How to read guitar tab
the ultimate guide to reading guitar tab with audio examples
Guitar Tablature (or guitar tab) is a way of notating music for guitar.
It is not quite reading “sheet music” like our piano-playing friends, it is a little bit easier but still takes a little getting used to.
We’ll start by:
- playing a melody on one string.
- we then add other strings
- we then examine how chords are written in tab
Guitar Tab how to read single notes
Playing open strings
We start by playing one note – the 6th string (low E).
This is just playing an open string so don’t fret anything with your left hand – just play the thickest string on your guitar and let it ring.
Note if you are not fretting a string, then we call that an open string and it is denoted in tab as a ‘0’.
You can see that this thickest string is the bottom line of our 6 tab lines. Seeing a 0 on that bottom line means playing the E (thickest) string open
Playing fretted notes
Now if we play that same string (the low E string) three times: first as an open string, then at the 3rd and 5th fret, it would have guitar tab that looks like this.
Ex 1 – playing 3 notes on one string
If we play the same string low E four times – first open, then 3rd fret, then 6th fret then 5th fret, it would look like this.
Ex 2 – playing 4 notes on one string
Finally if we play both patterns above, then add a few more notes on the low E string open, 3rd fret, 5th fret, 3rd fret, open – you are playing a line similar to Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple.
Smoke on the water
You probably know this riff! Google it if you are not familiar with it. Then play the riff and play this tab until you feel comfortable reading the tab and playing the riff.
Congratulations – you have followed tab to play a song on one string!
Guitar tab how to play notes on several strings
So now let’s play the 1st string (high E / thinnest string) three times open.
Jingle Bells Ex 1
And now play the high E string open, then at the third fret.
And now the 2nd string (B string) at the first fret then third fret.
And finish by playing the 1st string (high E) open.
Jingle Bells Ex 2
Congratulations. You have just played Jingle Bells – but really this is really cool because this is reading tab on two strings!
Jingle Bells Ex 3
Guitar Tab how to play notes at the same time
Up until now, we have played notes sequentially, meaning one then the next one after that.
But what if we want to play two notes at the same time?
Well if we play the 6th string (low E) open and the 5th string (A) at the second fret – at the same time – then it looks like this
2 notes at same time
And if we wanted to show a G chord using tab, it would look like this.
You probably know how to fret a G chord, but just in case
- play the 6 string (or low E or thickest string) at the 3rd fret.
- play the 5th string (A string) at the 2nd fret.
- The 4th and 3rd strings (D and A) are open.
- play the 6th string (the high E or thinnest string) at the 3rd fret.
G chord full
A beginner guitar player needs to learn to read guitar tab.
This is how you will learn songs, follow lessons (including many on this website) and even share ideas with other musicians.
Guitar tab is easy to read – but it does take a little practice. Break this down into steps and make progress slowly.
Those steps are
- guitar tab on one string
- guitar tab on 2 strings
- guitar tab with notes at the same time
p.s. if you want to start writing your own guitar tab, you can use a software called Guitar Pro which I talk about here.
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