How to Read Guitar Notation, Part 3: Guitar Tab

Okay, you’ve breezed through Parts 1 and 2 of this mini-series on guitar notation—so why stop now? In this article, we take a look at guitar tablature, or guitar tab. (If you haven’t yet read Part 1 or Part 2, you might want to check them out first.)

Guitar Tablature

Tablature is a form of musical notation for stringed instruments that’s been around for hundreds of years—since at least the Renaissance. Unlike standard music notation, which shows the notes (musical pitches) that should be played, guitar tab shows the number of the fret that should be played on each string. Take a look at this:

The horizontal lines represent the strings of the guitar, arranged like a fretboard diagram—that is, with the thick 6th string on the bottom and the thin 1st string on the top. The vertical lines are bar lines that divide the song into measures.

To read tab, you read the diagram from left to right and play the fret indicated by the number shown on each string. So, in the example shown above, in the first measure, you would first play the open G string (indicated by the “0”), then the 2nd fret on the G string, then the open G string again.

The tab above shows one common form of tab notation, which results in nice formatted images that resemble standard music notation. But another very common type of guitar tab that you’ll see all over the web is in ASCII format—in other words, the tab is in a text file instead of an image (or is an image of a text file). Here’s the ASCII version of the tab shown above:

ASCII tabs are popular because you don’t need any special software to create them—all you need is a text editor (although it’s pretty tedious to do it that way, so software is often used). And text files are very compatible across all different kinds of systems, browsers, etc.

In a way, a guitar tab is similar to chord boxes and fretboard diagrams discussed in earlier lessons because it’s showing you where to place your fingers rather than which musical notes to play. But, like standard notation, tablature can also show the progression of music through time (although in a relatively crude way). So, in a sense, tablature is kind of a halfway point between fretboard diagrams and standard music notation. With a guitar tab, you can notate an entire song in a way that’s just not possible with chord boxes or fretboard diagrams, but you can’t show much in the way of rhythm, or include details like dynamics, tempo, ornamentation, and so on.

Sometimes, rhythm is indicated on a guitar tab by adding a letter for each note at the top of the tab. The letter specifies the time value of the note being played. For example, “E” stands for eighth note, “Q” stands for quarter note, “H” stands for half note, and so on. This can be a little cumbersome but it can be a helpful way to show basic rhythms. Here’s an example:

When numbers are stacked on top of each other, that means they should be played as chords (or intervals, if there are only two notes). For example, here are a few basic chords:

Dual-Staff Notation

Often, you’ll see guitar tabs notated on a dual-staff format, where the bottom staff is the guitar tab and the top staff is standard notation. This is great because, if you can read music even a little bit, you can get a lot of good information from the top staff, even if you’re mostly using the tab on the bottom to figure out the notes. For example, you can read the rhythm in the top staff, even if you don’t use it to read the musical pitches:

(This is the beginning of Greensleeves, by the way.)

Tab Conventions/Symbols

Although tab notation lacks many of the commonly used symbols of standard music notation, it does have a quite a few symbols of its own, mostly to depict particular guitar-specific techniques like hammer-ons and slides. The actual symbols used can differ, depending on whether you’re reading an ASCII tab or a tab that was generated by a program (like, say, Guitar Pro). Some of the more common symbols are shown below, but for lots more, check out this Wikipedia article.




Bend and Release


Palm Mute



Guitar tabs are a super helpful tool for guitarists, as they can make the process of learning a song, a solo, or a riff quick and easy. Keep in mind, though, that being able to read tabs is not a full substitute for being able to read standard notation. In particular, the limited ability to express the time values of notes means that you pretty much need to be familiar with a song before you try to learn it via tab. In contrast, someone who can read music well can play a song correctly—with the right rhythm, articulation, dynamics, etc.—without ever having heard the song.

So the ideal situation is to be able to do both. But it’s really a matter of choice and what your particular musical goals are. Either way, tab notation is a great tool and you should probably use it if you’re not already doing so. Time to move on to the lesson on slash notation!

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