instrument, and the fret numbers getting higher as you move toward the body. Zero will represent an open string.
The biggest difference between the guitar and bass guitar is that a bass guitar’s rhythms will eventually be far more complex. As a beginner, you’ll want to stick to simpler rhythms until you start to get a feel for how it works.
Lessons on the bass guitar can be beneficial to learn some of the basic techniques. Some of the techniques you’ll need to familiarize yourself with are:
- Slap and pop
- Palm muting
- Fretting techniques, which can change a note, stop it or add vibrato
- Two-handed tapping
Best Apps for Learning How to Read Guitar Tabs
- Ultimate Guitar Tabs – Often considered the number one app for guitar tabs, Ultimate Guitar Tabs stands out with its option to go pro. The app is easy to navigate, and users have the ability to search for songs, plus there is a community of people who upload and correct songs. The app has other interesting features, like tempo control, audio track accompaniment and scrolling playback.
- GuitarTab – GuitarTab allows you to search for videos, filter by guitar tablature style, query band and song info and have access to more than 500,000 guitar tabs and chords. It’s well-liked among users, and matches up well against the competition for a slightly lower price.
- Guitar Pro – One unique part of Guitar Pro is having traditional notation along with the tabs. As a tab learning app, it is straightforward, with tabs played in real time as it moves across the screen.
- Guitar Chords and Tabs – Easy to search and free, this is a popular Android app offers a large library of songs.
- Songsterr – This app has a selection of 500,000 tabs, making it one of the top apps for tab-lovers. The tempo feature for Songsterr is among the best, and the appealing interface will is popular with users. Getting the monthly subscription is a worthwhile investment.
Even More Resources to Learn How to Read Guitar Tabs
Beyond essential one-on-one instruction, where you can ask questions and get instant feedback, the internet provides access to numerous songs, tutorials, and skill-building applications.
Whether you’re looking for free guitar tabs or an app for your phone, there is something out there on the web that will fit the bill. The top sites are continuously changing, but some favorites for guitar tabs include Guitar Tab Universe, Songsterr, and Ultimate Guitar Tabs.
Ultimate Guitar is a good place to learn some of the terms and techniques for playing guitar tabs, and Education Reference Desk has a list of 100 sites for teaching yourself the guitar (both regular and bass). Check out this additional article for easy guitar tabs to play now.
Some of the attributes you’ll need to become the best guitarist you can be are patience, persistence, and a willingness to work hard every day. If you plan on learning how to read guitar tabs and play them, be ready to work hard and enjoy the process. Most of all, remember to have some fun!
Photo by Alejandro C.