How To Read Guitar Tabs

Almost everybody wants to be able to play one musical instrument or the other. Whether it’s a secret desire or one that everybody around you knows about, the best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up and make a move in the right direction. If that desire or dream involves playing guitars like a pro, then learn how to read guitar tabs.

How To Read Guitar Tabs
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A guitarist who knows how to read guitar tabs can thrive at his craft without having to learn to read standard sheet music. As we move straight to the heart of this matter, please note that learning to play an instrument is a process that honors time, intense study, and practice. 

What Are Tabs? — How To Read Guitar Tabs

The guitar tabs are also referred to as guitar tablature. It is a method of writing down music played on guitars. Instead of using symbols as in standard musical notation, tablature uses ordinary characters and numbers, making it easy for the music learner who does not understand special music notation. 

To help you move along, it is important to note that a guitar typically has six strings that appear on the tab as six horizontal lines. From top to bottom, the strings are as follows:

  • e string – 1st string is the thickest string, and it produces the low E note
  • B string – 2nd string 
  • G string – 3rd string 
  • D string – 4th string 
  • A string – 5th string 
  • E string – 6th string is the thinnest string, and it produces the high E note

The standard way of writing tabs is to write the top string of your guitar (6th or E string, thinnest string) at bottom of the tab, and the bottom string (1st or e string, thickest string) is written at the top. Also, the notes are produced at an open fret, that is when you just pick the string without holding down any frets.

Before we go further into reading guitar tabs, let us get well acquainted with the numbering system that is essential for all guitar players.

Frets

These are the metal strips found along the neck of a guitar. A note at the desired pitch is produced when a string is stopped by your finger on the fret.

Fingers

For guitar playing, it is important to note the numbering system for the fingers on your fretting hand. Quite simply, your index finger is your first finger, your middle finger is your second finger, and so on. You are probably thinking that it is too simple. Well, important things don’t have to be hard, they just have to be remembered.

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Strings

Worthy of note is the numbering system for the open strings of the guitar. The thinnest string is the first string, while the thickest string is the sixth string.

How To Read Tabs?

  • First, you need to view the tab notation as a representation of the guitar’s strings. 

There are six lines on a tab, and each line represents the six strings of a guitar. While the top string of your guitar is written at the bottom of your tab, the bottom string of your guitar is written at the top. Reading tabs should not confuse you at all when you consider that this is the standard way to write tabs.

  • Next, you will notice numbers on the tab. Use the numbers to fret notes on the neck.

Normal musical notation tells you what note to play, but guitar tabs only tell you where to place your fingers. The numbers on the lines on a tab correspond to the frets on a fretboard. You are to read these numbers like you read a book – from left to right. Each number tells you where you are supposed to put your finger on. 

For instance, a “3” on the fifth line means you are to fret the third fret of the string A with your left hand, while you play the string A with your right hand.

  • Play vertically stacked numbers at the same time to play chords.

When reading tabs and you come across vertically stacked numbers, they represent a chord. To produce them, you will need to play all the specifies notes at the same time. When an “x” appears in place of a number, it means that the string is not played. On the other hand, a “0” means an open string. An open string means that you will not need to place your finger on a fret to play that particular note. 

Playing chords can seem tricky as it appears that your fingers are doing so much at the same time. Square up your fingers as you prepare to play and while you play. This will prevent you from mistakenly hitting and muffling other strings. Another thing that can help you when playing chords is to place enough pressure on the string with your fingers. This will prevent the production of weak sounds.

  • Continue from left to right.

As earlier stated, we read guitar tabs like we read books. So, you will need to learn how to play the notes and chords in sequence in the same way as you learn how to read books – from left to right. There is no need to drop down to the next line if you have not gotten to the end of the previous one. 

You will agree that reading guitar tabs is not so daunting after all. 

What Other Characters Are There?

Having looked at the numbers on a tab and how to interpret them, we will now consider the other characters that can be found on a tab. Don’t be surprised when you come across some symbols and letters. 

Tabs use these symbols to instruct you on how to play the notes in the tab. Sometimes, the symbols can refer to specific playing techniques that will you’re your production sound as close to the original recording as possible. Getting a grip on these characters by paying special attention to them will help you get along at an impressive pace as you practice more. 

Below are some common characterizations:

Slide

A slide is denoted with a forward slash, /, or a backward slash, \, between two notes. The forward slash indicates a slide up, while the backward slide indicates a slide down. This technique involves sliding your finger horizontally, going from one fret to another on the same string, until it arrives at its destination while the string sound continues.

