The main obstacle that prevents many people from learning to play the guitar is the idea that being able to read music is imperative. This is, however, not the case thanks to a simplified form of musical notation known as tablature, or more colloquially tabs.
Standard musical notation uses tempo, length of notes and a reliance on pitch as the guiding factors in transposing music. Tablature on the other hand provides a far more pragmatic and functional approach that centers on providing fret-based finger positions on a visual representation of the strings.
Guitar tabs are unique and their language only translates to playing the guitar. The main benefit is that they allow inexperienced players to learn a swathe of different songs and styles without classical training, foregoing the need to learn how to read music. In addition, they are ideally suited to the internet era as they are easy to share and can be read by anyone regardless of their country and linguistic aptitude. This has led to many non-official sites offering tabs for copyrighted music, spurring a series of high profile lawsuits.
In this article, we provide some historical background, explain how to read tabs and offer insight into how more advanced musical techniques are translated to tablature. Learning to read tabs is incredibly straightforward and should take no time at all once you’ve assimilated the basic concepts.
A Little History
Historically speaking, tablature dates back at least to the late middle ages. The oldest remaining tab uncovered is the Robertsbridge Codex, dating back to about 1360 and designed for the organ. From what we understand, tablature was first designed for keyboard-equipped instruments, then shifted in the renaissance to stringed instruments, notably the lute.
Different countries adopted varying tablature styles with their own respective use of letters and numbers to depict finger positions. Overall, the French tablature language was the most popular as it provided a visual representation of the instrument with one string per line and numbered positions.
As guitars rose in popularity, guitar tabs evolved out of lute tablature. As the centuries progressed, guitar tabs were developed into the simplified form we know today, devoid of any rhythmical indication.
What Are Guitar Tabs?
The easiest way to understand a guitar tab is to view it in the form of a visual representation of the strings.
Note that each line represents one of the six strings of a guitar. We have used standard tuning for simplicity. The lines are read from left to right like many written languages and though time is not explicitly displayed, tacit implication is that as you move further to the right the tabbed song moves forward.
The lowest ‘E’ line represents the low E string on a guitar, and the top ‘E’ line relates to the high ‘E’. This view angle is in line with what a player sees when adopting the standard guitar position; left hand on the fretboard, strumming right hand down by the body. You can, therefore, see that tabs are a perfect representation of a fretboard.
Here, we have inserted finger positions in number format. The numbers relate to the frets. If we take the ‘2’ on the A string, we know that we must press down on the string on the second fret to create a ‘B’ note. If we consider all three numbers together, we specifically have an e-major chord. You know it’s a chord because the numbers are stacked or aligned vertically. The ‘0’ indicates an open string, or the nut, meaning it isn’t fretted. If we take the ‘0’ on the top E then all you would play is an ‘E’. We recommend learning basic chord layouts to facilitate this facet of guitar tabs.
The tab above represents single notes played in sequence one after the other, rather than chords because the notes are not vertically aligned. You would first play the note on the 8th fret of the A string, then the 10th fret on the D string, the 7th fret on the G string, the 6th fret on the B string, and finally an open string on the high E string. Play these in sequence and you get a basic melody. In real tabs, this results in a portion of a song.
Simplicity Isn’t Always Best
Above, we have a simplification of the basic concepts of guitar tabs. As you can see there is a heavy emphasis on what string to play and which fret to press down on. This is far removed from the common stereotype of dedicated musicians only being able to read music because they have spent years learning music theory and reading sheet music.
Guitar tabs are far more suited to guitarists than standard notation because more often than not, guitarists teach themselves how to play, instead of seeking out formal lessons. There is a do-it-yourself culture within the guitar world and tabs fit perfectly into it. Tabs are easy for beginner guitar players and allow you to learn the basics of your favourite songs within minutes. Unfortunately, they are not without problems and pose considerable hurdles in comparison the normal staff notation.
Flaws and Deficiencies of Guitar Tabs
The main flaw with guitar tabs is that they don’t provide any kind of rhythmic notation. In other words, they display the notes and their order without any indication of when or how long they should be played. Tempo is a crucial part of music and without it melodies would lose their significance and emotional power.
