Reading guitar tabs isn’t only easier than reading traditional notations, it’s also lot more intuitive. Tabs, short for tablature, show you exactly which string to play and which fret to press down on it at a single glance. It’s worth knowing how these work because they’re used all over the internet and in various guitar learning methods and songbooks. To learn everything you need to know about guitar tabs, simply sit back and enjoy this blog!
- The Basics
- Playing the Strings
- Practice Time
- Ghost Notes
- Palm Muting
- Pinch Harmonics
- See Also
Like I said, guitar tabs show you which strings to play and where to place your fingers, but what they don’t include, is the length of the notes. This means that if you want to play a song using tabs, you either already need to be familiar with the rhythm or melody of it, or practice it by playing along to the original found on Youtube. Secondly, while bass guitar and drum tabs do exist, this blog will focus exclusively on guitar tabs that can be played on both the electric and the acoustic guitar. Naturally, some of the playing techniques you’ll see and hopefully learn, lend themselves better to one or the other.
Tab notations consist of six horizontal lines that each represent one of the strings on a right-handed guitar. The line at the top is your high E string, the thinnest one of the six, while the bottom line represents the thickest string, the low E. The left side of the tab represents the headstock of your guitar with the bridge on the right. In other words, tabs show you the strings the same way they look when you look down at them when you’re playing.
On the left, next to each of the lines, there’s a letter that indicates the tuning of the string. The standard tuning for a guitar is EADGBE, which are the notes you’d get if you play the strings without pressing down anywhere on the fretboard. This is called playing ‘open strings’.
The tuning needed to play a piece or song is indicated all the way at the top of a guitar tab. In most cases, this will be standard tuning (EADGBE), but sometimes you’ll have to tune your guitar a half, whole or even multiple steps down. Some tunings, like drop-D for instance, require you to only change the tuning of one or more strings and, to get your guitar properly in tune, it’s recommended to use a tuner.
Take a look at the example above. You’ll be reading (and playing) tabs from left to right and the numbers refer to the frets on the fretboard of your guitar. In this case, the first note is played by pressing down the D-string on the twelfth fret (the positions between the eleventh and twelfth vertical metal strip on the fretboard).
If two or more numbers are placed directly above or below one another, it means that these strings must be played simultaneously. These combinations of multiple notes are (usually) called chords. In the tab just below, you can see what the E-chord looks like.
Fingering (for Right-Handed Guitarists)
Just the strings and fretboard positions alone won’t get you far, though. To show you which finger should press down on which string, tabs sometimes include the numbers 1 to 4 at the top. These refer to the index finger (1), middle finger (2), ring finger (3) and pinky finger (4).
Playing the Strings
Now that you know what to do with your fret hand, it’s time to cover the other hand. Assuming you’re using a plectrum, the strings can be played in different ways. To get into a nice flow and prevent playing hand fatigue, the strings need to be played with either a down-stroke or an upstroke, depending on what the tab indicates. Simple ASCII tabs, which are often found on the internet, tend to indicate this with a ‘d’ for the downstroke and a ‘u’ for the up-stroke.
More formal tabs found in guitar magazines, songbooks and on sheet music, often use the notation seen in the example below, where the little ‘flags’ are the down-strokes and the Vs are the up-strokes. Makes sense, because the ‘legs’ of the Vs point upwards while the ones of the flags point downwards. Sometimes, however, the little flags are replaced by ^ symbols.
You’ve now covered the basics of guitar tabs and should be able to play more simple pieces. When you start practicing, however, it won’t be long until you run into all kinds of symbols printed on the tabs you’ve found.That’s why the rest of this blog goes into a little bit more detail on how to read and play techniques like hammer-ons, pull-offs, trills, slides, bends, vibrato, dead notes and palm mutes.
Tabs for guitar riffs often include the letter ‘h’ in between the numbers, which stands for ‘hammer-on’. Hammer-ons are played by striking one note, holding it, and while the string is still vibrating, using another finger of your fret-hand to literally ‘hammer’ down on the same string at one of the following frets up. This raises the pitch and changes the note without striking the string a second time
The example tab below indicates ‘7-h-9’, meaning that you first have to press down and play the G-string on the seventh fret the ‘normal’ way before you use the finger of your fretting hand to hammer down on the same string on the ninth fret, all while keeping the first finger where it’s supposed to be. Here’s what to do step by step:
1. Put your index finger on the G-string at the seventh fret
2. Play the string
3. Then ‘hammer’ on the G-string with your ring finger at the ninth fret
Note: Don’t forget to check if it’s supposed to be an up or downstroke
The hammer-on notation seen above is mainly used for ASCII-style tabs. These are tabs that have usually been created using simple text editors like Wordpad and can be recognised by their dotted horizontal lines. Formal tabs found in sheet music generally indicate hammer-ons with a curved line from the first note to the hammer-on.
