Learning how to read guitar tabs is essential for guitar players of all levels.
Tabs, or Tablature, is a system heavily used among guitar players to read and play different songs, exercises, riffs, and just about any type of piece of music written for the guitar or transposed, without actually knowing how to read musical notes.
The “notes” system is replaced with “numbers”, each corresponding to a different fret, different string, and all you have to do is follow the numbers with your fingers and press on the right spot on the fretboard of your guitar. It's simple as that!
Learning How to Read the Numbers
It's easy and simple. But first, I want you to know a few definitions:
- Frets: Are the metal stripe lines that are extended along the neck (or fretboard) of the guitar. Instruments similar to the guitar that don't have frets are called: Frettless instruments!
- Fretboard: Referring to the long board extended from the body of the guitar to the tuning board. Also called the “Neck” of the guitar!
- Fingerboard: Is the space between two frets (looks like a rectangle shape) along the neck of the guitar. This is where your “fretting” hand fingers would press to obtain a clean, normal sound.
Now that you know this basic information, let's learn how to actually read and play guitar tabs with a simple example below:
A Minor Pentatonic Scale Tab Example
This is the tablature of “A minor pentatonic scale”, according to the standard guitar tuning (both the lowest and highest strings are E keys – (E A D G B E)).
We start playing from left to right, starting from the far left with the number 5, on the lowest string (with the deepest tone) the E key string, and we play in an ascending manner.
Next comes number 3, on the second string from the bottom, the A string, followed by 5 on the same string, then we go up to the third string, the D, and play number 2 on the second fingerboard, then 5 on the 5th fingerboard, and so on until we reach the number 5 on the highest tone of the scale, on the most upper string on the guitar.
There, we play the 5 then continue in a descending manner, to 3, 5, 3, 5, 2, and so on.
Congratulations! you've just played your first tab. Simple, isn't it?
Learn the Symbols Used With the Guitar Tabs
The symbols below are used with the guitar tablature in order to explain HOW a single tab note or a passage of tab notes should be played.
This includes slides from one note to another, when or where to hammer-on and pull-off, tremolo, muting, and a lot more.
It's a great addition to the tab file since it lacks the extra display that normal musical notes spreadsheet has. It's not as powerful or descriptive as a musical notation sheet but it makes it close as it can be!
Below you'll find all the symbols associated with tablature:
h ⇔ hammer on
p ⇔ pull off
b ⇔ bend string upb
r ⇔ release bend
/ ⇔ slide up
\ ⇔ slide down
v ⇔ vibrato (sometimes written as ~)
t ⇔ right hand tap
s ⇔ legato slide
S ⇔ shift slide
* ⇔ natural harmonic[n] ⇔ artificial harmonic
n(n) ⇔ tapped harmonic
tr ⇔ trill
T ⇔ tap
TP ⇔ tremolo picking
PM ⇔ palm muting (also written as _ and .)
\n/ ⇔ tremolo arm dip; n = amount to dip
\n ⇔ tremolo arm down
n/ ⇔ tremolo arm up
/n\ ⇔ tremolo arm inverted dip
= ⇔ hold bend; also acts as connecting device for hammers/pulls
<> ⇔ volume swell (louder/softer)
x ⇔ on rhythm slash represents muted slash
o ⇔ on rhythm slash represents single note slash
·/. ⇔ pick slide
The Disadvantages of Guitar Tabs
As we've already noticed, tablature is very easy to read, and is a great replacement to musical notes for guitarists. However, there are a few disadvantages that come with the tablature system in opposed to the regular notation system:
- Can't display the intervals and timing of each single note. Intervals are easily interpreted in the notation system by the filled or empty dots of notes, and other symbols that indicate timing or pauses.
- Tabs cannot express rhythms like a normal notes spreadsheet does.
