How To Read Guitar Tabs

In this lesson we’re going to learn how to read guitar tablature.

Now that you have learnt the basics, you want to actually start playing the guitar. That is why you picked up the guitar in the first place, right? You learn by doing. You develop technique by playing. Therefor it is important to start working on material as soon as possible. But how do you do that? Where do you start?

One of the easiest ways for a beginner to start learning material is to use what is known as ‘guitar tablature’ or ‘tabs’ for short. Think of tablature as a a set of instructions indicating which strings and which frets to play. Here is a blank line of tablature with some markings:

Blank Tabs With Markings

Tabs work like this – each horizontal line represents a string on the guitar. The markings in blue (to the left) indicate which line is which string. These blue markings have been added to this image for the purposes of labelling, but normally they’re not there. You have to remember which line is which string. Ignore the vertical lines for now. They divide the music into ‘bars’ (they’re called bar lines), but for now that’s not important. Each horizontal line corresponds to a string on the guitar. It’s logical. The only thing that can be confusing (without the markings) is remembering that the top line of the tabs is the 1st string and the bottom line is the 6th. What this means is that the top string on the guitar (in terms of height) corresponds to the bottom line of the tabs. The bottom string on the guitar (in terms of height) corresponds to the top line of the tabs. This can be confusing at first, but it really just involves a mental switch. Once you have played a few things using tabs, it becomes natural.

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Adding Notes to Guitar Tablature

The previous image was a ‘blank’ line of guitar tablature. Now we’re going to add some notes. The way it works, quite simply, is that any number that appears on the tabs represents the fret on the guitar of the same number. Every number that you see falls on a particular string. Therefor when you see a number, you play the string that it falls on and the fret indicated by the number. Let’s do a few examples:

F Note (1st string, 1st fret)
F Note Tabs
F Note

The first example is the note that we played in the previous lesson. It’s an F, but note names aren’t important for now. What is important is that you know how to translate the image into playing. As you can see, the ‘1’ is on the top line, which is the 1st string (e string). The ‘1’ itself represents the 1st fret. Therefor, we play the above note by playing a note on the 1st fret of the 1st string. Try playing the note. Use your 1st finger (index) and pluck the string with your pick once the note is in place. It should sound like this:

C Note (3rd string, 5th fret)
C Note Tabs 500

C Note Pic 500

The image above shows a 5 on the 3rd line from the top. Therefor, you play the above note by putting a finger on the 5th fret of the 3rd string and striking that note with your pick. Use your first finger again. It should sound like this:

E Note (4th string, 2nd fret)

The next note is played on the 2nd fret of the 4th string. In the image below (on the right), the 2nd finger is being used to play the note. It’s not super important at this stage which finger you use. Perhaps experiment with a few fingers:

E Note Tabs 500
E Note

It sounds like this:

B Note (open 2nd string)

Numbers indicate frets, but what do we do when we see a ‘0’? A ‘0’ indicates that we play the string without any fingers on a fret. This is known as playing the string ‘open’. You can think of the ‘0’ as a zero or the first letter of ‘open’:

B Note Tabs 500

B Note Pic 500

The above tablature is that of the open 2nd string. The note is therefor B. It sounds like this.

2 Notes (played separately)

Of course, most pieces of music consist of more than one note. Here is some guitar tablature with 2 notes:

G Then A Tabs 500

Just like reading text, we read from left to right. So In the above example we play the 3 first and then the 5. Don’t worry about how long each note should go for. That’s getting into the area of rhythm, which we will discuss in a moment. For now, just play the 3, then the 5. It should sound something like this:

2 Notes (played in unison)
D and G Together Tabs 500

Since we read from left to right, if we see two notes vertically aligned, like the example above, we play the two notes at the same time. It sounds like this:

The Problem with Tabs

It should be said that a lot of guitar teachers frown upon using guitar tablature. It reduces music to a series of numbers and strings, rather than musical notes. To read standard notation, you need to know the name of the note that you are reading. There is a lot of direct and indirect learning relating to music theory that occurs as a result of being able to read standard musical notation. You don’t really get that with guitar tablature because it’s really just a set of instructions involving numbers. The other downfall with tabs is that usually, there is no indication of rhythm. If you already have an idea of what the rhythm should be, and just need to know which notes to play, tabs can be effective. If however, you aren’t sure of the rhythm that is to be played, tabs can be quite insufficient.

Why Use Guitar Tabs?

Guitar tablature shouldn’t be a replacement for learning to read standard musical notation. By learning to read standard notation, you learn how music is structured. You learn about rhythm. You learn about keys, music theory and all sorts of important things. In a later lesson we are going to learn about standard music notation in more detail. But back to tabs. Why are we focusing on tabs if they’re not useful? Because they are useful. Just because you learn how to read tabs, does not mean that you can’t learn to read music. The main advantage tabs have over notation is that it is much easier to communicate how to play something to a beginner with tabs than music notation. Learning to read music properly should be a process that is developed over time.

Put simply, as a beginner, while you are still learning the basics of music notation, you can be playing technically more challenging material than your sight reading ability will allow, by reading tabs instead.

Notes and Tabs Together (The Best of Both Worlds)

These days, it is very common to see standard notation and guitar tablature coupled together. Using this format, you can choose to read either standard notation or guitar tablature. They are both different ways of transcribing the same thing. Here is an example of an excerpt of music that is written in both standard music notation and guitar tablature. Don’t worry about playing this. It is for example’s sake only:

Tabs And Notes Together

Let’s Get Playing

Now that you are a tab-reading pro, let’s do some playing. The first thing that we are going to play is a C major scale over 1 octave. Don’t worry about what that means for now. For now you can think of it as a certain type of exercise. The other thing that is introduced here is left hand fingering. Left hand fingering (as the name implies) is an indication of which finger to use for each note. Often, finger markings are omitted and you have to decide which fingers to use yourself. In this example, the left hand fingering is included above each note:

C Major Scale
C Major Scale 1 Octave With Fingering Markings

Try playing the C major scale above. It should sound like this:

A Major Scale

The next example is a basic exercise based on the A Major Scale. It is played slightly higher along the fretboard (starting on the 5th fret):

A Major Scale Half

Ode To Joy (Tabs)

The last piece that we are going to play in this lesson is the famous Beethoven piece ‘Ode To Joy’. This is a great piece to learn because it is technically quite easy but is a well known melody. There are no finger markings in the following transcription, but the fingering is logical. The finger to use for each note matches the fret number for each note (e.g. use 1st finger for all the 1s, 3rd finger for all the 3s etc.). Also, this is significantly harder than anything that we have played thus far. Don’t expect to play it perfectly the first time. Depending on your level of experience, this might take a few minutes or a few days to master. Be patient.

Ode To Joy Tabs


Congratulations! You can now read guitar tablature. There are millions of ‘tabs’ out there on the internet that you could technically read and play, with your newfound ability. But more importantly, we can now use tabs for other lessons in this series, which opens up a range of possibilities.

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