Next to the letter ‘h’, you’ll also find the occasional ‘p’ written on guitar tabs. Short for pull-off, this is essentially the opposite of a hammer-on but a tad tricker to do smoothly. A pull-off starts with the note you get when you press down and play a string the regular way. What you’ll want to do next, is pull the finger on that same string down until the string slips from under your fingertip. The example below includes the same fingering and frets as the hammer-on. Here’s what to do step by step:
1. Place your index finger on the G-string at the seventh fret.
2. Place your ring finger on the G-string at the ninth fret.
3. Play the G-string, and then ‘pull’ your ring finger away from the string. This will then play the note you’re holding at the seventh fret.
Note: Naturally, it’s also possible perform a pull-off on an open string. This is actually easier because you’d only have to use one finger.
Just like with hammer-ons, there’s a difference between formal and more informal tabs. Instead of the letter ‘p’, formal tablature will often include a curved line. Since these are read from left to right, you can tell it’s a pull-off when the second note is lower than the first.
As you might have guessed (or heard), you can also play combinations of hammer-ons and pull-offs. The trick here is to do it in one supple go and, as always, practice makes perfect. The next example includes a hammer-on followed by a pull-off.
While you could play the above combination of hammer-ons and pull-offs for the rest of eternity by repeating the same motion, it does require quite a bit of force to get your fingers to produce enough volume after the strings are played with a pick. Playing two notes on a single string with such a series of hammer-ons and pull-offs is called a trill. In formal tablature, trills are written as ‘tr~~~~~~~~’.
Frequently used symbols in ASCII tabs are the forward slash ( / ) and backslash ( \ ), which indicate whether you’re supposed to slide up or down the fretboard of your guitar. The forward flash means moving up the fretboard to a higher note on the same string while the backslash means doing the opposite. Keep pressing down on the string while you slide to make sure that the first, last and in-between notes are all clear and have the same volume.
A slide up followed by a slide down is often notated as illustrated below. Here, you start the slide upwards with an upstroke on the seventh fret followed by a slide to the ninth fret, and end the slide with a downstroke on the ninth and then sliding back down to the seventh. That’s why there are two 9s written one after another in the tab below.
Just like hammer-ons and pull-offs, upward slides immediately followed by a downward slide only require you the play the string once, essentially making the whole thing sound a lot smoother. In these cases, this is what you’ll see:
In the case of tablature that indicates a slide using a slanted line from left to right, different angles and lengths are used to indicate the duration of the slide; the longer and flatter the line, the slower the slide.
In both ASCII and formal tabs, slashes and slanted lines can also be used to notate slides that don’t actually start at a specific note, in which case no number will be shown. It’s now up to the guitarist to decide where they’d like to begin and end the slide. If you come across this notation, and you’re not sure where to start the slide, it’s best to start it around 5 frets ahead of the note. Below, you can see what this kind of notation looks like:
Now that you’ve seen, and maybe already tried your hand at some hammer-ons, pull-offs, trills and slides in the meantime, it’s time for a real exercise. The following example is a blues riff in the A-pentatonic scale. Before you start, remember the fingering and up/down strokes from earlier.
Tip: The three notes on the seventh fret leading up to the trill are the easiest to play with the ring finger flat across the D and G strings. It’s best to just put it there and leave it there. You’ll understand why as you play.
Here are a couple of clips of the example being played so you can see how your skills are coming along:
Needless to say, this riff is just one example of the countless tabs the internet has to offer. From single riffs to completely tabbed out songs from your favourite band or artist, playing and learning the guitar becomes easier than ever when you use tabs.
What is a Bend?
Bends derive from pitch bends, which can be done by pushing up or pulling down a string with your fingers to make a note gradually go up in pitch. While guitarists usually keep this technique limited to a half or a full note, those who don’t shy away from extremely expressive solos occasionally even throw in two full note bends; something that requires a lot of finger strength (see tip below)!
The most used guitar music notation for bends in ASCII tabs is the lowercase ‘b’, which follows the relevant fret and in turn, is followed by a number indicating the pitch you’re supposed to reach. The ‘7b9’ in the example means that the the G-string is pushed up at the seventh fret until it sounds the same as if you had played it at the ninth fret. You might also find this notated with the second number between brackets and the ‘b’ possibly left out. The ^ symbol is also sometimes used to indicate a bend, either with, or without a number at the end.
