Learn How to Read Guitar Tabs

how to read guitar tabs

Tabs are a form of musical notation for guitar and bass. Tabs are easy to learn and easy to use. They give the player the opportunity to concentrate on the music and the musical performance, much rather than being an obstacle to it. I don’t say that they are actually better than ordinary (western) musical notation. But they can be much more practical, especially in the beginning.

In this article, I would like to give you a brief introduction on tab reading. Getting started is not really complicated, but it opens many many doors on your way to become a good guitar player. Almost every popular song ever written can be found in form of tabs somewhere on the Internet. So, lets get started!

Six lines

In contradiction to ordinary notation, tablatures have six lines instead of five. Each line stands for a string on your guitar. The bottom line represents the low E string and the top line stands for the high E string. If there is no remark in the beginning, from bottom to top, the six lines stand for E/A/D/G/B/E. If there is a remark as dropped-D tuning you tune your guitar accordingly (D/A/D/G/B/E) and play as you would normally do.

how to read tabs


Each number on a line points to a fret on your guitar. Zero “0” stands for the empty string and “12” for the 12th fret. If two numbers stand on top of one another vertically they are to be played simultaneously. If they are placed successively on the horizontal plane, then they are to be played one after another.

how to read tabs


The timing of a note is defined by where it is placed within a bar. The advantage of this strategy is that you can visually see when to play a note without thinking about quarter or half notes. Sometimes though, it can be a bit vague. In the illustration “tabs 1”, which is made by the tabbing program Guitar Pro, you see the ordinary notation and the tablature together. You can call that bullet proof. In illustration “tabs 2” you really have to know what the metre of the song is. Then you are able to deduce that two minus signs are equal to a 16th note and so on.


In illustration “tabs 2” you most probably have noticed the numbers beneath the six lines. They are fingering hints. A “1” stands for your index finger, “2” for middle finger, “3” for your ring finger and last but not least “4” for your pinky. As mentioned, fingerings are only suggestions and not absolute. Every player has different strengths and his own style. Nonetheless, mostly they are worth considering.

Basic guitar playing techniques

So far, we learned the basics of how to read guitar tabs. Now I would like to give you a short list of basic guitar playing techniques that you come across frequently when dealing with tabs.


Name: Arpeggio

tabs arpeggio

How: Stroke a chord slowly in one direction (up or down) in a way that you can hear every attack separately.

Name: Brush

tabs attackHow: Stroke a chord in the direction of the arrow so that each attack of a string comes slightly after its previous one.

Name: Picking direction

tabs attack 2

How: If you use a pick you can attack a string from two directions. The first sign stands for up- the second down-picking.

Name: Slide

tabs slide

How: Simply slide from one fret to another while maintaining the vibration of the string.

Name: Palm mute

tabs pm

How: Slightly place the side of your picking hand near the bridge while playing a note. Experiment a bit to get the damping factor fitting to your song.

Name: Hammer on, pull off

tabs hammer

How: Play a note and then hammer your finger on the given fret so that the string keeps vibrating. Pull of your finger with a quick downward movement. In that way, you add a small impulse to you string, which lets the new note sound.

Name: Bend

tablature bend

How: Push up or pull down your finger while playing a note. The tension on a string increases and with it, its pitch. Try to bend up precisely a whole note or whatever is stated. It takes a little bit of practice to get the fine tuning correctly.

Name: Trill

tabs tr

How: Very fast consecutive hammer on and pull of movements.

Name: Vibrato

tabs vibrato

How: There are several ways to imitate the natural vibrato of a voice with the guitar. You can slightly slide your finger to the left and right within a fret (it’s not the best technique). Better is to successively bend your string minimally up and down.

Name: Let it ring

tablature legato

How: Try to sustain each note as long as possible. Play legato.

Hope you found my article on how to read guitar tabs helpful. If you have further question comment below and have fun learning to read tabs.

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By |2017-10-10T14:58:33+00:00March 18th, 2015|Categories: guitar|0 Comments

About the Author:

Who is writing? Dario, a german-born internet citizen, professional music producer, composer, teacher, blogger and internet entrepreneur who likes to help you become a well rounded music producer!

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