Tablature or tab is by far the easiest and fastest way for reading and writing (guitar) music. It might be a surprise for most players to learn that tablature dates back to the 1300’s! It has become very popular in the last couple of decades with guitar players to learn and teach using guitar tabs, as it takes little time to master in comparison with classic notation. Almost every intro, solo or fancy lick you can think of has been notated in tablature and published on the internet somewhere. Some players even publish their own tabs to avoid the annoying amateur mistakes. Here is a quick tutorial video about how to read guitar tabs:
Table of Contents
I. Tablature Explained
Tablature represents your guitar fretboard the way you would look at it when you lay your guitar flat on your lap; the string closest to you (bottom line) is your low E-string and the one furthest away is your high E-string (top line). This could be confusing at first because it feels you are looking at an upside-down fretboard. To avoid confusion, I used a lowercase “e” for the high E-string and an uppercase “E” for the low E-string.
From top to bottom: e – 1st string, B – 2nd string, G – 3rd string, D – 4th string, A – 5th string, E – 6th string. The abbreviation T A B stands for tablature. Numbers will be used on the string-lines to indicate which fret to play on that string.
The vertical lines on the tab represent bars or measures, the double lines (one single and one double) indicate the end of the notation.
The classic 4/4 notation at the beginning of the tab indicates the 4 beats per bar rhythm here.
Most internet tabs use ASCII style tablature, meaning that only ASCII symbols are used.
Sometimes tabs are used in combination with classic notation, right above each other.
When using a capo, the numbering starts counting from the capo. In this example with the capo on the 2nd fret, “3” is actually the 5th fret on your guitar.
II. Playing a Note
We are going to start by playing your open low E-string once. Indicated by the “0” on the lowest line with the “E” in front of it in the tablature below. The low E-note will ring.
Now we will push the low E-string down on the third fret, playing the G-note on this string once. Indicated by the “3” on the low E-string line.
III. Playing a Series of Notes
Next, we will be playing a series of notes in a row on your low E-string. First hit the open string two times, then push the 2nd fret and play it, play the open string again, 3rd fret, open string, and finally play the 5th and then the 3rd fret. You are playing: E – E – F# – E – G – E – A – G.
An example of a series of notes using more than one string. Your low E-string is used as bass-note only, alternating with the actual fretting on your A-string. Play the E-string open, followed by the A-string on the 2nd fret, E-string open again, A-string on the 4th fret, E-string open, A-string 5th, E-string open and A-string 4th.
The vertical line at the end indicates the end of bar.
We could also read and write scales this way, here’s the basic Do-Re-Mi in the key of C, playing C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C:
Sometimes the fingers are indicated above or below the tab. Above the tab, the 1 stands for your Fret-Hand (FH) index-finger, 2 for your FH middle-finger, 3 for FH ring-finger and 4 for your FH pinky. Below the tab, the p represents your Pluck/ Rhythm-Hand (RH) thumb, the iyour index-finger, the m your RH middle-finger, a your RH ring-finger and c your RH pinky.
IV. Playing Notes Simultaneously
To play multiple notes at the same time, we use numbers above one another on different lines. The following example uses your D-string and G-string at the same time. Play both of these strings open, in one stroke. Push the 3rd fret on both of these strings and play again, same for the 5th and so on. (note that some notes are closer together to indicate shorter pause between them).
Chord notation with tablature is similar to the multiple notes. Either a number or an “x” (mute) will be displayed on each string vertically above each other, indicating which frets to play and what strings to mute. The tab for an E-chord looks like this:
Here’s an example of an easy chord progression. Play the E-chord two times, the D-chord once and then the A-chord once and repeat (rep.) the whole progression: E – E – D – A, resulting in the song “G.L.O.R.I.A. Gloria“
The same chord progression with a different tab notation. The chords are placed above the tablature and the arrows indicate the rhythm stroke (note that arrow pointing up means a downward stroke). The start and the end of the progression are marked with repeat signs, sometimes with the number of repeats above the end sign.
Rhythm indication is a little different from classic notation since there’s no half and quarter note signs. Tablature can work around this by placing the numbers closer together or further apart and using arrows to indicate the different sounding up- or downstrokes. The classic measure indication (e.g. 4/4) at the start of the tablature is also not uncommon. Rhythm notation in tablature is no exact science, so a basic 4/4 chord rhythm in the key of E could look like this:
Or like this:
Or even like this:
A combination of single notes and chords can be found in this classic country music rhythm which can be played in 4/4 or 8/8 (double time):
The following rhythm uses an extra upstroke (indicated by the hollow arrow pointing down) which will simulate the rhythm of a galloping horse:
A basic 3/4 waltz rhythm looks quite similar to the horse rhythm above, but has evenly spaced strokes.
The shuffle is like the 3/4 rhythm but we leave out the second beat.
The rock & roll or train rhythm tries to imitate the sound of a steam train at full speed in 8/8.
The same train rhythm notated in a somewhat rougher way, indicating short and long strokes.
