Learn To Read Guitar Tablature, or TAB

Guitar Tablature aka TAB

Guitar Tablature, or TAB for short, has been used for stringed instruments for hundreds of years and is simply a pictorial representation of the fingerings on the strings.


It is much favoured by guitarists, especially those who don’t read standard music notation, as a simple way of showing which frets to place the fingers.

For the guitarist, there are six strings represented by six horizontal lines, and it looks a little like a standard staff. TAB for banjo players is even more similar as bluegrass banjos have five strings.

Anyway, here’s some standard notation of a C Major chord followed by an arpeggio of the C major chord with the corresponding TAB underneath.

How to read Guitar TAB

The numbers on the guitar TAB show which frets need to be played on the individual strings. The numbers are placed vertically for the C major chord and are spaced out for the arpeggio. The third fret (3) on the A string is a C, the second fret on the D string is an E and so on.

It couldn’t be much simpler, and if you are familiar with the piece of music then TAB combined with the ear is a very useful method of writing out a song.

Hammer-ons, Pull-offs and Bends in Guitar Tablature

There are a few extra signs to embellish guitar TAB which show hammer-ons, pull-offs and string bending.

Hammers and Pulls in TAB

Hammer-ons are marked with a curved line between the notes and an H above the TAB. Pull-offs are similarly marked with a curved line  and a P above the TAB. Right hand tapped notes have a T above them. Guitar TAB is nothing if not intuitive!

String bends are drawn in several different ways depending on the type of bend

Bends in TAB

Slides and Strums in Guitar Tablature

There are a number of types of slides used in TAB.

A shift slide up is when a note is played and then the fretting finger slides up to the next note on the TAB and a shift slide down is the opposite. A diagonal line links the two notes.

various signs in TAB

Sometimes a little slide is performed from any note below the target note to give it more interest or the slide may be from above. TAB  indicates this with a short diagonal line pointing either up or down placed immediately to the left of the note. Finally, a slide out is when a note is played and a little slide performed afterwards – a classic way to finish a phrase of music with a flourish! A small diagonal line immediately to the right of the note is used to indicate this.

Chords in Guitar Tablature

The notes of a chord are stacked vertically on the TAB to show that they should be played simultaneously. However, if a strum is slower so that the individual notes can be distinctly heard then TAB uses an arpeggiated chord.

A squiggly line with an arrowhead to the left of the chord show that it should have a noticeable arpeggio between the notes. The arrowhead denotes the direction of the strum relative to the strings. This does look a bit odd at first glance as  down strum has an upward pointing arrowhead. But if you think of the order of the notes being played on the strings it should make sense. In a down strum the lower strings are struck first and moving towards to top string.

Rhythm in Guitar Tablature

Most TAB doesn’t have any indication of rhythm so you’re in the dark as to the note durations unless you already know the tune.

Occasionally, though, a more thoughtful tabber puts in some rhythm markers, although not everyone finds them helpful in their basic form

Rhythm in TAB

Advantages of Tablature

  • It’s very quick to learn and understand
  • Great for working out the position on the fretboard. For instance, a middle C can be played in several different places on the guitar but only has one position on the staff. Using TAB you’ll know if it is played on the first fret of the second B string, or the fifth fret of the third string, for example.
  • Easier to write manually
  • It’s not essential to know the names of the notes
  • It’s easy to use alternate tunings and still know where to play the right notes
  • There are thousands of TABS freely available on the internet
  • It can be written in a text file format called ASCII
TAB in ASCII format

Disadvantages of Tablature

  • Simple tab gives no indication of the note duration, although more complex TAB helps a little towards this
  • It doesn’t tell you which finger to use, only the fret, and you’ll need to work out the best fingering for yourself
  • It’s hard to visualise the melody
  • There’s no indication of dynamics or expression
  • TAB found on the internet may not be accurate
  • It is instrument specific – i.e. TAB means nothing to a piano player or a violinist so it can’t be shared with other instrumentalists, only with other guitarists

Quite a lot of guitar music now has both standard music notation and guitar tablature. That’s really the best of both worlds (providing the TABS are accurate)!