How to read TAB

How to read TAB

If you don’t how to read TAB or even what TAB is then keep reading. It’ll change your life and guitar playing!


By using TAB you will enable yourself to progress faster and see the improvement you dream of! So here’s how to read TAB.



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 song, solos and riffs, it does not display the rhythm.


This is why all computer programmes (Such as Power TAB, which I used for all the examples) and good teachers will write out the piece in standard notation with Tablature below. So even if you can’t read music, you can still follow the written rhythm.



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 a 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 an A minor 7 chord.


So, we’re happy with the timing of two bars, halfway 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’.


So that’s how to read TAB in a nutshell. You might need to reread a few times to fully understand, but when you do, it will be life changing!



Why Timing Matters

Timing and rhythm matter more than the notes you play. Why? people want to 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

So that’s how to read TAB. How about writing it?


Let’s start with the major little techniques which make the guitar unique. I’m talking, of course about bending or hammer-ons/pull-offs or even slides. All of these can be easily written out in TAB.



TAB bending

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 shown in an easy to understand format.



There are 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

So while learning how to read TAB is very useful, consider learning how to read music. Reading 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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