Note duration is rarely used with tablature, therefore you should listen to the original tracks and try to play along with them. Sometimes you’ll find some indication above the tab using the following letters:
- w = whole note – W = dotted whole
- h = half note – H = dotted half
- q = quarter note – Q = dotted quarter
- e = eighth note – E = dotted eighth
- s = sixteenth note – S = dotted sixteenth
- t = 32nd note – T = dotted 32nd
- x = 64th note – X = dotted 64th
- ^ = triplet
Since there are multiple ways of tablature notation, some using only symbols, some letters, some both, and some ASCII, we’ll display the tricks in three different ways.
01. Hammer On
Hammer on is where you play one note and hammer your finger on another note without hitting your string again. In the next example we will play the open D-string and hammer a finger onto the second fret of that string, playing the E-note.
02. Pull Off
Pull off is the opposite of hammer on, where you play one note and pull your finger off the string with some force so the friction will play a previous note or open string. In this example we will play the second fret on your D-string and pull off to the open D-string, playing E – D.
03. Hammer On – Pull Off
A combination of both these techniques can give you a very fast ongoing alternation between two notes without having to stroke a string.
The thrill is kind of very fast ongoing hammer on / pull off movement.
05. Bend up
Bending a string is where you fret a string and push it up, changing the pitch of the note, indicated by an upwards curving arrow. The pitch you need could be noted with either the actual note you need between brackets, or by noting how far up you need to bend it using half for a half note or full for a full note. The first example is a half-note bend on your G-string from the C-note on the 5th fret to the C# (6th fret).
The following example is a full bend on your G-string from the C-note on the 5th fret to the D (7th fret)
A pre-bend is where you bend the string first before hitting it. Bend the C-note (5th fret on the G-string) up to the D-note (7th fret) and then strike your string.
Release is coming back down from a (pre-)bend up. The next example shows a release coming down from the D-note (full bend at 5th fret on the G-string) to the C-note on the 5th fret on that same string.
08. Bend – Release
The bend and release combination gives you the ability to play three notes with one stroke of the string. Play the C-note (5th fret) on your G-string, bend it up to the D-note (7th fret) and release back down to the C (5th fret) again.
09. Unison Bend
A unison bend is where you strike two notes and bend the lower note up to the higher one, this is a famous Jimi Hendrix trick. Put your index-finger on the 3rd fret on your B-string (D-note), your ring-finger on the 5th fret on the G-string (C-note), strike both notes and bend the G-string up until the pitch of both notes is identical.
10. Double Bend
Double bending, bending two notes simultaneously, can be quite tricky, it takes a little practice. For this trick, you can use either two fingers, or use your ring-finger to fret both strings.
It goes without saying that all of these bend/release techniques can be combined in any way.
The vibrato sound comes from fretting a string and moving it down and up.
12. Bend – Vibrato
One trick that I personally like a lot is the bend up, going into a vibrato while keeping the bend up. It’s a little hard at first because the vibrato pitch should not go below the actual note you bended up to.
13. Wide Vibrato
The wide or exaggerated vibrato is similar to vibrato but you move the string further up and down, creating a somewhat crazy sound.
You can slide up (/) and down () to and from notes on your guitar neck. There are basically three different slides; the regular slide, slides up to or down from a note, the legato slide slides from one note up or down to another note without picking the second note, and the shift slide slides from one note up or down to another and you pick that note also. The first example slides up to a note:
Now we slide down from a note:
15. Legato Slide
The legato slide is the most used slide, it slides smoothly from one note to another without hitting the second note.
16. Shift Slide
The shift slide used mostly to change positions, it’s similar to the legato slide but you pick both notes.
17. Pick Slide / Scrape
Use the side of your pick and slide up or down one ore more strings, creating a scratchy sound.
Muting is where you pick a string while your fret-hand touches it, but does not push it down on a fret, creating muffled sound or a ‘dead’ note. Muting is mainly used for playing a percussive rhythm.
18. Palm Muting
With palm muting, you mute your strings with your rhythm-hand close to the bridge and play actual notes with your fret-hand. Creating a muffled sound used by many Heavy Metal bands. Moving your rhythm-hand closer and further from the bridge will give you different sounds.
Tapping is where you tap a fret with your rhythm-hand (right-hand for right-handed players) like a hammer on. This technique can be perfectly combined with fret-hand hammer-on and pull-off, resulting in two-hand-tapping. Some players are so skilled that they can use multiple fingers to tap different notes. In the next lick you play three notes and end with a rhythm-hand tap on the 12th fret.
Slapping is originally a (funky) bass-technique where you hit the string with the thumb of your rhythm-hand hard and short, causing the string to hit the fretboard and create this particular sound. It is possible to use this technique on a guitar too.
Popping, usually in combination with slapping, means pulling a string up with a rhythm-hand finger, and let it pop back, creating a very staccato sound.
23. Accented Note
An accented note is played a little louder than the others, emphasizing that note in a riff.
24. Dotted Note
A dotted note adds half the duration of that note to the duration of that note. (Ie the note rings 1.5 times the note duration)
25. Ghost Note
A ghost note is a note that you don’t really hear, but you rather feel it. It is played very softly compared to the rest.
