Learn To Read Guitar Tabs

The good news is you don’t need to be an accomplished musician to learn to read guitar tabs.  What we’re going to do is take a comprehensive look at guitar tabs.  They’re not as complicated as they might first seem.  In fact, they are actually really easy!

If you are unfamiliar, guitar tabs are a way to show a guitar part for a song in a very simple way.  Guitar tabs differ from regular musical notation in that only a guitar player can use them and they don’t have the ability to show the rhythm or meter of a song.  If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry.  We’ll talk more about that later.  

Guitar tab fundamentals

First, let’s take a look at an example of a guitar tab: 

e ----------------------------------------------- <-- string #1
b -----1----------------------------------------- <-- string #2
g ------------------------------------------0---- <-- string #3
d ------------------2---------------------------- <-- string #4
a ---------------------------------3------------- <-- string #5
e ----------------------------------------------- <-- string #6

When you look at a guitar tab, you’ll notice that their are 6 dashed lines. Each line represents a string on your guitar. The top line, or string #1, represents the bottom, high ‘E’ string on your guitar. The second line, or string #2, represents the string on your guitar that is second from the bottom, and so on. It may help you to picture the guitar tab as if you were holding a guitar in the playing position and looking down at the strings.

The numbers you see scattered across the guitar tab represent a fret position.  You’ll notice that there is a ‘1’ on string #2, the ‘B’ string.  This means you put a finger on the 1st fret of the ‘B’ string.  As we move left to right, we come across a ‘2’ on string #4, the ‘D’ string.  This means you put a finger on the 2nd fret of the ‘D’ string.  Making sense?  See, it’s not too bad.  As we move forward, we come to a ‘3’ on string #5, the ‘A’ string.  This means you put a finger on the 3rd fret of the ‘A’ string.  

If you see a ‘0’ (zero) somewhere on a string, that means you let the string ring open.  In the above example, we would let string #3 ring out open.  If you don’t see a zero, that means the string should not ring out.  

Guitar tab chords

Guitar tabs can also display chords.  Here is an example of an E major chord and a A major chord following it tabbed out:

e -------0--------------------0------------------
b -------0--------------------2------------------
g -------1--------------------2------------------
d -------2--------------------2------------------
a -------2--------------------0------------------
e -------0---------------------------------------

Remember, the zeros mean that you play the string open. Strings that are not marked you do not play.

More guitar tab symbols

Hammer ons, pull offs, bends, and slides can also be notated in guitar tabs.  

Hammer ons are represented by an “h.”  Here is an example of a melodic line with a hammer on thrown in:

e -----------------------------------------------
b ----------------------------------6------------
g ---------5----------5h7------------------------
d -----------------------------------------------
a -----------------------------------------------
e -----------------------------------------------

Pull offs are represented by a “p.” Here is an example of a melodic line with a pull off and a hammer on added:

e -----------------------------------------------
b -----------------------------------------------
g --------7p5------------------------------------
d -------------------5-------5h7p5---------------
a -----------------------------------------------
e ----------------------------------------5------

As you see in that last example, sometime hammer ons and pull offs will be combined. Another important thing to know is that hammer ons and pull offs can also be represented by a “^” symbol. So the previous example could be represented like this:

e -----------------------------------------------
b -----------------------------------------------
g --------7^5------------------------------------
d -------------------5-------5^7^5---------------
a -----------------------------------------------
e ----------------------------------------5------

Note bends are represented by a “b.” For example, if you see ‘12b14‘ in a guitar tab, that means you play the note on the 12th fret but bend it to the pitch of the 14th fret note. If you see the previous with an additional “r,” like ‘12b14r12,’ then that means you bend the note to the 14th fret but then return the bend back to the 12th fret.

An ascending slide is represented by a “/” symbol, while a descending slide is represented by a “\” symbol.  A note bend and slide are demonstrated in the following: 

e -----10/12b13r12\10----------------------------
b ----------------------------10/12--------------
g -----------------------------------------------
d -----------------------------------------------
a -----------------------------------------------
e -----------------------------------------------

Hopefully I haven’t lost you!  The above example is simply telling you to play the note on the 10th fret of the high ‘E’ string, slide that up to the 12th fret, bend that up to the 13th fret, return the bend back to the 12th fret, and then slide back down to the 10th fret.  Then you play the note on the 10th fret of the ‘B’ string and slide that up to the 12th fret.  That’s not too bad!

The “downside” of guitar tabs

I mentioned this at the beginning.  There is a inarguable “downside” to guitar tabs.  In looking at guitar tabs, it is impossible to know the rhythm or timing of the notes on the guitar tab without having first heard the song.  The reason I mention this is just so you know that actual written out music can never really take the place of guitar tabs.  BUT, I love the simplicity of them, and I think that all guitar players can benefit from knowing how to read gutar tabs!

I think I covered it all!  If you have any questions or anything to add, please post a comment!

About Brett McQueen

Brett McQueen is a musician, songwriter, and the founder and editor of Guitar Friendly and Ukulele Tricks. Learn more about him here and follow him on Twitter at @GuitarFriendly.