It is really important to know how to read guitar tabs, due the fact that this notation is really used in popular music in general. And it couldn’t be different, because learning guitar tabs is really simple and practical. We will show in this topic how to read tabs in the guitar, but tabs to the other string instruments follow the same rule. The written form for tabs consists in 6 lines that represent the 6 strings of the guitar. The order of the strings in tabs, from up to bottom, is the following:
The thickest and bass string (E bass) is the lower one, while the thinnest and acute string (E acute) is the top one. The other ones follow the same logic that the instrument represents. In each string, we put the number that represents the fret of the fretboard that should be pressed. Check it below:
In this example, you should press the third fret of the string A with the left hand and play this string with the right hand. When other numbers appear in sequence, you should play one note after the other. Check it:
In this case, you should play the 5th fret of D string, and then the 7th fret of the same string. After that you should play the 5th fret of G string and so on. Observation: the number zero represents the free string (without pressing any fret), for example:
Here, the B string should be played free.
When the numbers appear one above the other, it means that they should be played in the same time. Check the example below:
In this case, you should press all these frets in their respective strings and play them in the same time. Notice that this is the way we represent the chords. If a line appears empty in this time, it shouldn’t be played.
Very well, now you know how to read tabs. Did you see as it is simple?
In tabs, besides showing what you should play, we can also show the techniques used to play each note. See as follows the most common techniques and symbolism.
It consists in hammering with the left hand the string in a specific fret, without the help of the right hand (what plays the note is only the left hand). It can be represented by the letter h beside the number that shows which fret should be played, or for a line that connects one note to the other:
It consists in sliding down the finger of the left hand in a string that was being pressed, with the aim of playing this string without the help of the right hand. Check it below (the same notation as Hammer-on):
In this case, the finger that was pressing the 5th fret on A string should slide down (vertically) in a way that the sound comes from the 3rd fret. Notice that this finger from the left hand is taking the function that would be for the right hand playing the 5th string when the 3rd fret was being pressed.
The Pull-off can also be represented by the letter p. Its technique represents the opposite of Hammer-on. These two techniques use to be used together and they are called “rolls”. For example:
It consists in raising or lowering a string with the fingers of the left hand, with the aim of reaching the sound of the frets that are after that one that was pressed. When the Bend reaches the sound of one fret forward, we call it Half Tone Bend. When it reaches the sound of two frets forward, we call it One Tone Bend, or Full Bend. You can also reach high tones; as much as you raise the string, more acute the sound is, in other words, more tones forward are possible to be reached. Its notation is an arrow that informs how many tones we have to reach:
In this example, the Bend was supposed to be a half tone. When we want to raise the string and then return to the initial position, the notation is the following one:
It consists in sliding the finger form the left hand horizontally, going from a fret to another, sliding the finger through the frets until arrive in the destiny. Its notation is a bar:
In this example, you should press/play the 5th fret in the 3rd string and then slide the finger to the 9th fret of this string (letting this string sounds in all this process).
It consists in vibrating the finger after pressing and playing the string and a specific fret. This oscillation is achieved by “shaking” the finger, as if you were doing a lot of short Bends quickly from up and down. Its notation is a light wave after the note to be pressed:
It consists in hammering one string in a specific fret using the right hand instead of the left one. It is the same technique that we saw on the “rolls” (Hammer-on and Pull-off), but made by the right hand instead of the left one. Who spread this technique was the guitarist Edie Van Hallen in the 80ies. But there are some records of this technique being used long before this, even before Van Hallen was born. So he cannot be considered the “creator” of Tapping. The fact is that, after him, this technique became wide spread and incorporated in solos of millions of guitarists and bass players.
Tapping is represented by the letter “T”, indicating which are the fret and string that should be pressed with this technique:
Generally, tapping is used together with Hammer-ons and Pull-offs in the left hand, allowing that you walk through the fretboard using “rolls” with both hands, as if you were playing the piano. This is why this technique was also known as Two-Hands.
Other techniques in guitar tabs
There are other dozens techniques less common and that are not standardized. The author of tabs should, in this case, indicate the meaning of the notation in some corner of the tabs to avoid confusion.
We recommend that all the musician learn also how to read sheet music, because the simplified way of written in tabs don’t specified time and rhythms associated to the song.
Therefore, don’t limit yourself to tabs and also read our article that teaches clearly the writing by sheet music, unless you are a beginner in music studies. In this case, we recommend that you spend time practicing tabs and studying music through it, until you feel yourself comfortable with the notes in the fretboard of your instrument. This way, knowing how to read guitar tabs, the process will be more productive and fast in sheet music.