26. Grace Note
A grace note is a brief note that kind of leads up to the master note and ‘steals’ a little time from it.
Staccato is a very short note, stopped almost immediately after you play it. Indicated by a dot above the fret number.
Staccato is a very short note, stopped almost immediately after you play it. Indicated by a dot above the fret number.
28. Sustained Note / Let Ring
Let ring means you just let the played note sound all the way through the noted length. This can be a dotted line, an arrow or the = sign in ASCII.
29. Tied Note
A tied note is where you let a note ring through the next, adding the duration of the second note to the first.
30. Natural Harmonic
A natural harmonic happens when you rest a rhythm-hand finger on a string, directly above a fret but do not push it onto the fret, and then hit the string. This will make a high pitched, chime-like sound as the string resonates only the part that is between your finger and the head of your guitar, instead of the part of the string you picked.
31. Artificial Harmonic
Not to be mistaken for pinched harmonics! Here you fret a note and rest your rhythm-hand index-finger on the string (favorably 5, 7, 9, or 12 frets from the fretted note), now pluck the string with your pinky or pick between the bridge and your index-finger.
32. Pinched Harmonic
The rock and metal players’ favorite. A pinched harmonic is created by hitting a string with both your pick and your rhythm-hand thumb / index-finger together, or by resting your rhythm-hand pinky on a string and playing the string with another finger/pick. This will cancel the regular string-note and produces only the harmonic overtone. Moving up and down the string creates different harmonics. almost similar to the artificial harmonic but you touch the string with your thumb or index-finger just after you picked it.
33. Semi Harmonic
A semi harmonic is a pinched harmonic that lets the fundamental note also ring through, producing two notes at the same time.
34. Tapped Harmonic
For the tapped harmonic, you fret a note, pick it and use a rhythm-hand finger to touch the string briefly above a fret creating a overtone.
35. Touch Harmonic
This is similar to the tapped harmonic but you touch the harmonic with your fret-hand instead of your rhythm hand.
36. Fade In
Fading-in is done by using the volume knob on your guitar. Turn your volume off, pick the note and open up the volume while the note is ringing. This technique kills the attack of the note, creating an almost fiddle-like sound.
37. Fade Out
Fading-out is the opposite of fading-in. You strike a note and then slowly turn your volume off.
38. Tremolo Dive
For a tremolo dive, you pick a note and push down on your tremolo-bar, lowering the pitch as far as the noted number indicates (in frets).
39. Tremolo Dip
A tremolo dip is a tremolo dive that is also released back up. Hit a note, push down on the tremolo and let it come up again, giving your three notes in one strike.
40. Tremolo Inverted Dip
An inverted dip makes the pitch go up rather than down. Hit a note and pull your tremolo-bar up and release back down. This technique may not work for Fender-style whammy-bars.
41. Tremolo Release Up
Also called a scoop. Push your tremolo down before picking the note and release it back up while the note is ringing.
42. Tremolo Release Down
Pull up your tremolo before picking the note and release it back down while the note is ringing.
43. Tremolo Return
This is the opposite of a tremolo dive. You play a note and pull your tremolo-bar up, raising the pitch as far as the noted number indicates.
44. Tremolo Bending
With tremolo bending you play different notes with one strike using the tremolo-bar and combining dives, dips, releases and returns. The following example plays D – C – D – D#; Play the 7th note on your G-string, push the whammy-bar down to the 5th, release back up to the 7th and then pull up to the 8th.
45. Tremolo Picking
This is a pick technique and has nothing to do with the tremolo-bar. You basically move your pick up and down a string as fast as you can, creating an almost continuous note. Speed can be indicated in 16ths or 32nds. Tremolo picking is a favorite amongst surf-guitar players. (E .g. Misirlou – Dick Dale)
46. Tremolo Vibrato / Gargle
Gargle means using the tremolo-bar for a vibrato sound. Pick a note or chord and push your whammy-bar up and down continuously.
Arpeggio means “like a harp” in Italian. A regular chord consists of the I, the III and the V note from the natural scale. When we play chords on the guitar we tend to leave out some notes (E.g. E-chord: I-V-I-III-V-I). An arpeggio plays all these notes in order (E.g. I-III-V-I-III-V). This example plays the A minor chord on the fifth fret (A-C-E-A-C-E-A-C). Arpeggios can be played up or down.
48. Arpeggiated Chord
An arpeggiated chord is struck like an arpeggio up or down, following the arrow, sounding all the notes quickly after each other.
49. Brushed Chord
The brushed chord is struck while palm-muting, creating a rhythmic sound almost like a snare-drum.
A rake or a chop is where you mute strings with your fret-hand, except for the last note and play them like an arpeggio down or up. The mutes will emphasize the actual fretted note.
A sweep is like very fast played arpeggios, where you play every note separately i.e. you only play each note very briefly and mute the note before you play the next. If done poorly it might end up sounding like a rake. If done right it’s about the fastest trick you’ll ever hear.