Guitar Tab

Guitar tab is an extremely useful tool for any guitarist to use and is particularly useful for anyone who can’t read sheet music. Following my previous article on the free guitar tab software called TuxGuitar, it occurred to me that some readers might not be familiar with guitar tab at all and some explanation might be worthwhile (this website is aimed primarily at beginners after all). I originally intended for this post to be a quick explanation of how to read guitar tab but, as I researched the article so I could include some interesting facts and figures, it grew a little. So grab a cup of coffee, sit back and read through what I found out – you never know you might learn something (I did).

Guitar Tab History

One of the first things that I discovered as I carried out my research was that guitar tab has been around for longer than I thought.

A lot longer.

In fact, the first guitar tab that we know about appeared as “lute tab” in the 1300s. The very first known occurrence of tablature was actually for the organ and was apparently used in those days in Europe.

Guitar Tab vs Standard Notation

Although the purpose of guitar tab is very similar to sheet music, there are key differences that separate them.

The main difference between sheet music and guitar tab is that guitar tab indicates the required fingerings to be used on the guitar fretboard as opposed to the pitches of the notes to be played. Herein lies its main advantage over sheet music because it is very simple to use. You don’t need to be a musician to be able to read guitar tab, far from it.

If you’re wondering how it all works, keep reading because I’ll be explaining to you exactly how to use guitar tab so that you’ll be able to read it quickly and easily as you play, even if you’ve never even looked at a page of guitar tablature or any other form of musical notation before.

Before we get into that, I should warn you of the disadvantages of guitar tab when compared to proper sheet music.

Guitar Tab Pros and Cons

The biggest disadvantage is that guitar tab gives no indication of the rhythm or duration of any of the notes to be played. It is also harder to read during a performance than sheet music (assuming the musician can sight read).

But these are minor things for most guitarists because many of us have never learned to read sheet music and guitar tab allows us to write down, read and share music for the guitar in a very straightforward way. This makes it a very powerful tool and it is little wonder that there are so many websites that specialise in sharing of guitar tab for the good of the guitar playing masses.

What makes guitar tab notation possible is the fact that the guitar has frets. The numbers in tab are simply the frets to be pressed on each string when playing. This makes tab much closer to a visual representation of the fretboard than standard notation, which means that less training is required to be able to read it correctly. It is therefore far easier and faster to interpret for novice musicians.

The fact that tab explicitly states where the musician’s fingers must go removes any requirement for them to decide this for themselves. As you know, the same notes can be played at several different frets and on different strings. Tablature removes any ambiguity in this regard, which is a strength it has over standard notation.

One of the best things about tab, particularly in the internet age, is the fact that it can be very easily written in a normal ASCII text file. This cannot be done for a musical score and is another area where tab does the job much better. Many guitar tab websites contain this form of tab, and it is incredibly effective.

Guitar tab is less good at communicating the pitch of notes in a way that allows the musician to internalise the notes by sight. For this reason, many guitarists rely on having a recording to hand of the piece they wish to play which allows them to get a better overview of the piece. This would be a weakness of tab compared to standard notation, however I really don’t see it as much of a weakness these days because it is so easy in this technological age to fire up a recording on your computer, cd player or ipod. This really isn’t much of an issue any more.

How to Read Guitar Tab

So, how do you actually read guitar tab?


There are six horizontal lines on a guitar tab stave, each of which represents a string on the guitar. The top line signifies the thinnest, highest-pitched string on the guitar and the bottom line represents the lowest pitched, thickest string.

The numbers that appear on each line indicate which fret must be used when playing a particular note on that string. For example, a “5” written on the bottom line of the stave means that the guitarist must hold down the 6th string (lowest pitched or “E” string) on the 5th fret. This would give the note A. If a zero appears on the stave, this indicates that the string should be played open, without any fret being held down at all.

Sometimes a letter appears above or just underneath the stave, which refers to the root note of the chord to be played.

For example, here is the tablature for the chord A Major, played in the open, or first, position.


There are sometimes extra symbols used in guitar tab, which provide additional information about what to play. Some of the most common are:

Symbol Meaning
h hammer on
p pull off
/ slide up
\ slide down
t tap (with the pick hand)

So now you know how to read guitar tab, get onto your favourite search engine and find some new songs to play!

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