For example, if you see an 11/12 on a tab, it means that you need to hold down the 11th fret, pick the string, and without releasing the pressure, you slide your finger to the 12th fret. This means that when sliding, you pick once but get two notes.

Bend

This is usually denoted with the letter b, and it means bending the string at a fret to give the sound of another fret. Bending is a common element of a guitar tab. If the symbol ‘b’ appears between two fret numbers, it means you should fret the first note and bend it until it sounds like the second note. 

There are different instances of a bend. A Half Tone bend is produced when the bend reaches the sound of one fret forward. When the bend reaches the sound of two frets forward, it is called either a Full Bend or a One Tone Bend. Sometimes, the ‘b’ symbol is omitted and the only indication that you are to bend is that the second number will be in parenthesis. You can also tell that you to bend a note by an upward pointing arrow next to one or more numbers.

Vibrato

This is denoted by the symbol ~ or the letter v right after the note to be pressed. It is achieved by vibrating the finger after playing a string at a specified fret. 

The vibration of the finger can be likened to doing many bends quickly from up and down. First, strike the note, then using your fretting hand, rapidly bend and unbend the string, thereby, vibrating the pitch of the note. It produces a quavering effect which sounds nice.

Hammer-On

While reading a guitar tab, you might see the letter h (or H) or the symbol, ^, between two numbers. This means that you need to apply a technique called a hammer on. An example will describe it better.

If 9^11 appears on the fifth line, it means that you are to perform a hammer on. To do this, place your finger at the 9th fret of the A string, pick the string and hammer the 11th fret. You will not have to pick the string a second time before hitting the 11th fret, so you will have to hit the 11th fret hard enough while the string is still ringing out to create the desired sound.

Pull-Offs

A pull-off is denoted with the letter p (or P) or the symbol, ‘^’, between two notes, like 11p9. This technique is like a reserve hammering. The ^ symbol can be used to indicate either a hammer-on or a pull off. This should not confuse you. All you need to know is that you are to perform a hammer on if the second note is higher, and a pull-off is the second note is lower. 

In the previous example, we performed a hammer on when we saw 9^11 on the tab. When 11^9 appears, a pull-off is required. To do this, play a note on the 11th fret, place your finger on the 9th fret and pull your finger off the 11th fret.

Tapping

Tapping is denoted with the letter t (or T). It is a very useful technique when rapid changes in pitch are desired. This technique is sometimes referred to as Two-Hands. It is used together with hammering and pull-offs in the left hand while allowing you to go through the fretboard using both hands. Its result is usually beautiful rapid changes in pitch.

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Harmonic

Harmonics are bell-like tones created by some fretting techniques. There are three types of harmonics, namely, natural harmonics, pinch harmonics, and tapped harmonics. Guitar tabs are able to show you which harmonic is required to achieve a particular sound. 

For natural harmonics, the symbols < and > enclose the fret, as in <11>. This entails that you lay a fretting finger across the metal line at the right of the fret, and then strike the string to get a clear bell tone. “< >”

For pinch harmonics, the fret enclosed in brackets, as in [9]. To perform this harmonic, strike the note with your pick hand as your pick hand thumb is also touching the note. You need to use a vibrato from your fret hand to sustain the note. Pinch harmonics are not as easy as we would like, so they require a great deal of practice. 

Tapped harmonics are produced with two notes. The second note is enclosed in parentheses, as in 11 (9). To produce them, you need to fret the first note and then use a finger on your pick hand to strike the string at the second fret position. 

Dead Or Muted Note

When the letter x appears on a particular string, it signifies a dead note or a muted note. This occurs a lot in strumming patterns. 

What you should do when you see this is to mute the note with one of your hands and play the note such that the pitch is completely muted. It is possible to find several dead notes in a row, on adjacent strings. This indicates a rake. All you need to do is to mute more than one string at once.

Palm Muting

Palm-muting is denoted by the letters P.M. followed by several dashes (—). The dashes are an indicator of how long you should palm mute the notes. 

To implement this technique, what you need to do is to gently lay the edge of your right palm across the strings near the bridge of the guitar and strike the notes with the same hand. It produces the required tone with a subdued quality. You can further deaden the notes by moving your hand slightly towards the guitar’s neck.

Conclusion — How To Read Guitar Tabs

As you read guitar tabs, some other special characters. Do not be deterred from continuing. In such cases, listen to the recorded song and follow on the tab, and soon you will get the symbols figured out. 

The most certain way to get better playing a musical instrument is by playing the musical instrument. Be patient with yourself and stay consistent. Start with simple guitar tabs and progress gradually.