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How to Read Guitar Tabs

By Catalogs Editorial Staff

Reading Guitar Tabs

Guitar Tabs vs. Standard Sheet Music

There are two different ways of writing down or reading songs. There is the professional way of using regular sheet music with all the fancy note symbols. This requires the player to know how to read music.

The more basic, common and easier to learn way is called tablature. Tablature or tab is a way of indicating the positioning of notes and fingering on the guitar fret board. This method of music notation is designed only for use with fretted string instruments. Its origins go back to the Renaissance. A lot of music for the lute was originally written in tablature. Now tablature is commonly used to notate modern guitar music.

Guitar tablature teaches you how to play a song by showing you what notes or chords to play and the sequence in which to play them. If you know how to read guitar tabs, you can play songs on your guitar even if you can’t read music. These techniques of how to read guitar tabs will work for both acoustic and electric guitars.

Guitar Tab Basics

Learning to play the guitar
There are 6 tab lines representing the 6 strings on the guitar. The 1st string is the thinnest and the 6th string is the thickest. They are labelled here with the notes they represent indicated on the left:

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E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 1 B – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 2 G – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 3 D – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 4 A – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 5 E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 6 ~A fret is the area between each set of two usually metal bars on your guitar. The first fret is the one farthest away from you. There are usually 21, 22, 23 or 24 frets on a guitar. If you look, the fret spaces all get thinner as they get closer to the top of the guitar.

There are also marks on the guitar telling you what fret is what. There is a dot on the third fret, the fifth fret, the seventh fret, the ninth fret, the twelve fret, the fifteenth fret, the seventeenth fret, the nineteenth fret and the twenty first fret and maybe more. This is to help you get around your guitar quicker.

Each row of strings in a tablature will have numbers on it. These numbers indicate which fret to press. The number 0 means no fret is pressed and the string is played open.

Now to put the frets into a sample tablature. When a number is placed on one of the lines, it indicates the fret location or note. For example:

E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 1 B – – – 4 – – – – – – – – – – – String 2 G – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 3 D – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 4 A – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 5 E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 6

This means to play the 4th fret on the 2nd string.

E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 1 B – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 2 G – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 3 D – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 4 A – – – 0 – – – – – – – – – – – String 5 E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 6

This indicates you play an open 5th string.

E – -1 – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 1 B – – – – – -8 – – – – – – – – – String 2 G – – – -7 – – – – – – – – – – – String 3 D – – – – – – – -2 – – – – – – – String 4 A – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 5 E – – – – – – – – – – – – 12 – – String 6

This tells you to play the 1st Fret, 1st string, then play the 7th Fret, 3rd string, then the 8th Fret, 2nd string, then play the 2nd Fret, 4th string and end with the 12th Fret, 6th string. When all the numbers are in one column directly above each other, this means all the notes should be played at the same time, creating a chord. When the numbers are next to each other on the staff as in the example above, they should be played one after each other. Advancing from the left to the right on the staff means going forward in time.

Girl playing the guitar

Notes Only, No Rhythm

You can’t read rhythm using a guitar tab and you can’t tell the exact length of a note. Tablature can give you a slight indication of how long a note should be played by leaving more or less space between the numbers. It will be a lot easier to read a guitar tab if you already know the song or have a recording of it so you can learn the rhythm. But knowing how to read guitar tabs will make it possible for you to play any song that comes with this type of notation.A fret is the area between each set of two usually metal bars on your guitar. The first fret is the one farthest away from you. There are usually 21, 22, 23 or 24 frets on a guitar. If you look, the fret spaces all get thinner as they get closer to the top of the guitar.

There are also marks on the guitar telling you what fret is what. There is a dot on the third fret, the fifth fret, the seventh fret, the ninth fret, the twelve fret, the fifteenth fret, the seventeenth fret, the nineteenth fret and the twenty first fret and maybe more. This is to help you get around your guitar quicker.

Each row of strings in a tablature will have numbers on it. These numbers indicate which fret to press. The number 0 means no fret is pressed and the string is played open.

Now to put the frets into a sample tablature. When a number is placed on one of the lines, it indicates the fret location or note. For example:

E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 1 B – – – 4 – – – – – – – – – – – String 2 G – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 3 D – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 4 A – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 5 E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 6

This means to play the 4th fret on the 2nd string.

E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 1 B – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 2 G – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 3 D – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 4 A – – – 0 – – – – – – – – – – – String 5 E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 6

This indicates you play an open 5th string.

E – -1 – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 1 B – – – – – -8 – – – – – – – – – String 2 G – – – -7 – – – – – – – – – – – String 3 D – – – – – – – -2 – – – – – – – String 4 A – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – String 5 E – – – – – – – – – – – – 12 – – String 6

This tells you to play the 1st Fret, 1st string, then play the 7th Fret, 3rd string, then the 8th Fret, 2nd string, then play the 2nd Fret, 4th string and end with the 12th Fret, 6th string. When all the numbers are in one column directly above each other, this means all the notes should be played at the same time, creating a chord. When the numbers are next to each other on the staff as in the example above, they should be played one after each other. Advancing from the left to the right on the staff means going forward in time.

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Notes Only, No Rhythm

You can’t read rhythm using a guitar tab and you can’t tell the exact length of a note. Tablature can give you a slight indication of how long a note should be played by leaving more or less space between the numbers. It will be a lot easier to read a guitar tab if you already know the song or have a recording of it so you can learn the rhythm. But knowing how to read guitar tabs will make it possible for you to play any song that comes with this type of notation.

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