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How to Read Guitar Tab - The Basics

You can easily learn how to read guitar tab without any knowledge of classical music notation. After all, when guitarists are learning the chords and lead for a song, they just need to know where to put their fingers.

We'll start with a few examples to get you familiar with the tab diagrams.

Oh, by the way, tab is short for tablature!

If you prefer to learn through video, take a look at the below series on reading guitar tab...

how to read guitar tab video lesson

The Basics of How to Read Guitar Tab

numbered guitar fretboard

This is the fretboard position (labelled with fret numbers) that tab diagrams mimic. It's the sequence of the strings we're interested in - skinny string at the top (1st string), fat string at the bottom (6th string).

blank guitar tab diagram

That's a typical blank tab diagram labelled with the string numbers and their tuning.

We don't draw the frets on the tab diagram because numbers are added to the diagram to indicate at which fret the string should be pressed. However, you will often see a zero...

guitar tab with 1st string open

0 indicates an open string, which means you play that string as it is, without fretting it. In the tab above, we'd play the 1st string open.

This 0 can apply to any string and, when noted on the tab diagram, it simply means you do not need to fret that particular string, since the desired note is created by the open string.


tab showing 4th string at 3rd fret

So in this example we're fretting the 4th (D) string at the 3rd fret.

Ok, so that was pretty easy stuff - let's take things a little further...

We're going to look at a tabbed guitar scale (specifically, A minor pentatonic).

Take a look at the tab below and see if you can play this sequence of notes on your guitar, fretting the appropriate string one after the other...

A minor pentatonic guitar tab

Tab doesn't tell us anything about which fingers we use to fret each note, but you'll pick that up when you move on to learn individual scales.

Timing and speed is also up to you, although in a lot of cases, you'll be using tab as a reference for a song you already know quite well, so you'll have an idea of the timing and speed required.

If it's a scale exercise, it's best to start slow and speed up gradually using a metronome.

Onwards and upwards...

Guitar tabs are used for both lead guitar (a sequence of individual notes) and chords (notes played together). You've just followed a simple lead guitar tab, so now let's look at reading chords...

open E major chord tab

When you see the fret numbers in a vertical line like this, it means play them together, simultaneously.

Remember, the 0 means play the string open.

If no fret number is marked on a string, it simply means don't play that string. The above chord uses all six strings.

Incidentally, that was an E major chord in tab form which you may recognise from the basic chords lesson.

When a chord progression is tabbed out, you get a sequence of chords like below...

tabbed chord progression

The tab doesn't tell you how long to play each chord, or how many times to strum it before you change to the next chord. Again, this is something you'll need to figure out.

You'll also see chords arpeggiated in tabs. This means we play each string of the chord separately, one after the other, rather than all at the same time. When a chord is arpeggiated, the tab/fret numbers will be spaced one after the other as usual...

arpeggiated E major chord tab

There we can see an arpeggiated E major chord followed by a strummed E major chord.

Hopefully, you should now be comfortable with the basics of how to read guitar tab!

Tab is very versatile and lead guitarists use several symbols to refer to certain physical playing techniques (such as h for hammer-ons, p for pull-offs, b for bends etc.). As you progress into lead playing, visit my lead guitar section where this lesson will be expanded on, looking at the special symbols used in lead guitar tablature.

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