How to Read Electric Guitar Tabs (with exercises)

Q: Can electric guitarists use a simpler way of reading music than standard notation?

A: Yes, reading guitar tabs (or tablature) is much easier than reading standard music notation.

Q: If they’re simpler, are guitar tabs less complete? Do they tell you everything you need to know about the music you’re reading as standard music notation does?

A: No. Most of the time guitar tabs don’t show you the rhythm, but as you’ll see in this lesson there’s an easy solution for that.

What are guitar tabs?

Below you can see two music staves over each other.

The one at the top is the standard music notation stave and the one at the bottom is guitar tablature. Both staves are telling you the same thing: That you should play the note A. (The guitar tabs also tell you where on the guitar you should play that note, while standard notation leaves it up to you where you should play it on the fretboard).

Tabs created with Guitar Pro

How to read guitar tabs

Now that you know what guitar tabs are and why they are useful, let’s start learning how to read them.

The guitar tabs stave has six horizontal lines on top of each other.

Each line refers to a string on the guitar. The lowest line represents the lowest (thickest) string, the low E string, while the highest line represents the high E string.

Thus, each line represents each of the open strings E A D G B E of the guitar.

The numbers on the lines tell you what fret you should press. If the number is 0 the string should be played open. 1 means you should press the first fret, 2 the second fret, so on and so forth.  

In the first exercise, only play notes from the high E string, pressing frets according to the number written on the line, not pressing anything if the number is 0.

Note: For now ignore the standard music notation stave. We will refer to it later on.

In the next exercise, all the notes are placed on the second-highest string, B.

In this exercise all notes are on the low E string.

Now that you got the hang of reading guitar tab notes on the same string, we’ll go to the next step and learn how to read tabs with notes on different strings.

In the next exercise, all the notes find themselves on the highest two strings on the guitar.

In the following exercise, you’ll be playing notes from all strings.

The rhythm

In all the above exercises every note is of equal duration – one-quarter note (crotchet) each beat.

The reason I kept things so simple is that guitar tabs do not tell us the duration of each note.

The easy solution to this is to use the standard notation to get the rhythm.

Unlike learning to identify the notes on the fretboard from standard notation, learning to identify the duration of each note isn’t hard. Learn how in this lesson.

The next exercise is a simple melody that uses notes of unequal duration.

Note: Not all guitar tabs come accompanied by standard music notation. If you can’t find the notation of the music you should learn how to figure out the rhythm by ear. It will take you longer to learn the song, but you would be training your ear in the process.

Position shifting

All the exercises above use notes from the first four frets (or open strings).

In each case, you should use your index finger to press fret 1, the middle finger for fret 2, the ring finger for fret 3, and the pinkie for fret 4.

What if the music has notes from fret 6, 9, or 18?

In that case, you shift your whole hand so that your index finger frets the note closest to the neck while your remaining fingers fret the rest of the notes. In the next example play the first note with your index finger, the second with your pinkie, etc.

Double stops and chords

A double stop (ex 1) means two notes being played at the same time while a chord (ex 2) means three or more notes played at the same time.

On both standard notation and guitar tabs these are written as notes (or numbers) stacked over each other, as in the example below.

The next exercise is a short piece of music that makes use of both notes and chords.

Tabs created with Guitar Pro

Note: Though guitar tabs show you what the notes in the chord are and where to play them, they’re not the ideal way to learn chords. Use chord diagrams instead.

Guitar techniques on tab

Every instrument has a set of techniques that make it unique, and the guitar is no exception.

In this section, we’ll go through some of the more commonly used techniques on the guitar and see how they are notated in guitar tabs.

Two words of caution first:

  1. There are different ways technique can be notated on guitar tabs, depending on the tablature software being used. I use GuitarPro for all the music I write so I’ll be using the symbols used by this software. I find this way of representing music the most accurate.

    Just keep in mind that you may encounter some differences, depending on the format of the tabs. For instance instead of using the symbol you’ll see below to indicate a string bend, you may find the letter b.
  2. Guitar tabs are rarely completely accurate.

    One reason for this is that the person writing the tab is a fallible human and can make mistakes.

    The other is that it is literally impossible to notate say, a string bend, with the exact same nuances B. B King bends a string.

    Thus, while you should use guitar tabs to help you figure out the music you want to play, always confirm that you’re right with the actual recording of the song.

Technique 1: Vibrato

A very important technique if you want your guitar playing to sound emotional, vibrato is notated by a small wiggly line above the notes it is applied to.

In the next example, vibrato should be applied to the last note of each bar.

Technique 2: String bending

String bending is another powerful guitar technique since it gives the instrument qualities similar to the human voice.

When you hear “the guitar sing” in licks and solos, that’s usually the sound of bent strings and vibrato.

There are different types of bends, which are notated differently on guitar tabs. Go to this lesson for further exploration of this technique.

In the next exercise, the third note should be bent up until it reaches the sound of the target note two frets higher (a full bend).

Technique 3: Hammer ons and pull offs

Hammer-ons (ho) and pull-offs (po) are indicated by a small arch above the notes. This is called a slur.

This is not to be confused with a tie that has the same symbol.

If the arch is over a repetition of the same note, it’s meant to be a tie since you can’t ho/po the same note.

If the arch is over two different notes, it is meant to be a ho/po, since you can’t tie different notes together.

In this lesson we’ll explore this technique in more detail.

The following exercise uses a hammer on between the first and the second note, and a pull-off between the fourth and the fifth note.

Technique 4: Slides

A line between two notes means that you should slide from a note to the next.

In the next example, you slide forward from the first note to the second and backward from the third note to the fourth.

Technique 5: Dead notes

Dead notes, also called ghost notes, have a rhythmic value but no pitch.

These are marked with an x on guitar tablature.

To play this exercise, lift your left-hand finger after you play the first note but keep it touching the string so that you get a percussive rhythmic sound for the next four notes. Then press your finger again to play the last note.

Technique 6: Accents

The most common way of accenting a note on the guitar is by picking it harder.

This is notated by a > sign below the notes.

Conclusion: Where to go from here

If you went through every exercise in this lesson, you now have a solid foundation for reading guitar tabs.

There are some techniques we haven’t gone through here, such as trills, whammy bar techniques, and wah pedal techniques, but we have covered the most common musical components used by electric guitarists.

The next step is to get fluent in reading guitar tabs by learning riffs, licks, exercises, and songs.

Knowing how to read guitar tabs opens the door to learning almost every piece of music that can be played on the guitar.

Just keep in mind that the tabs are a means to an end, that they may be inaccurate, and that you should always verify by carefully listening to the song.

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