Sheet music is just gross, right?
That’s why us guitarists invented a way to avoid it entirely.
Tab is short for tablature and is a form of writing music down that’s super easy for guitarists and bassists to read.
Everyone uses it, and in this post I’ll go over how to read guitar tab and the symbols on them so that you can use it too.
Understanding basic tab
If you wanna be able to read guitar tab and it’s symbols, you’re gonna need to know what all the parts of a tab diagram mean.
Thankfully, it’s about as straightforward and logical as quantum physics, so it shouldn’t be too hard.
Here’s an example of a basic tab diagram with no notes on it:
What the lines mean: The six lines correspond to the six strings on your guitar, the bottom line indicating the lowest string, and the top line indicating the highest string.
If you are unsure, then lay your guitar with the strings facing upwards on your lap.
The six lines on the tab are in the same order as strings are when viewed from top down.
What the letters mean: The six letters EADGBe are the names of each of the six strings that they’re placed next to.
The low E string (E) is the lowest, and the high E string (e) is the highest.
What 4/4 means: 4/4 is the name of the time signature of the music. Most songs use 4/4 so you don’t need to worry about that.
What the “🎵= 90” means: This indicates the speed of a song in beats per minute. It’s a short way of writing, beats per minute = 90. The higher the beats per minute, the faster the song.
What the small numbers mean: The small numbers above each vertical line indicate the bar numbers, marking the start of each new bar.
This may seem like a lot to remember, but as long as you understand that 6 lines = 6 strings, you’re good to go.
Notes & Chords
The numbers on the lines of tab indicate the fret numbers that you should place your fingers on to play the notes.
If the numbers are all stacked on top of each other then you strum all of them at once as a chord.
If not, then you pluck those fellas individually.
Here’s an example from the start of The Pretender by Foo Fighters with both notes and chords:
Hopefully you’ll be able to see now how everything links together.
(I actually have a recording of this exact tab later in the post to help you see how this sounds.)
Note: The dotted line with let ring means to leave each note ringing out whilst you play the other notes. This suggests that the guitarist is still playing a chord, but playing each string individually at first.
Alright, so you understand how to read guitar tab now, let’s take a look at the funky symbols…
Hammer on & pull offs
A hammer on/pull off is indicated with an arc towards the note that you’re pulling off to.
Arc towards a higher note = hammer on, arc towards lower note = pull off.
A hammer on and pull off is notated with an all-encompassing arc over all the notes of the hammer on/pull off phrase.
A slippery slide is notated with a diagonal line going from the beginning note to the end note.
There is no distinction between a slide up, or a slide down in tab. A slide is a slide, you get me?
Vibrato is notated using an eye-assaulting zig zag line.
Kinda indicating the vibration of the string as you wiggle it to make it sound nice.
Oh yeah, by the way, the swooping arc from underneath the “17” means to sustain the note out for a few beats.
The moral of the story is if you see the zig zag, just wiggle…
The string, obviously.
Bends are often presented using an upwards swooping arrow towards the heavens.
This example says full at the point of the arrow, however sometimes they will say 1/2 or 1 1/2 instead.
These indicate how far you should bend the string, 1/2 = half a step ( 1 semitone), full = a whole step (2 semitones), 1 1/2 = 1 and a half steps (3 semitones).
But as a beginner, you don’t have to worry about what that means yet.
And most of the time, bends will also have the notations for vibrato above them.
This is because bends work really well with some wiggle, and so they are often combined.
Palm muted notes are often notated by a P.M. (meaning Palmus Mutus nowus)
The dotted line stretching out to other notes is an easy way of extending this command.
You will also see these dotted lines in the Foo Fighters tab I put up at the start.
In that case it says let ring, with dotted lines stretching across the entire bar.
The principle is the exact same, with the dotted line acting as an extension of this command to the other notes.
Dead notes, AKA completely muted notes, are represented with a big fat X.
Because X marks the spot, right?
There is no fret X on the guitar…
But it does indicate the strings that you should play completely muted.
You will want to dampen all the strings so that just a little “clink” comes out when you play it.
Using these concepts to read tab
So, now that you know what all the different lines, numbers and symbols mean on a diagram, let’s actually read some guitar tab.
Here’s the full example from the start of The Pretender by Foo Fighters:
Alright, so now this hopefully shouldn’t look so foreign to you.
You can see the let ring notation, the notes vs the chords, the bend and… ugh… why’s there a 10 in brackets?
Sorry, I forgot to mention that part.
It basically just indicates that the note on the 10th fret should still be ringing out from previous bar, nothing too important.
So if you put all this knowledge together, the guitar part should sound like this:
If you read the tab at the same time, everything should begin to make sense.
You’ll begin to see how these symbols relate to actual music and you’ll understand how to translate them onto the guitar.
How to find tab for the songs you want to learn
Thankfully, you can find just about any tab for anything nowadays.
Although, some YouTube tutorials will also have tabs on screen.
Songsterr is my personal favourite but both apps have different pros and cons.
All you gotta do to find the tab of the song you want to learn, is:
- Go onto Songsterr or Ultimate Guitar
- Type into the search bar the name of the song you want to learn
- Click on the result that comes up (Ultimate Guitar will give you multiple options, some of which require the Pro version, so just click on the one with the most amount of decent reviews)
- BOOM! You’ve got yourself a tab to learn from.
You’ve got the tools for the job, it’s time for you to go and find one of your favourite songs and learn it!
It may take a bit of time but MAN it’ll be worth it.
Ohh, that feeling when I played the Enter Sandman intro riff for the first time all those centuries ago…
The joy! The glee! The way I played it and played it until all my friends left me!
Haha, good times…
Anyway, if you still feel confused by anything or have seen a different symbol that I haven’t mentioned, then feel free to ask in the comments below 🙂
Now, go get learning dude!