Guitar tablature or “tab” for short, is a way of writing musical notation that uses instrument fingering as apposed to musical pitch. The history of tablature is very rich and dates all the way back to the Renaissance period but many artists still use it today because it’s just so easy to understand.
Guitar tabs consist of six lines representing strings with a letter representing a note at the head of each. In normal tuning for a six string guitar these letter notes are E, A, D, G, B, E with the first E representing the lowest note on your guitar. In addition to the six notes, six strings and numbers written on the lines, guitar tab also includes several additional symbols that guide the performance. Just below is a diagram of a guitar neck corresponding to the lines and letters of a tab staff.
- to read guitar tabs first make sure your guitar strings are tuned the notes indicated by the tab
- regular tuning is E, A, D, G, B, E but another popular setup is “drop D” which means the lowest E is tuned down a step, this looks like D, A, D, G, B, E
- position your fingers to match the numbering on the correct string and strum as indicated
- in addition to numbers which tell your fingers which frets to push down on, these additional symbols help you interpret how to play the song correctly:
- 0 – play string open without any fingering
- X – mute string, keep it silent with your palm or don’t strum it at all
- V or ~ – bend the string repeatedly with your finger to create a pulsating sound, vibrato
- H – hammer down onto the string with our finger to play without strumming, a good example of this in action is the guitar player Trace Bundy (look him up on YouTube)
- P – pull off of the string, this is the opposite of hammering
- H followed by P – hammer on then pull off, like tapping a string for a specific note then releasing
- / or or S – slide from one note to another, 3/6 means slide from third fret up to 6 for example
- B or ^ or ( ) – bend the string to slightly change the note as it rings out
- + – play a harmonic note, touch the string gently but don’t hold down as you strum it
In addition to the symbols, there are sometimes also numbers placed below the guitar tab music lines labeled 1 through 4. These numbers denote which finger to use for each particular tab with 1 being your pointer finger and 4 being your little finger
Keep in mind that if you’re playing guitar using a capo and reading tab for a song, the tab is usually written relative to the capo, as if that was the new top of your guitar neck. So even though you might be on the sixth fret of the guitar, if the capo is on the fifth fret the tab will now denote 1 to tell you to finger the first fret relative to the capo.