How to Read Guitar Tabs?

Guitar TAB, also known as tablature, is a simple and effective way to notate guitar music. TAB is a graphical representation of a guitar’s fretboard that shows where to place your fingers to play a specific song or piece of music. They provide an accessible and universal language for guitarists of all levels to quickly pick up new songs, riffs, and solos.

In this guide, we’ll dive deep into the world of guitar tablature, uncovering the nuances that can turn a beginner into an expert.

Table of Contents

What is Guitar Tab?

TAB is a method of recording music played on the guitar. Instead of standard notation symbols, it uses regular ASCII symbols and numbers.

What Tabs Tell You?

  • TAB tells you which notes to play as well as which string to hit.
  • TAB shows you where hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, slides, harmonics, and vibrato are used.;
  • TAB tells you what tuning the song is in. Unless explicitly stated, assume a normal tuning;
  • TAB will show you the rhythm of the song, that is, it tells you which notes are long and which are short.

What Tabs Don’t Tell You

  • TAB does not tell you the length of the notes, so in most cases you have to listen to the song yourself, holding the TAB in front of you to determine the rhythm of the notes;
  • TAB doesn’t tell you which fingers you use to play which note;

Reading Guitar Tabs: The Basic

Tabs consist of six horizontal lines, representing the 6 strings on a standard guitar, or 4 for bass guitar, with the top line representing the high E string and the bottom line, the low E. They correspond to the strings of the instrument.

This straightforward system is one of the reasons why guitar tabs have become a go-to for many guitarists. It offers an immediate way to start playing songs without having to read traditional music notation.


Numbers written on these lines correspond to the frets on the guitar. For example, the number 3 written on the top line means you need to fret the third fret on the high E string. If a zero appears, it means you need to play on the open string. Just like standard notation, you read from left to right to find out what order to play the notes in. The next part of TAB will be to play a sequence of notes (EF F# G G# A) on the low E string, moving up the fret starting on the open string.


In this example, the notes are played one at a time. If two or more notes are to be played together, they are written on top of one another, just like in standard notation.

In the following example the G chord. This means that you need to play all these notes together as a chord.


You can see the same chord written like this:


This means playing the same shape starting from the bottom string, so that each string is hit a little later than the last, but all the notes sound together.

So how do you know how fast or slow to play? Do all notes have to be the same length?

This is the difference between TAB and standard notation. Most often, TAB doesn’t give you information about note lengths. To understand this, you just have to listen to the song.

However, TAB can give you some timing guidance. Typically, the spacing between notes on a tab should tell you which notes are long and which are short and fast.

As an example, here are some notes in TAB. You should clearly see that different intervals correspond to different note lengths.



Although guitar tabs are fairly simple to understand, there are additional symbols used to convey more complex techniques. It is standard practice to write additional letters or symbols between notes to indicate how to play them. Here are the most commonly used symbols:

  • h – hammer-on
  • p – pull-off
  • b – bend the string up (bow a string, so it sounds higher)
  • r – release bend (a bowed string return to starting position)
  • / – slide up
  • \ – slide down
  • v – vibrato
  • ~ – vibrato
  • t – right-hand tap
  • x – play ‘note’ with heavy damping
  • < – harmonics
  • > – harmonics

There are a number of other symbols. There doesn’t seem to be any particular standard way to write them – the details should be given in the TAB to explain what the characters mean.

A deeper understanding of these symbols can significantly expand your ability to express yourself on the guitar.

Despite their limitations, tabs should be seen as an essential part of the guitar learning toolkit rather than a standalone solution. Combining them with other learning tools such as sheet music, ear training, and an understanding of music theory can help you grow as a more well-rounded musician.

Developing proficiency in reading tabs is akin to building any other skill. Regular practice, combined with a solid understanding of the guitar fretboard, will gradually increase your speed and efficiency.

Additionally, try learning songs from various genres. This will expose you to a wide range of playing techniques and increase your versatility as a guitarist.

Video: How To Read Guitar TAB

Writing Guitar TABs: Creating Your Own Tabs

Once you’re comfortable with reading tabs, you may want to try creating your own. This can be a fantastic exercise in ear training and music transcription. There are many free software and apps available for creating guitar tabs, making it easy for anyone to start sharing their own interpretations of their favorite songs. This can also help you remember songs, create new arrangements, or communicate your musical ideas to other guitarists.

Before you start writing the TAB, you need to decide what information to include in it. The trick is to convey the right amount of information in a clear, easy-to-read form.

Ask yourself some important questions:

  • Does the song use mostly chords?
  • Are there several riffs in the song?
  • What is the verse/chorus structure of the song?

If a song can be described well using just the chords, then it will be much easier to read and write if you just use the chord shapes.

One of the most important considerations when writing a TAB is to make it clear and easy to read. There are a few simple things you can do:

  • Use spaces
    If you’re used to writing words above or below TAB lines, be sure to leave a few lines blank so it’s clear whether words belong on the TAB line above or below. Separate the TAB lines and it will be much easier for others to understand the whole thing.
  • Define the symbols
    Try to use standard symbols. In any case, it makes sense to start the TAB file with a list of the symbols used.

Video: How To Write Guitar TAB

Exploring Advanced Tab Techniques

As you become more proficient in reading and writing guitar tabs, you can start to explore more advanced techniques. This includes palm muting, tapping, sweep picking, and other elements of lead and rhythm guitar playing. Many of these techniques have their own tab symbols and understanding them can help you expand your guitar playing skills significantly.

Using Tabs in Guitar Practice

Integrating tabs into your practice routine can be a fun and effective way to learn new songs and techniques. Here are a few ways you can use tabs:

Learn Songs: Choose a song you like and find its tab. This can be a fun and motivating way to practice.

Technique Practice: Use tabs of songs or exercises that feature techniques you want to learn, such as bending, sliding, or fingerpicking.

Ear Training: Try to figure out a song by ear, then check your work against the tab. This can be a great exercise for developing your listening skills.

Composition and Songwriting: Use tabs to write down your own musical ideas or create arrangements of existing songs.

Benefits of Guitar Tabs:

Accessibility: One of the main advantages of guitar tabs is their easy-to-read nature. They are perfect for beginners who might be overwhelmed by the complexity of standard musical notation.

Variety: Almost any song you can think of, regardless of its genre, is available in tab form online. This wealth of resources allows guitarists to expand their repertoire significantly.

Speed: Learning songs through tabs is often faster than learning by ear or from sheet music, particularly for newer players.

Limitations of Guitar Tabs:

While tabs are incredibly useful, they also have limitations:

Lack of rhythmic information: Tabs don’t provide precise rhythmic information. To overcome this, it’s best to listen to the song while learning from the tab.

Accuracy: Tabs are often created by fans, meaning they can sometimes be inaccurate or interpreted differently.

Limited musical growth: Relying solely on tabs can limit your understanding of music theory

To truly excel in your guitar journey, remember to balance your use of tabs with other learning tools and techniques. Understand their strengths and limitations, incorporate them effectively into your practice, and use them as a stepping stone toward a deeper understanding of music. With patience, practice, and a passion for music, you can use guitar tabs to unlock endless possibilities on your guitar.

So, pick up your guitar, find a tab of your favorite song, and start making music!