Reading guitar tablature

Depending on your background, you may not know what guitar tablature is or how to read it. Guitar tablature is a device used to be able to “read” music notes without knowing how to read music. It’s practice is many centuries old, and there are tablatures (or “tab” for short) for other instruments as well.

blank tab pic

Above is what a guitar tab looks like. Notice that unlike the normal music staff, there are six lines in tab. Each line represents a string on the guitar. The top line represents the lightest string, high E, while the lowest line represents the thickest string on the guitar, the low E string. This order is difficult for players new to tab to grasp. Although the upper lines on tab represent the lighter strings, nevertheless the lighter strings are actually “lower” on the neck of the guitar in relation to our bodies. With a little practice, however, it will become second nature.

c major
c major tab1

Above we have a normal music staff with the C major scale written out, with it’s tab equivalent underneath. In tabs we use numbers to represent the frets we press on and pluck on a specific string to get the notes we want. A zero (0) on a line means to play that string open. Now, it takes a lot of prior knowledge to know how to read the music staff, while someone reading tab can theoretically read all the same notes as long as they know how to read tab, which can be learned in minutes. But there are definite setbacks to tabs. TABS CAN’T GIVE NOTE LENGTHS! Althought the tab version of the C major scale represents the correct left hand fingerings, there are no indications on the tab itself telling us to play the notes as quarter notes. Just from reading the tabs, for all we know we should be playing the notes as sixteenths! Thus, it is crucial that we have heard the piece of music beforehand so we know what values to assign each note. Usually even the measure lines are way off as well, so don’t just accept a tab you are unfamiliar with at face value.

c major
c major tab2

Above is the same C major scale, but played differently on the tab. There are also many different “tricks” that can be written out on tabs. There is usually a legend on top of the tab detailing how these tricks are written. Here are some common ones:

h = hammer on
p = pull off
/ = slide

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