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How To Read Guitar Tabs

If you've learned the traditional way to read music, then you understand scales, notes, staff notations, and the other things that you need to read sheet music. 

Reading music this way will help you play any instrument. However, it can be challenging for novices who are learning the guitar. 

I first struggled to learn the guitar. I nearly gave up. However, I switched from regular sheet music, and I learned how to read guitar tabs. 


What Are Guitar Tabs?

Guitar tablature, or guitar tabs, is a more straightforward way of reading and writing music specifically for guitars. If standard staff notation is the whole book, guitar tabs are like Cliff's Notes. You get all the musical information that you need specifically for the guitar.

Even though its simple, guitar tablature is useful as a notation system. You can use it to indicate rhythm, technique, and many other aspects of playing guitar music. 

Once I learned guitar tabs, learning to play got a lot easier, and I began to enjoy the process. 

Today, I want to give you an intro into learning to read guitar tabs. It's a broad subject for sure, but you can start with the basics, and build quickly from there even if you struggle reading standard sheet music. For more on the basics of guitar, check out my guide on how to play guitar for beginners.

Introducing Guitar Tabs

Here is a guitar tab in its most basic form. 

As you can see, it consists of six horizontal lines. These lines correspond to the strings on your guitar. Since most guitars have six strings, there are six lines on most tabs, though you can have fewer lines for guitars with fewer strings, such as bass guitars.

The lines represent the strings from the thinnest (at the top) to the thickest (at the bottom). The first line is the high E, and then it proceeds through B, G, D, A, and finally, the lower E, which is the thickest string.

Frets

When you see music written on tabs, you will often notice numbers in the middle of the string line. These numbers represent the frets on your guitar, which are the strips running across your fretboard. 

Most guitars have between 19 and 24 frets, and the counting starts from the nut, which is the first strip after the head. The nut is 0, and the frets after it are 1, 2, 3, and so on.

If you see the number 0 on the guitar tab, it means you will be playing an open string, with no finger on it. Numbers greater than 0 represent on which fret you should put your finger.

Reading happens from left to right, so you're going to start at the leftmost, playing every note in succession to the end of the tab.

Check Out: The Jamorama Review - Good Guitar Lessons for Beginners?

Chords

When you learn to read guitar tabs, you will see chords written like this: 

E-----0-------------

B-----1-------------

G-----0------------

D-----2------------

A-----3-------------

E-----0-------------

Sometimes, you will see notes stacked up on top of each other. This layout is a chord, and it means that you should play the notes at the same time, with the fingers placed on the right frets. Learn some of the basic guitar chords here.

Chords are more complex than single notes, and they take a bit of time to learn and master, but once you get the hang of them, they add a fuller sound to your music. 

chord chart for a major

Sample A Major Chord Chart

Here are a few pointers on playing chords:

One of the most common mistakes among beginners learning to play chords is the tendency to press other strings that are not part of the chord. To avoid this, you have to practice squaring up your fingers, so they only hit the lines they are supposed to. It's a skill you can only learn through practice.

Another common mistake is not placing your fingers on the right fret location. The sweet spot is about ¾ of the way to the fret you want to hit. No matter how strong the urge, don't place your finger right on the target fret.

Applying the right amount of pressure is yet another skill you have to learn. Whatever chord you're playing, you should make sure to press the string with enough force that you don't get a weak sound. Maybe you see the theme by now; this skill will come with practice.

Riffs

A riff is a series of notes, like a short phrase, that tends to get repeated throughout the song. In popular music, some of the most popular songs have easily recognizable riffs. 

Riffs help to make a tune or song catchy and often remain burned into our memories long after we have forgotten the rest of the song.

The good news is that riffs can be quite easy to play.

All you do is play from left to right, placing your fingers on the right frets as you strum along, and playing chords in the right way. Once you learn how to read guitar tabs, you can start practicing riffs right away.

Rhythm

One shortcoming of guitar tablature is that they often don't indicate the rhythm like standard staff notation. 

Sometimes, tabs that will try to indicate the rhythm for you through distinctive markings. The methods for showing rhythm tend to vary, unlike the basic notation, and every website or school will have a different style.

If the tab you're using doesn't indicate the rhythm, listen to the song repeatedly so you can learn the rhythm. Learning by ear will give you a much better sense of the rhythm than trying to read it off of the guitar tabs.

It's also much easier to learn guitar rhythm with proper instruction - check out my Guitar Tricks review to see if this program can help you with your guitar journey.

Special Symbols

The good news is that I have already told you about all the basics.

However, you will see special symbols on the tabs sometimes. These symbols indicate the technique you should use on the given notes. 

These symbols may make a phrase on the tab look complicated, but they're straightforward and easy to understand once you get the hang of them. 

Again, the hard part is learning to play them, which takes a WHOLE LOT OF PRACTICE.

Here are some of the most common symbols you'll see as you learn to read guitar tabs:

  • Hammer (h) – The hammer-on is achieved by playing one fret, then, while it still rings, pressing your finger down on the next fret on the same string.
  • Pull-off (p) – The pull-off involves playing one fret then, while it still rings, pulling down the second fret and then releasing it.
  • Slide-up/Slide-down ('/' for slide-up and '\' for slide-down) – A slide starts with you placing your finger on the first fret as you play the note, then sliding it up or down to the second fret without plucking your guitar again. A slide-up goes to a higher note while a slide-down goes to a lower note.
  • Muted note (x) – A muted note involves holding one or more fingers over the string without pressing down and then softly plucking it. This action creates a muted or muffled sound.
  • Bend (b) – A bend involves playing the first fret, then bending the string up while it's still ringing, so it sounds like the second note.

These are only a few of the symbols. There are others, and I could write an entire article on them, but this is just a simple introduction.

Conclusion

And that's a simple introduction to guitar tabs. As you can see, they're pretty easy to learn, and you can start with easy tabs with only simple notes and chords. You can practice playing these beginner tabs until reading them comes naturally to you. While they're easy to learn, I do recommend getting some solid guitar lessons to walk you through the basics at the start of your journey!

Once you master the basics, you can learn some of the more advanced techniques and try reading tabs that include them.

Take it one step at a time and trust the process. Even good guitar players started as beginners. Using guitar tabs can make that beginning process a little bit easier. 

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