How to read TAB

How to read TAB

If you don’t how to read TAB or even what TAB is, keep reading. It’ll change your life and guitar playing! I hope this will clear up how and what it is. By using TAB you will enable yourself to progress faster and see the improvement you dream of!



What is TAB?

TAB is short for Tablature and is a way to express where notes of a song occur on the guitar’s fretboard. While TAB is great for giving you an easy to understand way to learn more song, solos and riffs, it does not display the rhythm. This is why all computer programmes and good teachers will write out the piece in standard notation with Tablature below.



Understanding TAB

While it might look complex and be written in a counter-intuitive way, TAB is quite easy to follow once understood.  Firstly, we have 6 lines, each represents a guitar string. What’s counter-intuitive, some might argue, is that the guitar’s strings are written out backwards. So the top line is the top E string, then B, G, D, A and the lowest line if the bottom E string. Or like so:

basics of tab strings



Finding the Rhythm

If you look at the diagram above, I included the notation stave as well. It’s just as important as the TAB stave. Why? Even if  you can’t read the notes, and we’ll come to that in moment, you need to be able to read the rhythm of the note in order to play what written properly. Let’s look at a simple song:

basics of Tab song 1


While this song isn’t great, it does help to understand how tab and rhythm are linked. So, our song is 4 which means we count 1 2 3 4 for each bar. Looking across the line, we have 4 vertical lines, with the last doubled to mark the ending. Each of these spaces is a bar, and so we have 4 bars. We will therefore count to 4, 4 times!


Looking at each bar, the first and third bars only contain one note. This means in those bars, we play on the first beat, then hold and count the other 3 beats of that bar. The chord in those bars is a A minor 7 chord.


So, we’re happy with the timing of two bars, half way home! The second bar has two notes, each is worth 2 beats. So, we would play the first note on beat 1, hold it over beat 2 then move to the next note for beats 3 and 4.


The last bar contains a pentatonic scale lick – nice! The timing is a little harder. If we had four notes, we would play a note per beat. However, we have 6 notes. I’ve divided beats 2 and 4 into two. We would play 1 note on beat 1. Then play 2 notes in beat 2, each would be half of the first beat and would be counted as ‘2’, ‘and’. Beat 3 contains one note. Beat 4 has two notes, again in the same space and counted as ‘4’, ‘and’.



Why Timing Matters

Timing and rhythm matter more than the notes you play. Why? people want too play with others who have a great sense of time and who are consistent. If you’re just starting out, don’t work on playing really quickly as you’ll be really sloppy. Instead, work slowly with a metronome on your timing and build a solid foundation. Again, those with excellent timing are more likely to get more gigs, play with better musicians and are likely to enjoy playing more. If you need a place to start, grab a copy of my FREE music theory ebook.



Writing Techniques

In guitar playing, we have lots of little techniques which make the overall sound better, like bending or hammer-ons/pull-offs or even slides. All of these can be easily written out in tab.



TAB bending

While I’m not going to explain how to bend. The above shows the most common bends, from a micro 1/4 tone bend, all the way up to a tone and a half (3 frets). Some software programmes will write the notation differently but as long as you have the starting note and the size of the bend, you’ll be fine.



tab techniques Hammer-ons Pull-offs

Hammer-ons and Pull-offs are easier to write. H is for Hammer-on, P is for Pull-off. When writing either or a string of both (like the third bar), remember to group the TAB with a bracket over the top.



Tab slides

Slides are again easy it write.



There’s also things like tremolo picking, natural harmonics, palm mute and others. While it worth knowing that they exist, they aren’t used all that much.



Learn to Read Music

Learning to read notation isn’t easy but is very useful for teaching, certain types of gigs (like cruise ship, theatre, etc) and some studio work. I know all of these might seem well beyond your current level, but it’s still a useful skill to have. Learning to read music is way different from sight reading, which to me is a specialist skill only mastered by a few. If you can look at a sheet of music and after trying to play it a few time, then you’re effective in your ability to read music. Master TAB first, then work on reading and writing notation.


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