The assumption with guitar tabs is that you are familiar with the song a tab is transcribing, and more specifically the guitar riff. The idea is that you can determine the rhythm yourself by playing along with the song. Some more elaborate tabs do include very basic rhythm in the form of markings aligned with the notes or gaps in the music. They are usually found above the string lines. These markings indicate whole notes all the way down to sixteenth notes. The notations remains primitive and are often hard to respect due to their position on the tab grid.
The second big problem with guitar tabs is that they are created specifically for guitarists. This means that other instruments cannot be played based on the musical information they provide. Staff notation on the other hand can be understood by any music literate musician. If you are playing alone in your bedroom, this has no implication whatsoever, but if you are playing with other musicians this can cause serious issues and complications.
Another issue with using tabs is that they don’t refer to specific notes. In the short-term, this isn’t a problem and makes playing songs a rather straightforward endeavor. In the long-term though this is counter productive to fostering good musical habits. Tabs users become reliant on numbers representing frets rather than learning what notes the frets are referring to. This makes the transition to standard notation very difficult and doesn’t allow for a well-rounded musical education.
One final problem with guitar tabs is that they don’t give any information regarding which fingers to use for particular notes. This is particularly detrimental for beginners who have yet to adopt good finger position habits. This can lead to some permanent issues that are hard to break once they are ingrained in a person’s playstyle.
Guitar tabs won’t ever replicate the intricacies of standard notations and aren’t in any way a replacement for learning to sight read music. Instead, we recommend viewing them as a useful learning tool if you are a budding guitarist, or if you are certain to limit your playing to a casual undertaking rather than a serious pursuit. Remember that professional musicians know how to read music for a reason and if you have aspirations to become one, you will invariably need to read sheet music at some point.
Reading Guitar Tab Symbols
Beyond the inclusion of numbers to indicate which fret to press down to create the desired note, guitar tabs have a whole lexicon of other symbols. These indicate specific guitar playing techniques that are invaluable to replicating the transcribed music faithfully. Put differently, these symbols let you know how to play specific notes. These include, among others, letters, dashes and the greater than symbol, for example.
The technique symbols can be classified into two loose categories; letters and non-lettered symbols.
|\n/||Tremolo bar dip|
|\n||Tremolo bar down|
|n/||Tremol bar up|
|/n\||Tremolo bar inverted dip|
Hammer On and Pull Off
In guitar tablature, a hammer on is indicated by the use of the letter h. It is placed between two notes, with the first representing the initial note to play and the second the fret onto which the hammer on is completed. In the example above, use your index finger to play a note on the 5th fret, then immediately hammer onto the 7th fret with your ring finger without striking or picking the string with your right hand.
p symbolizes a pull off in guitar tabs. It appears between two notes, with the second note always being lower on the fretboard than the first. Strike the first note, then pull off to the second one with a different finger without picking the string to create the desired effect. In our example, you first hit the 7th fret on the G string, then immediately pull off to the 5th fret.
The letter b represents a string bend and appears between two notes. Play the first note, then bend it until it hits the note of the second string without moving your finger from the first fret. Here, you would play the 9th fret on the B string, then bend the string until it hits an A#, the note on the 10th fret. Sometimes an r is assigned to signal a return to the original note of the played fret. In the second half of our example, play the 5th fret on the G string, then bend it until it hits the note normally played on the 6th fret, and then back to the original 5th fret note.
A forward slash depicts an ascending slide, while a backward slash signals a descending slide. The ascending/descending indication simply means moving up or down the fretboard. Slides are performed by hitting a note, then sliding your finger to a different fret without letting go and plucking the target note when you reach it. In our example, you would start by playing the 3rd fret of the A string then sliding down to the 5th fret without using your strumming hand again. Next, play the 9th fret on the D string, then slide up to the 7th fret.
s signals a legato slide, which is a slide without playing the target note, instead relying on the movement on your finger to sound the note. In our example, play the 10th fret on the G string, slide down to the 12 fret without hitting the string again.
S is a shift slide, the opposite of a legato slide. Pluck the string on the target note rather than from the starting position. Above, you would use your finger to fret the 7th fret, move it up to the 5th then pluck the A string.
