The Perfect Guide on How to Read Guitar Tabs Easily (With Examples)

How to read guitar tabs

Guitar tablature, or tab, is a form of writing down music for guitar, and it mainly uses numbers instead of standard music notation. It’s easy to understand, even for beginners!

Learning how to read guitar Tabs is an important tool that makes it easier for beginner guitar players to learn how to read and play chords and songs.

Since most guitars are six-string guitars, we’ll look at tabs applicable to six-strings. For guitars with seven strings or more, it’s more or less the same thing, but the tabs have additional lines.

Strings and tunings

Before we look at tabs, we first need to properly identify the number and tuning of each string.

The first string is the thinnest string, and the sixth string is the thickest string. Starting from the sixth string, the strings are tuned E-A-D-G-B-e.

A mnemonic device I use to remember the standard tuning is “Every Animal Does Good Behavior Exercises.”

The TAB

e |----------------------------------------------|

B |----------------------------------------------|

G |----------------------------------------------|

D |----------------------------------------------|

A |----------------------------------------------|

E |----------------------------------------------|

 

This is what a typical blank tab looks like. There are variations here and there on different websites, but the variations are mostly just aesthetic.

Notice how there are six lines that run across? Each line represents a string on your guitar, and on the left, you’ll see the notes that these strings are tuned to.

Take note that the first string (thinnest string) is the first line, and the sixth string (thickest string) is the last one. This is something many beginners get confused with.

Also, sometimes the letters on the left are slightly different. The sixth string might have a D instead:

e |----------------------------------------------|

B |----------------------------------------------|

G |----------------------------------------------|

D |----------------------------------------------|

A |----------------------------------------------|

D |----------------------------------------------|

 

This simply means that the sixth string for this song is tuned to D instead of E.

What do the numbers mean?

Obviously a tab sheet for a song is going to have more than just blank lines, so let me start by explaining the numbers first, then we’ll get into the other symbols.

e |----------------------------------------------|

B |------------1-0------------3-1-------------|

G |-0-0-2-0-------0-0-2-0-------------------|

D |----------------------------------------------|

A |----------------------------------------------|

D |----------------------------------------------|

 

The numbers represent which fret of that particular string needs to be played. 0 means open string, 1 means first fret, 2 means second fret, and so on. Also, tabs are read from left to right.

So in the example above, you’ll start by playing the open G string (3rd string) twice, then the note on the second fret, then the open string again. Then we’ll move on to the first fret of the B string (second string), then the open B string.

Try playing the entire example above, and see whether you recognize the song!

 

e |-0--------------------------------------------|

B |-1--------------------------------------------|

G |-0--------------------------------------------|

D |-2--------------------------------------------|

A |-3--------------------------------------------|

E |----------------------------------------------|

Sometimes you’ll see an example like the one above, where the notes are stacked on top of each other. This is the way chords are written in tabs. Simply play all those notes at once, and you’ll find that the example above produces a C major chord.

A note on rhythm

One of the disadvantages of using tabs instead of standard notation is that most tabs do not tell you the rhythm. The only way to get over this is to listen to the song over and over again and to learn the rhythm by ear. Some advanced tabs do use symbols to show the rhythm of the song, but the way rhythm is notated varies from website to website.

At the end of the day, it’s always a good idea to try to learn the rhythm by ear as transcribing songs by ear has many benefits.

Stranger things

So we’ve dealt with the numbers, now let’s look at the stranger symbols that you may find in tabs.  

Here are some of the common symbols:

h - hammer on

p - pull off

b - bend

pb - prebend

/ - slide up

- slide down

x - dead note

These symbols are usually just there to let you know to play a note with a certain technique. For example:

e |----------------------------------------------|

B |----------------------------------------------|

G |-------9-11---------------------------------|

D |----------------------------------------------|

A |----------------------------------------------|

E |----------------------------------------------|

 

In this example, you will simply be picking the 9th and then 11th fret of the third string.

e |----------------------------------------------|

B |----------------------------------------------|

G |-------9/11---------------------------------|

D |----------------------------------------------|

A |----------------------------------------------|

E |----------------------------------------------|

 

In this example, you’ll be using a slide technique to get to the 11th fret. Start by picking the note on the 9th fret, then slide up to the 11th fret while maintaining the pressure on the string.

Let’s look at an example that uses more of these symbols.

 

e |--------------------------------------------------------------|

B |------8-8-10b12-10b12------8-8-11p10-8-8--------|

G |-7/9-------------------------7h9--------------------x-x-x|

D |--------------------------------------------------------------|

A |--------------------------------------------------------------|

E |--------------------------------------------------------------|

In this example, you’ll first play the note on the 7th fret of the 3rd string, then slide up to the 9th fret while maintaining pressure on the string. After that, you’ll play the note on the 8th fret of the 2nd string twice, before playing the note on the 10th fret and bending the note up to the note on the 12th fret. This bend is played twice.

The second half of the phrase begins with the note on the 7th fret of the 3rd string, and instead of sliding up to the 9th fret, you will do a hammer onto the note this time. Follow up by playing the 8th fret on the 2nd string twice, then performing a pull off from the note on the 11th fret to the 10th fret. End the phrase by playing the note on the 8th fret of the second string twice, then pick the muted 3rd string three times.

Start easy for beginners

Obviously, the example above is for intermediate players as you’ll need to know quite a few techniques to be able to play the entire example. For beginners, I suggest learning songs with as few of these special symbols as possible. Here are some good songs to start out with:

  1. Happy Birthday
  2. Jingle Bells
  3. Silent Night
  4. Hurt - Johnny Cash
  5. I Walk the Line - Johnny Cash
  6. Chasing Cars - Snow Patrol
  7. Come as You Are - Nirvana
  8. The Godfather Theme Song
  9. Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
  10. Amazing Grace

More symbols

Here are some additional symbols that you’ll see in some advanced songs:

~ - vibrato

PM - palm mute

t - tapping

<12> - harmonic on the 12th fret

[10] - pinch harmonic on the 10th fret

However, if you’re a beginner, try to focus on the earlier symbols and techniques.

Patience, grasshopper.

Reading guitar tabs is very similar to learning how to read in a new language. Your progress will be relatively slow in the beginning, but if you keep it up, you’ll only get faster over time. This does require quite a bit of patience, so have faith that you’ll improve. Before you know it, you’ll be reading tabs like a pro!

One really important point to make is that you always want to pick songs that are within your level. If you decide to learn a song that is way too difficult, you will become frustrated very easily, and that may lead to you giving up on the guitar altogether. Always pick a song that is within your skill range in order to keep yourself motivated and constantly improving. Even the pros had to learn to crawl before walking.

Final note

That’s it for how to read guitar tabs.

Some of you may be wondering at this point, “Well, I know these symbols stand for certain techniques, but how do I actually perform them?”

All of this information can be found at Liberty Park Music’s Guitar Essentials program. As always, remember to keep it fun!

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About Liberty Park Music
LPM is an online music school. We teach a variety of instruments and styles, including classical and jazz guitar, piano, drums, and music theory. We offer high-quality music lessons designed by accredited teachers from around the world. Our growing database of over 350 lessons come with many features—self-assessments, live chats, quizzes etc. Learn music with LPM, anytime, anywhere!

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