How to read guitar tabs

Learn to read guitar tablature

Pick up your “axe” and get ready to play like the guitar gods of old and the rock stars of today. If you’ve ever dreamed of cranking out some licks of Stairway to Heaven like Jimmy, or some electrical patriotism from the guru himself, Jimi Hendrix, you will first need to know how to read music. Great, you’re thinking. All those little notes and symbols that you probably know absolutely nothing about have been brought to a simpler form: guitar tablature! Here are some basic facts about guitars for beginners:

There are six strings on a guitar, labeled from thickest (lowest pitch) to thinnest (highest pitch): E, A, D, G, B, e. They are numbered from the string closest to the ground, first string, second string, etc. The neck of the guitar is divided into sections, called frets. Each fret, when held down by a fingertip, will give off a different sound. Pressing on a fret will make the pitch of the note higher, but how much higher depends on which direction the fret is up or down the neck. Depending on which string is pressed down and on which fret, the note will sound lower to the left down the neck (provided it is a right-handed guitar), and higher to the right up the neck.

Guitar tabs are a simple way of reading music and learning how to play songs on the guitar. The strings on a tab are identified by six horizontal lines. The top line is the high E string (in other words, the bottom string on the guitar), then the next is the B, and so on. Any numbers placed on one of these lines signifies which fret should be held down, and on which string. The fret is identified by the number on each of the lines.

A number two on the bottom line would mean holding down the second fret on the high E string. The spacing between the different numbers on the lines gives a vague idea of rhythm and timing. For example, in the Star-Spangled Banner, the song is played by picking notes on different strings, with a mixture of varying effects, depending on the version of the song. A more energetic, yet not quite Jimi Hendrix version is tabbed out like this:


The symbol \ signifies a slide down the neck, while / signifies a slide up the neck. The notes are picked in the order in which they appear from left to right. If you continue to hold the fret down after the slide, or even after picking any random note, it will cause the note to ring. This effect is called vibrato.

Some other special effect techniques that are often employed by guitar players include hammer-ons, pull-offs, vibrato, bends, slides, and rakes. Each of these effects is symbolized by a different character on the tab. A hammer-on (h) is when you pick one-note, but quickly press down on a designated fret to produce a different sound. A pull-off (p) is when you pick a note that is fretted but quickly pulls your finger away from the neck of the guitar, keeping a slight hold on that string so that it moves with your finger. Even if there is a long chain of hammer-ons and pull-offs, you pick only the first note of the series.

E——————–3h5p3h5p3h5p3—– (hit first note only)

Bends are relatively easy to perform. A bend (b) is carried out by bending the string up a on the guitar to produce a sound similar to that of the fret noted on the tab. A release (r) is done by picking the note in its bent position, but letting go of the string so that it can return to its normal pitch.
For example,

E——3b5—or—–3b(5)—– means the same thing, it is just a different style of transcribing tabs.

A rake is simply when you scratch the pick across the strings or even your fingers. Another string effect is palm muting (pm). This effect causes the guitar riffs to sound muffled and choked. To produce this result, keep part of your palm on the strings right by the bridge where they connect to the base of the guitar. To mute a single string (X), gently rest a finger of your left hand over the indicated string or strings, and then strum. This will produce a dull, almost scratchy sound. A good example of this effect is in Everclear’s song, Santa Monica.

These are many of the basics of learning to play guitar. Tablature will enhance your ability rather quickly and efficiently. Tabs take even the most difficult guitar solo or riff and make it manageable for even the amateur. Good luck to all aspiring guitarists! Keep practicing and learning tab, and playing guitar will come to you in time.

basics of learning

Leave a Comment