- The lack of “dynamic flow” of a conventional notation system. By “dynamic flow” I mean, by just looking at the notes of a normal musical sheet, you would already understand the nature, speed, and rhythm of that particular sheet. Whereas with tabs, you're only looking at numbers.
- Though tabs are widely spread on the internet and are easily available to anyone, bear in mind that many tab files are made by amateurs or inexperienced players who've compiled the tabs themselves after “thinking” they have figured out it. It's a nice gesture by them, but if you're looking for an accurate tablature of a specific song, then you have to look carefully.
- Tabs are almost guitar-exclusive. Meaning, other instrument players like pianists, cello players, or violinists can't use it or understand it. In the other hand, musical notes are universal.
Despite all the disadvantages above, I STILL recommend using tablature for guitar players mainly because it is:
- Very easy and fast to read
- Requires no previous knowledge of music theory
- Easier display of chords which is fundamental for guitarists
- Much, much bigger database of song and exercise tablature easily found on the internet, opposite to musical notes which can be extremely difficult to obtain
- You can compose your own guitar music without knowing much about music theory
- And more …
Where to Find and Download Free Guitar Tabs?
The internet is full of tabs, really.
However, there is one website that perhaps is considered the biggest tablature source on the internet, and this website is called Ultimate-Guitar.com.
This website is house to tens of thousands of guitar tabs from all genres, artists, and bands. And you are FREE to use it and download any tab file that you want!
It's a great website that I've been using since I started playing the guitar, and I will continue to use it as long as I play the guitar, even if I'm training inside a professional online guitar training program that also generally has tons of tabs and reference notes for every song and exercise that they give.
And the reason for that is that simply they have the biggest database of tablature on the web. Just think of any song that you want to learn, chances are you'll most likely find it first inside Ultimate-Guitar.
Other guitarists and enthusiasts also have the option to upload their own tablature files, so for any given popular song, you will likely find a dozen of tab files with the same name (For example: Sanitarum, Sanitarum(1), Sanitarum(3), etc).
The good thing about it, is that each tab file has a rating from 1 – 5, so you will know which tab file is the best and most accurate even before opening it, which will help you “filter” through the many identical tab files associated mainly with very popular songs like Nothing else Matters, Stairway to Heaven, and so on.
How to Open and View Tab Files
In the far past, most tablature files were simply regular text documents that you can easily create with Windows OS or any other operating system.
Simply open a new text document, and start typing in the lines and numbers, save and exit, then upload it to Ultimate-Guitar as a contributor or simply save it on your hard drive. It looks like this:
However, today there are a few dedicated software programs that know not only how to view and compose tab files in a much better looking and more organised manner (With intervals, scales, and even an additional musical notation line under each line of tablature!), but also how to PLAY them so you can listen exactly how it's supposed to be played, make adjustments to it, and control the speed of playback so you can slow down the hard parts of a specific tab file to learn them easier.
One program that I've been using since I first picked up the guitar is called Guitar Pro. I simply love this program, and I don't think I'll ever need other software for my tablature needs, and many respected guitar professionals and composers use it to design and compose their own music.
If you're looking for a really good guitar tablature software, then I strongly recommend you checking it out.
Additionally, if you notice, the majority of the guitar tab files found everywhere online are created with Guitar Pro, and thus, can only be opened with Guitar Pro. However, there are some free programs that enable you to open and view .gp files without the need of the Guitar Pro software, and I mention one of them in the review above.
Guitar tablature is an easy, simple way that enables guitar players to play musical notations transposed into numbers that correspond to physical locations on the fretboard, without the need to learn music theory.
Though lacking the dynamic flow and complete interpretation of notes found in a conventional musical notes spreadsheet, nevertheless, it's still a great and fast way to learn songs and exercises on the go.
Learning how to read guitar tabs is very easy, if you follow only the guide found in this article, you won't need anything else. All you have to do now is download some tabs and start practicing!
Leave a comment below if you have any more questions regarding guitar tablature, how to read them properly, or where to find more.