Like any other field of study, music can also be written, read & studied. We have musical annotations for reading & writing music. Guitar Tablature or tab is the method of reading & writing music for guitar. However, for writing tabs, we don’t use musical annotations. Instead, we use numbers, lines & symbols to write guitar tabs.
To learn guitar & play various music pieces, you need to get documentation of those pieces. Without being able to read or write guitar tabs, you will not be able to grow fast in your journey.
Even if you are trying to learn guitar from Twelve Frets, you need to read guitar tabs. Most of the further articles consist of multiple guitar tabs. Also, if you know how to read guitar tabs, you will be able to start playing any music (as long as you practice it enough), since internet is flooded with guitar tabs of almost all songs & kinds of music.
In this article, you will learn how to read guitar tabs.
Strings: In case of guitar tabs, the strings are represented by lines. The number of strings in the guitar is represented by the number of lines in a tab. For example, if you are reading a tab for a simple acoustic guitar, the tabs will have 6 lines. If you are playing the bass guitar, & want to know how to read bass guitar tabs, it’s simple. The bass guitar tab will have 4 lines as a standard bass guitar has 4 strings.
Tuning: The tuning of the string is represented by the tuning key at the start of the line. For example, a simple acoustic guitar tablature consists of 6 lines, each having the tuning in front of them. E-A-D-G-B-e, where E represents the Sixth string or the thickest string & e represents the thinnest string or the First String.
A Blank TAB
This is what a blank tab looks line for a regular tuned 6 stringed guitar. Now, for example, somebody has written a guitar tab in which they have dropped the tune of the 6th string to D, the tab will then look like this.
We see that the only difference in the first & the second tab is that the last line’s initial has changed to D as it represents the drop tunned 6th string.
Numbers & What they Mean
A blank tab is of no use if it does not contain any information about the music or song. Now the question arises that how is the music denoted in the tabs. Well, to simplify the music is indicated by numbers & some signs. The numbers mean what to play & the symbols denote how to play. In this section, we will concentrate on the numbers.
Let us take an example. Below is a demo tab & its explanation.
The numbers inside the tab denote the fret number of the string that needs to be played. 0 represents the open string (without holding any fret). If I describe this tab, it will be something like, play the 3rd fret of A string, open stringed D, 2nd fret in Dstring, 3rd fret in D string, open string G and so on.
Try playing the whole of the above tab in your guitar.
Let us take another tab, for example.
In this tab, we see that the numbers are written on the top of each other. What does it mean?
Its simply means we need to play them together. We need to hold & play the first fret of E & A string together, then we need need to play open stringed D & G together & then we need to hold the 3rd fret of D string & 4th fret of A string and play them together.
The Symbolic Gestures
Once we are done with the numbers and know what to play, the next thing that the tab tells us is how to play it. This is done with the help of some symbolic nomenclatures.
Here are some of the standard nomenclatures & what they mean.
h – hammer on
p – pull off
b – bend
pb – prebend
/ – slide up
x – dead note
~ – vibrato
PM – palm mute
t – tapping
<12> – harmonic on the 12th fret
 – pinch harmonic on the 10th fret
Let us understand in more details with examples.
In this tab, we see some elementary notations. We know that we can simply play the notes in the guitar, the 10th fret of the e string, then the 12th fret of the e string, the 7th fret of the B string and so on. Let us deal with a bit more complex tab so that I can give you an idea of what the symbols mean.
Let us understand how we need to play the above tab.
We need to play the 10th fret of the e string. While still pressing the string against the fret, slide it to the 12th fret, maintaining the tension on the string. Then we need to play the 7th fret of the B string & hammer on the 8th string of the same. Then we need to play the 6th fret of the G string and bend it to produce the sound of the 8th fret of the same string. Finally, we need to mute the open D string & play it twice.
This was the analysis of the upper tab. Hope, by now you are clear about how to read or even write your own tabs.
With time, you will get that reading tabs is super easy. A lot easier than reading musical annotations. However, Tabs contain no information about the rhythm of the song. You have to hear the song to understand the rhythm. Though some people use advanced symbols to denote the rhythm, however, the symbols differ from websites to websites.
And moreover, it is always advisable to hear the song to understand the rhythm as it will improve your ear-hand coordination as well as your ear training skills.
Learning to read guitar tab is like learning any other language. It will take time to get used to the symbols. Beginners can start with simple tabs which do not contain any signs and are easy to play. Going forward, everything you learn on this platform shall be displayed in tabs & chord structures.
If you feel, you still have some grey areas regarding the understanding of guitar tabs, give this article another read. It will surely help. Don’t forget to use the alternate picking technique.