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How To Read Guitar Tablature?

A common question for a lot of novice guitar players: how to play guitar tabs?

Tablature (or tab) is a type of music notation that is designed for fretted string instruments. It's origins go back to the renaissance, a lot of music for the lute was originally written in tablature.

Nowadays tablature is commonly used to notate modern guitar music.


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A guitar tablature staff consists of 6 lines that represent the 6 strings.  The low E string is at the bottom,  the high E at the top:



Guitar Tab 1


We can put numbers on the lines.  Each number represents a fret on the guitar neck.  0 means open string, 1 is the first fret, 2 the second fret, and so on...

Here is the tablature for the chord shape of C. In this example, all numbers are on one line above each other, meaning all notes should be played at the same time as a chord.



Guitar Tab 2

When the numbers are next to each other on the staff they should be played after each other. Advancing from the left to the right on the staff = advancing in time.

In the following example you first play the 5th fret on the E string, then the 3rd fret, again the 5th, then the 3rd fret on the A string, and so on...



Guitar Tab 3


You can't read rhythm on a guitar tab and you can't read the exact length of a note.  Tablature can give you a slight indication though on how long a note is by leaving more or less space between the numbers.

In example 4 the note played on the 5th fret on the E string lasts longer then the same note in example 5:


ex.4                                     ex.5

Guitar Tab 4          Guitar Tab 5

When all notes are evenly spaced, as in example 3, you can assume that all notes are of equal length, usually quavers or eight notes. It's a lot easier to read a guitar tab if you know the song or have a recording of it so you know the rhythm.

The next examples show you the use of symbols for guitar techniques used on this site :

Example 6 shows you a hammer on.


Guitar Tab 6

Example 7 shows you a pull off.


Guitar Tab 7

Example 8 shows you a slide.


Guitar Tab 8

Example 9 shows you a ghost note.   A ghost note can be played by fretting a note,  but not picking it.  Ghost notes are barely audible,  but they do a lot to the feel of the music.   The note on the 7th fret is a ghost note.


Guitar Tab 9

Example 10 is a bend.


Guitar Tab 10

Tablature notation has some advantages and some disadvantages (just like standard notation).

The disadvantages of guitar tablature compared to standard notation:

  • You can't read rhythm on a guitar tab
  • You can't see the duration of a note on tablature
  • Guitar tablature is instrument specific (only for fretted string instruments)

The advantages of guitar tablature:

  • You can't read in what position to play in standard notation
  • Guitar tablature is easier to learn then standard notation


A lot of times a guitar tab is combined with standard notation to get the best out of two worlds (example 11).  The standard notation can be used to read the rhythm, while the tab can be used to get to know how and where to play the notes.



Guitar Tablature : Emily Remler : Lick 1




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