How to read guitar tabs

How to read guitar tabs – Tablature for beginners

Guitar tab or tablature is a very popular method of notating guitar music. What makes tab so popular is that, once you get the hang of it, it is very easy to read.

Guitar tablature (tab in short) is a little bit different from typical chord diagrams. The main difference is that the numbers you see on the lines are not fingers or fingering, but the numbers of the frets. Lets have a look at a diagram:How to read guitar tabs - Tablature for beginners 1

Each horizontal line represents one string – the bottom one is the thickest one on the guitar (low E), the top one represents the high E string. The numbers are the frets, lets analyse this diagram:How to read guitar tabs - Tablature for beginners 2

As you see, there are no finger numbers; you have to decide which finger to use.  This sometimes makes tabs tricky to read.  Now, have a look at this next diagram:How to read guitar tabs - Tablature for beginners 3

The name of the chord is A minor.  So if you know how A minor looks, you will instantly know what to play. But what if there is no chord name written? The only way to figure this out, is by trial and error (placing your fingers on the guitar neck and hopefully you will recognise that it is A minor). Welcome to the crazy tab world! Luckily, most tabs have chords written at the top of the tabulature section.

Now lets get into the details:   The part above the tab section (with the black dots) is what is called standard music notation (huge subject on its own).  In this article we will focus only on the tab. The vertical lines are dividing the tab into sections called bars:How to read guitar tabs - Tablature for beginners 4

It is very easy to find your way around because the bar lines make the tab much more clear to read.  Often, though, the tab does not have any bars and unfortunately this is usually pretty normal. Playing from the tabulature is like reading a book, you go from the left side to the right one.  Lets focus on bar number 1. You see here 5 vertical numbers : 0 2 2 1 0 :How to read guitar tabs - Tablature for beginners 5

It is very easy, 0 on the 1st line from the top is an open 1st string (an open string, is a string that you play but do not put your finger on, the first string is the thinnest one on your guitar).  The 1 on the 2nd line from the top is the 1st fret on the second string, 2 on the third line is the second fret third string, then 2 on the 4th line is, as you guessed the 2nd fret 4th string and 0 on the 5th line is an open A string (5th string).  All these notes played together will give you the sound of the A minor chord. There is no number on the 6th line because in the A minor chord we do not play the 6th string. Not so difficult – right?How to read guitar tabs - Tablature for beginners 6

Now let’s have a look at the second bar. We have exactly the same chord – A minor – but this time, it is spaced horizontally (not vertically as in the first bar).

The A minor chord here is presented as an arpeggio. Arpeggios are a way of playing the notes.  Instead of strumming the chord you play the individual notes. In this case, we go from the open 5th string (0 on the fifth line) to the 2nd fret on the 4th string (2 on the 4th string), then 2nd fret on the 3rd string (2) and finally the first fret on the 2nd string (1). It looks like you are supposed to play each note separately (by placing one finger at a time on the fretboard).  But wait! If you just hold the A minor chord, (1st and second bar have the same numbers just spaced differently) and play the strings in this order: 5th, then 4th, 3rd and 2nd you will end up playing A minor as an arpeggio. It is getting easier, right?  Bar number 3 is again an arpeggio but this time we play strings 5 3 4 and 2.

I hope we have clarified a little bit about the myth behind tablature. To be honest, the examples chosen for this articles are pretty easy and most of the tabs are much more complex than the one we used in this article, but this a great starting point.  As we progress through our course we will discuss different examples and we will gain a deeper understanding of tablature.


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