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Learn how to read Guitar TABs (tablatures)

Do you want to learn to play the guitar but don’t know how to read sheet music? Don’t worry, that’s what tablatures (or tabs) are for!!! A very simple diagram that shows you how to play any song.

If you are a beginner with this lesson you will learn in 5 minutes how to read tabs for guitar.

What are guitar tabs?

A tablature is a representation of the guitar strings that is drawn with horizontal lines (one for each string) and the word TAB on the left side or the notes of each string: EADGBe.

In addition, it is important to clarify that the strings in a tablature are inverted, that is to say, the low strings are at the bottom and the high strings at the top. Finally, although you may already guess it, tablatures are read from left to right.

beginner how to read guitar tabs

Reading a tablature is quite easy because on each string there is a number that identifies the fret you have to play. If a string has no number, it is not played and if the number that appears is a zero (0) the string opened, that is, it is played without putting any finger of the left hand on the frets.

As an example of how to read a guitar tab let’s see the one below:

e|--------------|
B|--------------|
G|--------------|
D|--------5--5--|
A|-----5--------|
E|--3-----------|

If we read the above guitar tablature we know that would start by playing the 3rd fret of the E string), then the 5th fret of the A string and finally twice the 5th fret of the D string.

As you can imagine these diagrams are very useful and can be used for many instruments (ukulele, piano, bass, etc). Likewise, we can also find tabs for electric or acoustic guitar.

How to read guitar tab for beginners

To learn how to read a guitar tablature we are going to take as an example the song Otherside by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. So grab your guitar and let’s get to it!

e|-----------------------------------|
B|-----------------------------------|
G|-----------------------------------|
D|----------7--7--9-7-5--------------|
A|-7--7--7--------------7----5--5--5-|
E|-----------------------------------|

Starting to read from left to right and we have that:

  • First we play 3 times on the 7th fret of the A string.
  • Then we would play 2 times on the 7th fret of the D string.
  • Now we play the 9th, 7th and 5th frets of the D string.
  • We play again on the 7th fret of the A string.
  • We finish by playing 3 times on the 5th fret of the A string.

Now it’s your turn. Try playing it on your guitar, you’ll see how easy it is!

How to read guitar tabs symbols

Now that we have seen how to read a basic guitar tab, we are going to “complicate” things a little bit. Because there are as well some symbols that sometimes appears along with the numbers to add more color a the song, and we need to know how to interpret them.

So, we are going to learn the most common guitar techniques we can find:

Chord: it is represented by the numbers of the frets to be played vertically.

           A       Am
e|---------0-------0-------|
B|---------2-------1-------|
G|---------2-------2-------|
D|---------2-------2-------|
A|---------0-------0-------|
E|-------------------------|
how to read guitar tab chords

By the way, if you don’t know what a chord is I leave you this great article that explains how major and minor chords are built.

Hammer on: an h is usually add between the notes. With this technique we press only once to start on one sound and get another. For example, in the image below, we play the 7th fret and, while the note rings, we hammer a second finger down onto the same string to get a the sound of the 10th fret.

|-------7h10--------------|

Pull off: this is indicated with a p between the notes and is the opposite of hammer on. Notice that we have one finger on the 10th fret and another on the 7th fret, and what we do is to play the string getting the sound of the 10th fret, and then we pull that finger off the tenth fret to get the sound of the 7th. To get a good pull off you should drag slightly the finger to let it ring.

|-------10p7--------------|

Slide: A slide consists of giving a pick stroke and sliding the finger of the left hand to the fret you want to reach. For example, in the example below we start from 2 and go to 10. The symbols to use are / for an upward slide and for a downward slide.

|-----2/10--------102----|

Bends: a guitar bending consists of stretching the string to raise the pitch a semitone or tone. For example, we are at the 7th fret and we tighten the strings to raise a whole step.

|-----7b9-------9r7-------|
Or
|-----7ʌ9-------9r7-------|
Or
|-----7(9)-------9r7------|

There are 3 different symbols that you need to know in orther to kno how to read bends on guitar tab.

The most commonly used symbol in guitar tablature is the letter b, indicating the final note arrived. Sometimes they are indicated by a ʌ sign or a parenthesis with the final note, as parentheses are often used for ghost notes. Also, in long bendings an r is added to indicate when the bending is released.

Vibrato: we twist the wrist rapidly to rock the string repeatedly back and forth and thus alter its sound. It is indicated by both a v and the ~ character.

|-----10v-----------10~---|

Palm mute: we put the right palm on the strings so we silence them a little. It is usually indicated by the letters PM.

PM-- - - - - - - - -|
e|------------------------|
B|------------------------|
G|------------------------|
D|------------------------|
A|------------------------|
E|--0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-----|

To practice this I advise you to play the guitar and gradually press harder to get to the palm mute sound.

Muted note: this is represented by an x on the string. When you see this symbol it means that the string barely sounds, because you mute the sound of the string. This can be done with both hands, but the most common is to do it by lifting the finger of the left hand over the string, so that you keep playing it but the pressure you apply is minimal.

|----x----x--------------|

Now that you know understand this symbology let’s take another example and see how to read tab sheet music tith symbols. And to do that we will play the song Layla by Eric Clapton:

e|--------10h13p10-----10~----13b15--13-12------10~-|
B|-10h13------------13------------------------13----|
G|--------------------------------------------------|
D|--------------------------------------------------|
A|--------------------------------------------------|
E|--------------------------------------------------|

In case you haven’t noticed, it has a hammer on, pull off, vibrato, bending… It even has the first two figures of the pentatonic scale!

And that concludes today’s lesson of how to read tabs for guitar. It is true that there are other resources such as tapping or pinch harmonic, but these techniques are more advanced and if you are a beginner I don’t think you are going to use them for the moment.

Now you can say that you know how to read tabs and that they have no secrets for you. Now it’s time to start playing easy guitar songs.

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