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How To Read Tabs

When starting out on your journey as a guitar player it can feel frustrating trying to learn songs by ear because of a lack of aural training, therefore learning how to read Tabs is essential to ensure you learn the songs you want as fast as possible.

In this article, we are going to learn how to read Tabs so grab your guitar and let’s have fun.

What Are Tabs?

Tablature or Tabs for short is a method of notating music specifically created for stringed instruments like the guitar and bass. Unlike sheet music that all elements of a musical composition such as melody, rhythm, and harmony are present, tabs represent a simplified version of the composition by usually only containing information like where to put your fingers and which strings to play.

Tabs vs Sheet Music

Tablature is specific for the guitar and it requires no prior knowledge of music theory making it ideal for beginners to learn. Sheet music is universal and written for several instruments such as Cello, Piano, and Violin to name a few.

Reading sheet music is similar to reading English, there is an immense vocabulary that needs to be mastered prior to achieving your desired goal of reading music.

Strings

The top line is the 1st string of the guitar or high E and the bottom line is your 6th string or low E. So the line above that is the 5th string and so on, so from top to bottom we have E, B, G, D, A, and E.

E————————
B————————
G————————
D————————
A————————
E————————

The above diagram represents the six strings on the guitar so now we can play some open strings like shown on the diagram below.

E———————–0-
B———————2—
G——————-0—–
D————–1———-
A——-0—————–
E–0———————-

The number zero represents open strings and every other number above zero represents a fret on the fretboard. So the number one on the 4th string says we should put our finger on the first fret and on the 2nd fret on the B string for example.

Playing Chords

As you could see on the examples above singles notes appear using number and spaces. What are about chords you ask? Chords are easy to read on tabs and look like several notes stacked together like written below.

E—-3——————–
B—-3——————–
G—-0——————–
D—-0——————–
A—-2——————–
E—-3——————–

E—–3——————-
B—–2——————-
G—–3——————-
D—–0——————-
A—–x——————-
E—–x——————-

The first example shows how notes stacked together to form certain chords, in this case, is the classic G chord that musicians used it on thousands of pop songs like No Woman No Cry and Knocking On Heaven’s Door to name a few. The second diagram shows the D chord also in open position, the X represents that we should mute the A and E strings.

Reading chords from tabs can challenge you at first especially when trying to position your fingers on the fretboard, focus on practicing changing from one chord to another and make sure you are getting a clean sound.

A couple of tips for making sure your chords sound clean:

  • Make sure to out the right amount of pressure on your fingers.
  • Find a comfortable position between frets.
  • Mute unwanted noise with your right-hand.

Techniques

There are a lot of techniques that guitarists can use to express themselves on the guitar, things like vibrato, bends, hammer-ons and pull-offs so when reading tabs you should know when to play a specific technique.

How do you know when to play a bend for example? Similar to sheet music there are special symbols that represent each technique so when you see a certain symbol you need to know what the heck does that means.

Hammer-Ons

Hammer-ons are an expressive technique used to create riffs or to embellish certain notes in a lick or solo, to execute a hammer-on you attack the target note in a motion similar to of a hammer slamming a random object.

E————————
B————————
G————————
D————————
A——–5-h-7———
E————————

Pull-Offs

Pull-offs are like a hammer-on but in reverse and both techniques go well together. Usually, you pull off from the highest to the lowest note as shown in the diagram below. If you are a beginner you need to practice it very slowly so you can develop finger strength and dexterity.
E————————
B————————
G————————
D————————
A——–7-p-5———
E————————

Slides

The slide is a technique for adding emotion and expression to your playing and you achieve that by sliding your finger to the desired note. A forward-slash represents a slide going higher in pitch and a backslash represents going down in pitch.
E————————
B————————
G————————
D————————
A———5/7———–
E————————

Bends

There are many techniques we can use to express our feelings on the guitar but no other is more effective than bending usually represented in guitar tabs as something like this: 7-B-9
To effective bend you should play a note and push it up until you reach the next note of the scale, a technique known as a whole note bend, for a half note bend you only go a half step up instead of a whole step and it is not uncommon for guitar players to come back from the bend to the note of origin.

Vibrato

Vibrato is a wonderful way to add dynamics and expression to note, you achieve that by rapidly bending and releasing the note vibrating your finger between the string and the fret. We write a vibrato in tablature with the following symbol: ~

Tapping

Eddie Van Halen made this technique famous worldwide when Eruption became a guitar anthem, it works by hammering your index finger on the fretboard instead of single-note picking or strumming. People commonly use it in heavy metal music but gained popularity within other styles like Jazz.

T
E————————
B—–12-8-5———-
G————————
D————————
A————————
E————————

In the example above you should tap with your right hand on the 12th fret and then play on the 8th and 5th fret with your left hand.
There are other less common techniques that don’t have a specific notation for guitar tabs and that’s why we recommend learning how to read sheet music if you are serious about becoming an awesome musician. Learning tabs are very beneficial if you are at the beginning of your guitar journey but because it usually lacks information regarding time signature and rhythmic patterns, it is a somewhat limited way for learning new musical material.
Another benefit of learning sheet music is that you are learning the real language of music, a way to communicate your musical thoughts in written form so musicians, composers, and music supervisors will understand and not only by guitar players.

 

Rhythm

One downside to using Tabs is the lack of information regarding rhythm so hear the song first and use your ear to establish the correct timing of a specific part. When learning licks and solos it’s crucial to apply the knowledge you just gained to make sure you play the correct techniques and dynamics.

Some Tabs might have additional information like the tempo and sometimes the time signature (people write most pop and rock songs in 4/4 which means there are 4 beats in every measure). This is not necessarily a bad thing though since this will help you develop your musicianship and with time will strengthen your ability to play things on the fly.

Here are a few tips for reading and playing guitar tabs.

  • You should read from left to right just like reading a book.
  • Single notes will be written by one number on one string. Stacked numbers represent chords.
  • Listen to the song you are trying to learn many times to help you internalize the rhythm and structure.

Just like anything related to the guitar, practice makes perfect so don’t get frustrated in the beginning, it will take a while until you can blaze through tabs with ease but with constant practice, you will get there in no time. One thing to focus on when starting out is to make sure you can make every note sound clean and crispy, remember to practice with a drum machine starting at very slow tempos.

Conclusion and Key Takeaways

Learning how to read tabs can be fun and rewarding and it’s definitely a must-have skill to have as a beginner guitar player as is the first step into learning the language of music.

Just like anything related to learning the guitar don’t forget that consistency is key for achieving real results and optimize your practice time, as a beginner even something simple as learning how to read Tabs will require constant practice until you get the basics down.
Interesting facts about Tabs you should know:

  • Tabs are a nice way to learn chords and riffs at lightning speed.
  • It is ideal for beginners since it does not requires any previous knowledge of music theory.
  • Although it’s handy to learn how to read tabs if you are serious about becoming the best guitar player you can be you should definitely learn how to read sheet music.

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