You may be asking yourself what are guitar tabs and why you need to learn them. Guitar tabs (or tablature) are an abbreviated form of sheet music made specifically for guitar, bass guitar, and similar string instruments (such as ukulele, cavaquinho, banjo, etc.). While learning to read proper sheet music can take a lot of time and patience, Reading guitar tabs is a lot simpler. Tabs are a quick and easy way to read and write music. For this reason, tabs are found almost anywhere you find guitar sheet music as well as many sites all over the internet. Almost all popular songs can be found in tablature either on the internet or in your local music store.
What are Guitar Tabs?
Guitar tablature is an easy, convenient, and practical approach to writing out parts for the guitar. Almost all tabs are identical to the one below, which is the first four bars of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”:
The tab is arranged in six horizontal rows of stacked lines, with vertical lines separating the notes to indicate bars. At the beginning of each staff is a stack of letters indicating the tuning of the strings. In this tab, the tuning is set to standard EADGBe tuning. The notes of the song are shown as numbers and placed on the line that corresponds to the string on which they are played. Each number indicates the number of the fret on which they are played. Sometimes multiple notes will be written on the same beat, as in the last bar of this phrase. This indicates that a chord is being played, and all the notes should be sounded at the same time.
All guitar tablature will look like this, with very few exceptions. Depending on the quality of the tab, bar lines may or may not be present. Also, if the tuning of the strings is set to something other than standard, like DADGAD tuning, for example, this will be indicated at the front of the staff.
How to Read Guitar Tabs
With tablature, you can read what note or chord to play, when to hammer on or off, where to bend and what pitch to bend to, where to slide to, and get a basic idea of the rhythm. It is important to note however that most tablature you find online will not show you the exact rhythm of the notes. This makes it necessary to listen to the song for yourself and use your ears to find the correct rhythm. That being said, let’s get to the basics.
How to Read Tabs: Basic Concepts
As I am mainly a guitar player, I am going to be describing tablature for the guitar. Bass guitar, ukuleles, and any other similar instruments follow the exact same concept.
First, one needs to understand that there are 6 strings on a guitar. From highest to lowest pitch they are E B G D A e. Think of tablature as a picture of these 6 strings. This would look something like this:
The second thing you will need to understand is that there are 22 frets on a standard electric guitar (sometimes more). Frets are the vertical metal bars located on the guitar fretboard. Frets are what make the pitch of the notes change when you press down the string in a certain area. In guitar tabs, the notes will be represented by numbers on a string. These numbers will tell you which fret you hold down the string in.
This would mean that on the first string E (remember this is the highest-pitched string) you should press the string down in the second fret.
This means that on the G string you would press the string down in the third fret.
This is what the beginning of the song “Mary Had A Little Lamb” would look like in tablature
Here is what the basic C chord would look like in tablature:
*Note when you see a zero this means to play the string open.
Special Markings of Guitar Tabs
In addition to ‘which fret to press’, guitar tabs can also tell you how to play it.
Hammer-ons and Pull-offs
Here is what hammer-ons and pull offs would look like in tablature:
In this tabbed section of “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, the h’s represent hammer-ons and the p’s represent pull-offs. For the first note, you hold the G-string down in the 2nd fret and hammer on with another finger to on the same string in the 4th fret.
The same concept would apply to bends. As so:
The b represents where you bend the string. In this example you hold the B string down in the 9th fret and bend the string until it equals the pitch it would be if you had played the note in the 11th fret.
Slides are also the same concept as shown here:
This means you would hold the B string on the 7th fret and slide your finger up until you reach the 9th fret. Sometimes it will be shown like this:
You should now have an idea of how to read guitar tabs. With this skill, you now have the opportunity to learn many of your favorite songs. Practice and patience make perfect, and reading guitar tabs is no different. So work hard, have fun, and I’m sure you’ll be shredding in no time.