What is TAB?
TAB, also known as Tablature, is a common way of notating music for fretted stringed instruments (guitar, electric bass, ukulele, mandolin, etc). We will be looking specifically at reading TAB for guitar in this post, but the same concept applies for different instruments with frets.
Guitar TAB consists of 6 horizontal lines that represent each string on the guitar. Here is an example of what TAB looks when both standard notation and tablature are used.
Notice how the TAB diagram is viewed as if you were looking down at your instrument with the thickest string(6E) being closest to the face and the thinnest string(1e) being closest to the floor. It is also helpful to think about TAB standing for Treble And Bass. If you are familiar with Treble and Bass clefs used in Standard Notation, then you will know that the Treble clef is used for higher pitched notes and the Bass clef is used for lower pitched notes. The same is true for TAB. The lower pitched strings of the guitar are on the B side of TAB (bottom) and the higher pitched strings are on the T side of TAB (top).
How to read TAB
To understand how to read TAB, we must understand what and where frets are on the guitar. A fret is that thin piece of metal that runs the width of the guitar neck and is what divides the neck into different pitches(notes). The fret closest to the headstock is fret number 1. The frets increase in number the farther away you go from the headstock. Most guitars have 20-24 frets. So, now that we understand what frets are, let’s look at how that helps us read TAB.
You’ll read TAB from left to right just like you would anything else. Different numbers and symbols will be placed on the horizontal lines. These numbers tell you what fret you need to play. For instance, if a TAB shows a 5 on the top line(string 1e) you will need to play fret 5 of the little e string. After playing that note, you’ll read the next note to the right and play it, then the next, and so on. Your tabs will generally show one number at a time, but there are exceptions, such as when a song requires you to play a chord. In these instances, you’ll see a series of numbers stacked on top of each other. The numbers still represent your frets(notes), but you’ll be playing them all at once. Reading tabs is a relatively simple thing to do, as long as you’ve got a clear understanding of where your strings and frets are located. If you find yourself searching for notes while reading tabs, refresh yourself on your string and fret positions. I see a lot of my students struggle with quickly determining what line(string) the tab is asking you to play so try and commit to memory which line represents each string.
Here is an example of only TAB being shown (no standard notation) with notes played one at a time and notes played at the same time.
Symbols to Remember
Notes & Chords
Notes: The notes on our TABs are single numbers that go left to right which represent a melody line, solo or riff that you might play.
Chords: Chords are shown in stacked numbers which represent a chord of some kind. In this example, the tab is showing a G chord.
You’ll see any techniques you must perform while playing represented by different symbols on your guitar tab. Here are a few of the most common ones you’ll encounter.
Hammer-ons & Pull-offs
These dexterous finger motions are marked on your tab by a small arc between two or more notes. Work carefully to ensure the timing of your hammers and pulls are precise. You’ll also see an H or P above the arc that clarifies if you should perform a Hammer-on or a Pull-off.
If you need to muffle a note temporarily, you’ll see that indicated by a small “X,” just as you would on a chord chart. Expect to run into this symbol frequently if you’re learning strumming patterns or particularly rhythmic leads.
Sometimes you need to use your palm to mute a series of notes. If that happens to be the case, you’ll see a reminder on the tab, in the form of the letters “PM,” followed by a few dashes. Those dashes indicate how long you should continue palm muting notes.
Slides can look (and sound) impressive when you pull them off correctly. You’ll see a long, slanted line connecting two fret numbers when you’ll need to slide from one pitch to another.
You’ll see that you need to bend a particular note when you see an arrow pointing up next to one of your fret numbers. The arrow will further indicate how much you should bend the string, so be sure to look for this and play those bends accordingly.
This is a cool effect, and you’ll have a chance to try it for yourself whenever you see a squiggly line over a note. The thicker the squiggle, the more intense the vibrato is supposed to be.
Downstrokes & Upstrokes
Sometimes you can get by strumming and picking the guitar however you feel. If there’s a particular strumming or picking pattern a part requires, however, you’ll see downstrokes noted with an upside down “U,” and upstrokes indicated by a downward-style arrow.
Remember to commit these special symbols to memory, and whenever you are practicing your tabs, try to incorporate these techniques to recreate the song to the best of your ability. It might be tricky at first, but with some time, you’ll be reading and playing tabs like a true professional.
Ultimate-guitar.com is the best resource for discovering new tabs. According to their website, they have over 1.1 million tabs for free! Just keep in mind that they aren’t always fully accurate, so be sure to ask your teacher for help if something doesn’t sound right!