How to Read Tab Notation on the Guitar

By Benjamin Nissimov for Guitar on Demand


Tab, short for tablature, comes from the Latin word tabulatura, which roughly translates to putting something into a table or chart. Originally used for lute music dating back to the 1300s, tab notation (often stylized as TAB) has been adopted by all modern string instruments as an alternative and supplement to reading traditional sheet music.

Why Should I Know TAB?

TAB can be read easily by anyone, including those who have not learned to read traditional notation. For beginning and more advanced guitar players alike, TAB is an extremely valuable tool that allows you to learn songs and exercises without having to memorize the fretboard.

Reading TAB

TAB is a diagram that represents two simple components over time -- the strings and frets.

1. The Strings

Figure 1

A guitar tab will be written on a canvas of six lines, where each line represents one of the strings of your guitar. The hardest part of reading TAB is learning that the strings at first will seem upside down from your perspective as a guitar player! Flipping the guitar around to face yourself will show you the strings as they show up on the tab. Use Figure 1 as a reference -- noting the thickness of the strings compared to those of your guitar. It will take a little time to get used to this, but the learning curve is very short when compared to learning notes on a staff.

Figure 2

1. The Frets

Each string on a TAB will have numbers written on it. These numbers tell the player which fret they should push down on that particular string in order to play the next note. For instance, in Figure 2, we should start by pushing down the 7th fret on your low E string and then plucking the string. Note: A "0" means that we should pluck that string “open” or without pushing down on any fret.

Figure 3

Putting it All Together

The notes on a TAB are written over time from left to right, just as you would read a sentence in English. However, EVERY note should be read from left to right, REGARDLESS OF WHAT STRING IT IS ON!!! In Figure 3, for example, the player should play the note on the 6th fret of the high E string TWICE, followed by the note on the 5th fret of the G string, then finally the note on the 7th fret of the B string.

Going Forward with TAB

Now that you (hopefully) have an idea of how to read a TAB sheet, you can put this knowledge to use. There are many websites consisting of nothing but TABs of songs in all genres. Think of a song you’d like to learn, search for the TAB, and learn to play your favorite songs right away!

For guitar lessons that utilize both standard notation and TAB, please visit Guitar on Demand's Guitar Lesson Store!

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