How to Read Guitar Tabs

So you want to learn the guitar. You search the web for the intro to “Smoke on the Water” and see nothing but a mess of lines and numbers. You wanted to learn guitar, not learn math! Those lines and numbers are a form of musical notation known as tablature (or tabs, for short). Think of tablature like a simplified version of standard musical notation (think: treble clefs and quarter notes). Once you learn how to read tabs, it opens the door to learning any song on guitar, from “Jingle Bells” to “Sweet Child O Mine.”

Guitar Tab

A standard tablature staff has six lines, each representing an individual guitar string. The top line represents the thinnest string on the guitar (first string, e), while the last string represents the thickest string on the guitar (sixth string, E). From bottom to top, all strings on the guitar are represented: E-A-D-G-B-e.

If a note is written on the bottom line, it will be played on the low E string. If a note is written on the 2nd line from the top, it will be played on the B string, and so on.
Guitar Tab

Numbers from 0-22 represent the frets on a guitar. A zero means play the open string. A 1 means play the first fret; 2 means play the second fret, and so on. When you see a 3 on the 2nd line, it means play the 3rd fret of the B string.

Tabs are read from left to right, and the notes are played accordingly. If a note is written alone, it is played alone. When notes are stacked on top of each other, they form a chord:

Guitar Tab

In addition to the basic notation, tablature can indicate special techniques such as slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, vibrato, and more:

Guitar Tab

(If this looks a little advanced, don’t worry – it is.) Tablature can represent the easiest songs to the most complex. Break down the song bar by bar until you can get up to speed.

Tabs can include notations to indicate the length of the note (eighth note, quarter note, whole note etc.) but this detail is not included in most tabs. You must listen to the music or be familiar with the song to get a sense of pacing, in that case.

Strum patterns can also be indicated in tablature notation:

Guitar Tab

In addition to learning to play songs via tablature, you can also learn to write! Try making up little riffs and writing them down, or try transcribing one of your favourite songs.

There are many different methods to learn to play guitar: standard music notation, tablature, or by ear. Most guitar students learn to play by reading tablature since it is the easiest to get the hang of and is the most common transcription method for most pop and rock music. When you take guitar lessons, you can ask your instructor to teach in any method of your choosing.

Phil Barrow

Phil Barrow

Phil discovered his passion for music in his early teens when he began learning to play the guitar. He attended the VCC School of Music where he studied jazz and contemporary guitar performance. Phil joined Resound as a guitar teacher in 2013 and has been the school’s Director since 2014.

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