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TB-011 • How To Read TAB on the Basics of Playing Guitar

Things you wanted to know but were afraid to ask? Things you wanted to know but were afraid to ask? Things you wanted to know but were afraid to ask? Things you wanted to know but were afraid to ask? Things you wanted to know but were afraid to ask?

Learning TAB is pretty much essential for guitar players these days. It is used very widely on the www and in most guitar books. So you really need to know this stuff..

Because it does not show any rhythms, it is STRONGLY advised that you learn to read rhythms too. Otherwise you just need your ears switched on ;)

Should I learn to read notation (dots) or is TAB ok??

I only recommend learning notated music (dots) to players that are really serious about playing and want to work in either the session industry (what is left of it) or doing film music. If you want to get into Classical music then you pretty much have to learn to read normal notation. If you want to play jazz you should also get your reading skills down. For the general guitar player though you will probably be better spending your time learning to play, rather than spending a lot of your time learning to read notation.

In many respects, TAB is better because traditional notation only tells you what the note is that you should play, but TAB tells you exactly where to play the note, often a lot more useful. With a lot of experience you would be able to work it out the same from notation, but that takes many years of study, and I just don't think it is worth it for the hobby player. But of course it is your call!

The basics about TAB

TAB (or Guitar Tablature) is a way of writing music specifically for guitar. It is perfect for those that do not read music, and in many cases offers more information to the written notation would anyway!

TAB has 6 horizontal lines that represent the 6 strings on the guitar. I will use the kind of internet tab for this explanation cos I guess that is what most of you will be reading (although I try to use "proper" TABs with notation too on this site).


|--0----------0--------0---------------5^6--------| T
|--2----------------------------------------------| A
|--0----------------------------------------------| B

As I mentioned the six lines represent the six strings of the guitar. The top line being the thinnest string (1st) and the lowest line representing the thickest (6th) string. I often write TAB as shown at the end of the lines to represent Treble And Bass - which is not what it stands for at all but might help you remember that the thin strings are at the top!

The numbers that are placed on the lines tell you what FRET to play a note. You will only ever play the strings with numbers on. If a string is to be played it will be written.

The 0 means that a string is played "open" with no fingers on it.


When notes are placed on top of each other it means they are played at the same time. In the example above all six strings are played at the same time - and it is an open E chord. Play an E chord now and compare it to the TAB so you can see how they match up!

The notes afterward would be played one at a time, playing the 3rd string (leaving your first finger down on the 1st fret), then the 2nd string would be played open, then the first and then back down, all one at a time.

Hammer On and Flick Offs

There are a number of ways to write these. (Yes I know everyone else calls Flick-offs Pull-off's) The most common way is to use an "h" between notes to mean a Hammer-on and a "p" to mean Pull-off - I would use f for flick-off.

Hammer on Example 2 • 6 h 7 h 9 p 7 p 6

Many people also use "^" to show a hammer or a flick off. Numbers going up must be hammers, and going down must be flicks.

Hammer on / Flick Off Example 2 • 6 ^ 7 ^ 9 ^ 7 ^ 6


Bends are shown a number of ways so you have to check the notation guide for that tune and see how the writer is writing bends. If they are any good at writing TAB it should be made obvious.

The most common is to use "b" followed by the note that you must bend to. So for example 5b7 would mean to bend the note at the 5th fret so that it sounds like the note at the 7th fret.

Sometimes the target pitch of the bend is placed in brackets 5b(7) and sometimes (but not commonly) it is left out and you just get 5(7), but this is not good writing.

To indicate that a bend returns to the original pitch you would use a "r". So 5b7r5 would bend the note at the 5th fret up a tone (to the 7th fret pitch) and then return to the original pitch.

Other more complex patterns are usually marked with text indicators too, but some other common ones are "gb" for ghost bend, "pb" for pre bend (both of which you bend the note before you play it).

Slides The most common way of notating a slide is to use "/" or "\" for slides up and down respectively. So 5/7 would be a slide starting at the 5th fret and going up to the 7th fret.

Occasionally I see "s" used but it is not good as you don't know if to slide up or down to the note.

A slide with no note at the beginning (/7) would indicate a "non specified slide" where you would slide from a random amount of frets (well it is usually 2 or 3 frets) but you just have to listen!

Muted Notes

String mutes are written with an "x" and usually just an indicator of which string is muted (as it is hard to tell in many circumstances when you are transcribing).

A few "x" on strings leading to a note may mean a rake, but usually rake will be written in.


The most common way of writing vibrato is with the "~~~~" but sometimes written with a "v".

Don't rely on TAB for vibrato, use your ears!!

Finger Tapping

Finger tapping is usually written with a "t" before the tapped note and is usually combined with other legato notes (hammers and flicks) so can be tricky to read... Sometimes a "+" is used above a note to indicate a tap, but not too often.


Harmonics are usually written with <> around the note to make a harmonic, like <7> but as they are used in many more complex situations, people generally just try to write them any way they can and then explain it in text!

4h5h7t12p7p5p4 - looks horrible, but you just have to take your time and figure it out.

Switch your ears on too ;)

The BIG PROBLEM with TAB is that it does not explain how long you need to hold a particular shape down for - and this is the most common problem for people playing just from TAB (or notation for that matter). A great example is "Little Wing" by Hendrix. A quick look at the TAB for that song and you may end up playing all sorts of funny things, when in fact most of the notes are picked out from chord shapes. How do you fix that??? YOU LISTEN!!! Don't forget to listen to the original track, use the TAB as a guide, but then use your ears and try and hear how it may have been played. You should be transcribing anyway, but the TAB for a song can be a big help if you are just starting transcribing, but please don't forget to use your ears - it will tell you what is wrong or right!!

Fonts for TAB (and what to do if it looks weird!)

If you ever copy and paste a tab and it all looks all over the place, it may be because you are using a bad font. You should use a style that gives the same amount of space to each letter. I always use Courier New, but there are others. Just select all the TAB and then change the font to Courier New or similar and it should all start to line up as long as it has been made properly in the first place!!