The letter v means a vibrato must be played. It appears next to the target note and requires that you play the desired fret then bend the string repeatedly up and down rapidly to create a vibrato effect. In our example, play the 7th fret on the B string, then bend it repeatedly. Sometimes the v is replaced by a ~ symbol depicting how long it needs to be played in the vibrato style.
x indicates a muted note. Simply cushion the target string with your left hand, deadening any notes and instead creating a dulled thump or click. In our example, you would mute the low E string and pluck it three times, then play a chord involving the 1st fret on the low E string and the 3rd fret on the A string. If you find an x on multiple strings, mute the designated strings all at once as above.
PM signals the use of the palm mute technique and appears above the staff and aligned with the targeted note. Instead of using your fretting hand to mute the strings, use the palm on your strumming hand to create a musically coherent, but quietened note. In our example, palm mute while playing the 5th fret on the D string, then play the 5th and 9th fret normally, switching back to a palm mute on the 7th fret. Placement on the palm depends on how muted you want the string to be; the closer to the neck, the less clear the note.
TP is shorthand for tremolo picking and appears on the tab above the staff and vertically aligned with the target note. To perform tremolo picking, simply pick the note repeatedly as fast as you possibly can to create a tremolo sound. In our example, play the 7th fret on the B string repeatedly.
tr alludes to the trill technique and appears between two notes. To perform, simply play the first note, then quickly hammer on to the second note and back to the original note. Repeat to create a trill effect. Here, we play the 3rd fret on the D string, then hammer onto the 5th fret and back to the 3rd over and over again.
In guitar tabs, a simple t refers to tapping and is slotted between two notes, the first is the fretted note and the second the tapped fret. Tapping involves the use of a finger, usually the index and middle fingers, on the strumming hand to tap a particular fret. In our example, use a finger on your fretting hand to push down the 7th fret of the A string, then tap the 10th fret of the same string with a finger from your strumming hand. Next, place a left hand finger on the 5th fret of the G string, then tap the 9th fret with a finger on the right hand, or picking hand. Finally, move the D string, 7th fret and tap on the 10th fret.
\n/, \n, n/, and /n\ refer to tremolo bar techniques, with \n/ representing the target pitch in semitones when a tremolo dip is initiated and \n the note being played. \n indicates tremolo bar down and n/ signals tremolo bar up. They are usually found together as \n/ signalling a complete tremolo bar dip, which involves pressing the bar down to lower the note’s pitch, then immediately letting go to allow it to return to its original form. The reverse /n\ is simply an inverted dip.
In our example, play the 10th fret on the G string, then press down on the tremolo bar to reach five semitones below, then release it to return to the note of the 10th fret. The second set of notes simply indicates doing a similar technique, but pulling up on the tremolo bar rather than pushing down.
Natural harmonics are marked as <n>, with the n representing the fret targeted. Place a finger lightly on the string above the fret (toward the right hand side of the fret gap) without fully pressing down, then pluck the string to create a chime like sound. In our example, move your finger to the 12th fret on the G string and perform the technique. 12th fret brings up harmonics an octave higher than the fret, the 7th fret a whole octave plus a perfect fifth and the 5th fret two octaves.
[n] represents a pinch or artificial harmonic, with n being the targeted fret. Pinch harmonics take a lot of practice to master and involve using your picking hand to create them while simultaneously resting your thumb on the string to lightly clip it to create a pinched chime sound. These are generally only possible on electric guitars with an overdrive effect enabled. In our example, you would fret the 5th fret on the D string then perform the pinch with the strumming hand.
Finally n(n) signals a tapped harmonic, with n representing the fretted note and (n) the fret on which the harmonic is performed. Play the first note, then tap the second fret. In our example, play the 7th fret of the B string, then quickly tap the string on the 12 fret without fully pressing down.
- Always remember that guitar tabs are not exact replications of musical content and are more an approximation designed to assist rather than give precise directions.
- Use them to get to grips with the basic notes of a song, but don’t expect much more. They are limited and should be viewed as such.
- Timing and subtleties come by either playing along with the song or knuckling down and learning standard notation.
- Remember that tabs are made by fans rather than the actual musicians that have written the songs. This means that the note positions can sometimes be radically different to how the songs were intended to be played. Don’t be surprised if you learn a tab, then see a live performance of the same song and the band plays it completely differently.