How To Read Guitar Tabs: Simple Beginner’s Guide

In this post I’ll cover the basics of how to read tabs (guitar tablature).

Guitar tabs are an easy way for guitarists to know which notes or chord shapes to play on the guitar. All without needing to know the names of notes on the guitar or how to read music notation. Tabs are a great tool to help you learn songs and guitar solos. You can find tabs for many popular songs by Googling for “song title tab”.

In this post I’ll cover the following 9 most commonly used guitar tab symbols:

  1. Notes
  2. Chords
  3. Double-stops
  4. Bends
  5. Slide up or down
  6. Vibrato
  7. Palm mute
  8. Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs
  9. Tapping

Notes

guitar tab notes

Guitar tabs provide a map of instructions as to which notes to play.

A tab will display six horizontal lines corresponding to the six strings on a guitar. The bottom line corresponds to the sixth (E) string on the guitar. The second line corresponds to the fifth (A) string, and so on. The vertical line divides the tab into bars of music (or measures).

The numbers inside a tab measure correspond to the string and fret position that needs to be played. So in the example above, the first number is 3 on the 2nd line. This means you would play the note in 3rd position (just above the 3rd fret) on the fifth (A) string. The note in this case is C. 

The second note in the tab is played in 2nd position on the 4th (D) string. That note is E. A number 0 indicates that you play the open string. In our example above it would be the open 3rd (G) string. 

Chords

chord guitar tab

Chords in a guitar tabs are written as a stack of numbers.

0 will refer to playing the open string. In the example above the chord is an A minor chord. The notes represented by the tab (from bottom to top) are A (open string), E, A, C, E (open string).

Double-stops

double stop guitar tab

A double-stop on guitar is when you play two notes at the same time.

Notice that tabs for double-stops look just like tabs for chords. In the example above we have two double-stops. The first double-stop has the notes C and E (open string) and the second has D and F.

Bends

A standard whole-step bend on the guitar is depicted with a curved up pointing arrow as follows:

full bend guitar tab

In this example the 5th fret on the G string, a C note, is bent a “full” (one whole-step) to D. 

The bend interval will be depicted just above the arrow head. Commonly used bend intervals are “full” (whole-step), “½” (half-step) and “1 ½” (one and half-steps).

In some cases you’ll even see multiple intervals in a single bend, like so:

1/2 step bend

In the above example the note on the 3rd string 7th fret (D) is initially bent a half-step to Eb, and then that note is bent a full whole-step to F.

A full bend can also be appended with a horizontal line. This indicates that after the note is bent, it should be held and sustained.

full bend guitar tab

A release of a bent note is depicted with a curved down pointing arrow as follows:

bent note release guitar tab

In this example the bent note is released to the 1st fret on the B string, a C note.

A pre-bend is depicted with a vertical up pointing arrow as follows: 

pre-bend guitar tab

A pre-bend is when the string should already be bent prior to playing the note. In this example the 3rd fret on the G string (Bb) would already be bent a whole-step to C before the note was played.

Slide up or down

slide up and down guitar tab

A slide is when you slide up or down (in pitch) from one note to another. A slide up is depicted by the up slanting line. In our example above, the first measure depicts a slide up from 3 to 5 on the B string, this is sliding up from the D to E note.

In the second measure we have a slide down from the 5th to 3rd fret on the B string, sliding down from the E to D note.

Vibrato

vibrato guitar tab

Vibrato is when you slightly bend and release the note to produce a shaking like effect.

In tablature the “~” symbol is used to represent vibrato. It’s not common to see this symbol because the vibrato technique is used often in guitar playing. But if you do see it, it will look like the example above.

Palm mute

palm mute guitar tab

Palm mute is a technique where you slightly muffle the strings with the palm of your right hand and then pick the notes or chords. In tablature it is represented by the “P.M.” symbol.

Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs

hammer on guitar tab

A “hammer-on” is represented by a “H”. In the above example you would play the 5th fret on the 6th string (A note) and then without picking “hammer-on” the note on the 8th fret on the same string (C note).

pull off guitar tab

A “pull-off” is represented by a “P”. It is a hammer-on done in reverse. In the above example you would first place your fingers on both the 8th and 5th frets of the 1st E string, you would play the 8th fret note (C) and then pull off that finger to play the 5th fret note (A).

Tapping

tapping guitar tab

Tapping, also known as “two hand tapping” is a technique most often associated with Van Halen’s “Eruption” solo. In tablature it’s represented by the “T” symbol. The technique also combines hammer-ons and pull-offs.

In the example above you would “tap” with your picking hand the 14th fret note (C#) on the 2nd string (B) and then hammer on the 2nd fret (C#) and 5th fret (E).

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