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How to Read Guitar Tablature

Last week we started talking about the different ways to visually document how to play the guitar – without having to learn how to read formal sheet music. 

Chord charts were our first stop, and this week we are going to take a look at guitar tablature.

Chord charts are great for…chords.  It’s true that they are a very simple and effective way to show how to play a chord, but they really don’t do much else.  They don’t show you how a particular chord fits into the context of a song.

So how can you learn to play a complete piece of music, then?  Especially if there are some single-note melodies or guitar solos?

Guitar tablature to the rescue! (cue the superhero music…)

Let’s take a look at what guitar tablature is, how to read it, and also go over some pros and cons that you should be aware of

What is guitar tablature?

Guitar tablature (or “tab” for short) is a way to easily show how to play any song/chord pattern/melody without knowing how to read music.  It’s kind of like chord charts in that it uses lines and numbers to tell you where to fret notes – but that’s where the similarities end.

More than likely you have seen it before; it typically looks like this:

The line on the top is standard formal sheet music notation, and the bottom line is the actual guitar tab.  It’s not uncommon to see just the bottom line in different forms (more on that later).

How to read guitar tab?

Let’s take a closer look at the bottom line.

The six horizontal lines represent the six strings on your guitar.  The line at the bottom is for the 6th (low E) string, and the line at the top depicts the 1st string (high E). 

The numbers relate to which fret you are supposed to play for a particular note (for example, 1 for the first fret, 14 for the 14th fret, and so on.).  Open strings use a”0”.

Any time you see two numbers on top of each other means that those strings are to be played at the same time.  This way you can easily show how to play double stops or full-blown chords. 

So, looking at my example, it is a single note melody that is basically an ascending A pentatonic minor scale, with an open Am chord thrown in at the end.

Pretty simple, right?

As with most things though, the guitar tab certainly isn’t perfect.  Time for the good, the bad, and the ugly…

The Good Part of The Guitar Tabs

Guitar tab shows you exactly where to play the notes on the neck for a given melody or chord progression.  Formal sheet music (for those that have the ability to read it) will tell you the note, but it can’t tell you where on the neck you’re supposed to be.  With a guitar that’s a big deal because there are so many ways to play the same note with the same pitch. 

For example, the same E note can be played in several positions:

  • 6th string, 12th fret
  • 5th string, 7th fret
  • 4th string, 2nd fret

Guitar tab keeps the needs of a guitarist in mind.  With a piano, this kind of thing doesn’t matter because there is only one key that will play a note in a particular pitch.

Tab also is the best (in my opinion) way to learn to play single-note lines or solos.  You can follow the notes one by one just like with sheet music, but you are guided every step of the way.

It can also show you where to add note articulations (bends, slides, hammer-ons, etc.)  Can’t get that from sheet music…no, sir, not at all.

The Bad of The Guitar Tabs

There are limitations, unfortunately.  Formal sheet music has the ability to display note duration and time signatures.  Anyone that can sight read music (no easy task for the guitar) could really pick up a piece of music and play it exactly as it is supposed to sound right from the get-go.

The tab shows you where to play in a logical order, but it can’t tell you how long or short a note or chord should be held.  That’s a good reason why you often see a tab like our example – sheet music on top and tab on the bottom.

The Ugly Past of the Guitar Tabs

For the most part, the tab is a tab.  What I mean by that is you may see different ways of doing it.  Professional tabs tend to look like my example (because that’s how I roll.  There are text-based tab generators that can do the same thing but it’s just…well…ugly.

Check this out compared to what we’ve been looking at so far:

See what I mean?  It’s really the same thing…the same information is there.  It just doesn’t look as good.  And, tab like this doesn’t give you the formal sheet music reference either.


So, there you go.  You should now know how to read guitar tab, and that’s really saying that you can learn how to play just any song that’s ever been created.  I’m exaggerating of course, but there are a gazillion websites out there (some better than others, that’s for sure) that have pretty extensive tab libraries.  Take a few minutes and you should be able to find tabs for whatever you need.

That’s a wrap for this week.  Keep your eyes peeled on your email inbox for next week’s free lesson!

So…until next time,

Peace Out!

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1 comment

  • Jeff
    Is there any way y’all could put audio with your warm up practices in book GUITAR SCALES BIBLE

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