Who this lesson is intended for
This lesson is aimed at complete beginners or beginners who want to learn to read tablature. Having an understanding of standard notation is not necessary for this lesson.
The purpose of this lesson is to give you a basic understanding of the layout of guitar tabs so you will be able to correctly identify what is written out. This is only an overview and does not go into detail on all the symbols used for techniques. Those will be covered in later lessons.
About Guitar Tablature (TAB)
Even if you don’t know what standard notation is or how to read it, you have probably seen it before – all those black dots and lines. Standard notation is a way of writing out music and can be used by essentially all instruments. Music for piano, violin, trumpet, harp etc all use standard notation, hence the name ‘standard’. Music can also be written out in standard notation for guitar (I will create a lesson later on how to read standard notation).
But us guitarists have another option when it comes to written music – tablature. Tablature (or just tabs) are an alternative and simpler way of writing out music for guitar. The great thing about tabs is their simplicity. There are many guitar tab sites that you can download guitar tabs for popular songs. There are limitations to tabs however and for that reason all the music I will provide in the future will have both guitar tab and standard notation joint together.
The layout of Guitar TAB
Think of the way guitar tabs are laid out as a diagram of the guitar neck. The six horizontal lines represent the six guitar strings. The highest horizontal line represents the highest pitched guitar string (the one closest to the ground). The lowest line represents the lowest pitched string (the thickest string).
From here it is simple – every number that is written on one of the lines is to be played on the string that it represents. For example if there is a number on the lowest line of the tab the note will be played on the lowest (thickest) string on the guitar. We count the six strings starting from the highest line (the first string) all the way to the lowest line (the sixth string). So whenever somebody says ‘the note is on the fifth string’ we know it is the fifth lowest line on the tab and the fifth lowest pitched string on the guitar.
So now we know that the horizontal lines represent the strings. So now how to we represent the notes to be played? The answer is simple – using numbers. A number that is placed on a line in the guitar tab tells us which fret is to be played. When using the word fret this way it means a certain space between two frets, not the actual fret itself. We count the frets starting from the nut (which we think of as fret zero). So the first fret after the nut will be labeled 1 on a tab. As shown in the below picture, the second fret on the lowest string (the 6th string) is the space between the first and second fret. The red dot shows where you should place your finger to play the note properly.
So now if somebody says ‘play the third fret on the fourth string’, we know that we will place our finger where the blue dot is shown. This note would be written by the blue 3 on the fourth line.
Now what about the green 0 on the first string? As I noted before, the nut can be thought of as ‘fret zero’. We do not have to place our finger where the green dot is because the nut does that job for us, all we have to do is pick that string. This is called playing an open string. You will hear people say ‘play the first open string’. They won’t say ‘play fret zero on the first string’ – I only mentioned ‘fret zero’ to explain the counting.
Simple? If you have any trouble with this please ask me for help. This way is a lot simpler than learning standard notation.
Two important rules to remember with Guitar TAB
Once you know which string the note is played on and which fret you can play the note. But now the question is – ‘how do I play what is written?’. There are two simple rules to remember to help you play the notes written:
1. Notes beside each other (left to right) are played one after another.
2. Notes written vertically on top of each other are played at the same time.
If you can remember these rules you will be able to read tabs properly.
To play the tab in the above diagram, you start at the far left then read to the right (just like a book). The first note that is played is the first fret on the first string (blue 1). After that note is played, you play the second fret on the second string (red 2). After that note is played, you play the third fret on the third string (orange 3). After that note is played, you have to play both the open fifth string and the open sixth string together at the same time (both green 0s).
The first three notes are played on after another because they are beside each other (it doesn’t matter that they are on different strings). The two green notes are played at the same time because they are vertically ‘stacked’ on top of each other. Imagine a vertical line starting from the very left of the tab and slowly moving to the right. That is how the tab is played. Hold a pen vertically against the screen and move it from the far left to the right. Whenever the pen is on top of notes, they are to be played.
If you can follow that explanation you understand the basics of reading tablature. As we move on to later lessons, there will be other symbols added but those two rules will always apply.
My experience with guitar tablature:
As a beginner learning to play guitar, having tablature as well as standard notation helped me learn at a fast rate. Once I got to the stage of writing my own music, I found the simplicity of guitar tabs a blessing. Writing my ideas down was a breeze with guitar tabs and took a fraction of the time compared to when I tried to write the same ideas using standard notation. Although standard notation can give you more information about how to play the piece (rhythm and timing), guitar tabs are a simple way of writing music so you don’t forget that great idea you just came up with.
Although there will be more symbols to learn later on, the fundamentals of reading guitar tablature have been covered in this lesson. If you check my lesson on standard notation (to come at a later date) you will quickly see why guitar tabs were created. Remember that if you have any trouble with what I have explained above, please let me know and I’ll be glad to help out.
Aaron is an instructor at Tempo Music Cards – a top resource for anybody learning guitar. Provides educational flash cards to help you learn all the essential chords on guitar, a must for beginners. See the website for backing tracks, video lessons, tips and hints, text lessons and more.