Tip: Place your ring finger on the note you want to bend, then simultaneously use your index, middle and ring fingers to push the string by placing them immediately behind your ring finger. This will give you more leverage than just the ring finger alone.
Printed guitar tablature and magazines use curved upward arrows to indicate bends, where at the top of the arrow a number tells you the change in pitch (e.g. half note, full note).
Returning the string to its original position is called the release, indicated in ASCII tabs by the letter ‘r’. Releases often come right after bends, and are to be played in one fluent move following a single up or down stroke. In the example below, the G-string is played at the seventh fret, the note is then bent to the pitch of the ninth fret and finally, released back to its original position: the seventh fret. If you need to play the string(s) a second time, the number in the middle will be written down twice.
If you’ve been paying close attention, you may remember that the little black flags at the bottom of the tabs indicate downstrokes. The last example includes two, and the finger used to play it is the ring finger (3).
One way to enrich and refine your playing with ambient and dynamic effects is to do a release with the bend. It’s called a pre-bend and pull one off, you’ll have to first push the strings up silently, so without playing any of them. It’s not as easy as it sounds, because instead of listening, you now have to feel where the right note is as you push the string up. The first of the two examples below shows a pre-bend in a typical ASCII tab, the second is a more formal notation.
The example tab above indicates that the seventh fret is to be bent to the note of the ninth fret: a full note. But we’re not quite there yet. Since you’re not playing any of the strings, the pre-bend is never going to produce sound. As such, pre-bends are only played in combination with a release. Here are the ASCII and formal tab examples:
Just like vocalists, you can use a guitar-based vibrato technique to raise your game. Caused by a series of small bends, vibrato effects make notes go up and down in pitch quickly. To do one, as soon as you’ve struck the note, move the string up and down slightly; similar to a bend but much more subtle. The larger the movement of the string, the more dramatic the effect gets. Also, speed is an important factor here: if the vibrato is too slow, you’ll take the tempo out of the piece you’re playing, while a vibrato that’s too fast can quickly start to sound annoying. A smooth vibrato starts slowly, picks up the pace, and ends a little faster.
In ASCII tabs, the vibrato effects are indicated with the letter ‘v’ or with a series of ~ symbols at the top of the tab, right above the fret number. The same goes for formal tabs.
Don’t confuse the ~ symbol of the vibrato effect with the trill! Remember that the trill has the ~~~~ symbols preceded by the letters ‘tr’.
It’s also possible perform a vibrato during a bend. This is not only beautiful to hear but makes bending notes easier because you’re moving the string ‘around’ the note – a sneaky way to compensate if your bends aren’t always spot-on. Here are the ASCII and formal tab examples:
Ghost notes, also called dead notes, are notes that you can only barely hear. It’s actually more of a percussive sound created by not fully pressing the string against the fretboard and thereby essentially muting the string with your finger. To maintain speed and the rhythm of your right hand, ghost notes can be used fill short breaks included in solos or rhythm parts. You can cover all of the strings with one or more fingers and strum a certain pattern, as heard during the intro of Voodoo Chile, where Jimi Hendrix combines this with a wah-wah pedal. Or the percussive notes in between the chords of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. In both ASCII and formal tabs, ghost notes are indicated with either a lower or uppercase ‘x’.
Ghost notes can also be found notated ‘stacked’, as with a chord – so notated across a number of strings. This means you have to play all of the strings marked with an ‘x’ in one stroke with your playing hand or with a plectrum. This is also referred to as a ‘rake’. Have a look at the ASCII and formal tab examples below.
You can also mute the strings with the palm of your right hand: palm muting. To palm mute, you rest the side of your hand on the strings while you play them. The closer your hand is to the bridge, the more audible the pitch gets. Palm muting is often done in combination with power chords played on electric guitars, and indicated in tabs by ‘p.m.’ or by a lowercase ‘x’ before the number of fret. The first is more common in formal tablature.
To give certain notes in solos and riffs a slightly more aggressive edge, you can throw in what’s called pinch harmonics. These are artificial harmonics created with your thumb and a plectrum by placing the plectrum between the thumb and the index finger so that it only sticks out a little bit. When you then play a string, it will slip past the tip of your thumb, resulting in a high-pitched sound. In ASCII tabs, pinch harmonics are indicated with numbers between angled brackets (< and >). Formal tabs use multiple ways: a number inside a triangle, ‘P.H. —I’, or simply ‘P.H.’ above the note.
This brings us to the end of this blog about how to read guitar tablature. Hopefully, you now know what’s needed to play guitar using tabs. If you want to get into tabbing out songs yourself, you can check out notation software like Arobas Music. Good luck practicing, have fun playing!