How to read guitar TABs

Reading and writing guitar tablature (TABs) is essential for learning other people’s music and for keeping a record of your own creations. I would even argue that it’s more practical than standard music notation as TABs dictate the exact and intended way in which a passage of notes should be played. How/where we play our notes is a vital aspect of lead guitar playing – there can be no ambiguity or confusion! TABs make everything crystal clear. Their only downfall is that timing isn’t represented very well (if at all) but if a video accompanies the TAB then it’s not a problem in the slightest.

While it won’t include absolutely everything, this article will at least teach you the majority of info related to TABs - certainly everything you’ll need to know to read my TABs in particular.

 Which string is which?
The first task is to understand how the strings of the guitar are visually represented by the horizontal lines on the TAB. Observe the image below: the top line corresponds with the high e string (thinnest string) and the very bottom line corresponds with the low E string (thickest).


Fret numbering
Now that the relation between TAB lines and strings has been established, notes can be dropped into the TAB. See below how a number “4” has been written onto the b string’s line? That simply tells you to play the 4th fret of the b string. At this point it doesn’t specify any further regarding how to execute the note (downstroke, upstroke, hammer-on etc) so play it however you wish. 

 NOTE: When you encounter a “0”, read it as an instruction to not fret anything (play an open string):


Chords are expressed any time you encounter vertically stacked numbers in a TAB. The fact that they’re vertically stacked tells you that the notes are played simultaneously. See below an example of a “diad” (double-stop) and a C chord:


Chords are most commonly strummed. Their strum direction (downwards or upwards strum) can be specified in the TAB by adding either an upward pointing arrow for a downward strum or a downward pointing arrow for an upward strum. While the arrow directions may seem incorrect, opposing or nonsensical at a glance, you’ll find they do actually make sense when applied physically.

For example: A strum from the thinner strings to the thicker strings would be considered an upward strum. A downward pointing arrow represents this perfectly as it shows the strum originating from the thinner strings and traveling towards the thicker strings.

Passages of notes
TABs read from left to right. The provided example instructs you to play the 2nd, 4th, and 5th frets on the D string, followed by the same fret numbers on the g string – all in order. See the image below for further clarification.

Picking instructions
As lead guitar players we use picks (plectrums) as our super precise surgical tools of choice. How something is picked is extremely important and must be conveyed in the TAB. The “V” symbol is an instruction to perform an upstroke, the half-square symbol tells you to perform the opposite (a downstroke). These symbols accompany the notes directly underneath the TAB. Observe the previous 6 notes updated to include picking instructions:


Legato playing
Legato (use of hammer-ons and pull-offs) is represented by archs over or under the notes being affected. The arch is written underneath the notes if they are on any of the three lower strings, and written above the notes if they are on any of the three thinner strings.
In the example below you are instructed to: Play a downstroke to sound the 2nd fret of the D string, then use legato to hammer-on to the 4th fret and then again on the 5th. Then repeat the same idea and execution on the g string.

Fingering instructions
While these examples aren’t complicated, it’s still a good idea to mention that fingering instructions for the fretting hand must sometimes be provided to further specify how a passage of notes should be played. Numbers will appear underneath the TAB to assign certain fingers to certain notes. “1” is the index finger, “2” is the middle finger, “3” is the ring finger”, and “4” is the little finger.

 Tapped notes
Tapped notes with the picking hand can easily be introduced and tie in with legato well. The tapped note gets a capital “T” above it to notify the reader that a note in the legato chain is to be played with the picking hand.


Bends are represented by curved arrows directly on the TAB to the right of the note being affected. Accompanying the arrow will be a “½”, “full”, “1 ½”, “2” and perhaps beyond though I don’t have the courage to bend beyond 1 1/2! A “½” is a half-step bend where you raise the pitch by one semi-tone, a “full” is a full step bend where you raise the pitch by a whole tone, and so on. See in the example image, the first note is bent upwards a half-step, the second is bent a whole step, the third is a full bend and release, and the fourth is a full prebend and release.

Shift slides and legato slides
There are two ways to perform slides: the “shift slide” and the more common “legato slide”. Most people don’t know the difference so I am very pleased to be writing a short section on these to set the record straight.

When you fret a note, pick it, and then move to another note on that string without unfretting, picking the next note upon arrival, that’s a “shift slide” and is represented very plainly with a sloped line connecting the two notes.

When you fret a note, pick it and slide to another note on that string but DON’T pick again upon arrival, as in you just allow the string to keep ringing from the slide, that’s a “legato slide”. While it too is represented with a sloped connecting line, it also requires a legato arch to tell the reader that it’s the latter type of slide.

Whammy bar note contouring
Dives are represented by straight lines directed down and away from the note being affected. Dips are represented by jagged Vs under and next to the note being abused. Pre-dip and releases are represented by a flat broken line rising up. Notice the “-1” accompanying all three examples? This lets you know to lower the pitch by a whole step.

Pickslant change instructions
This may be confusing to most players. In order to execute complex/advanced licks or passages, 2-way pickslanting is often required. In my TABs I chose to indicate where a change in pickslant occurs with an exclamation mark “!” above the note. For example, to strictly alternate pick the following tab in a looping fashion you’d need to change pickslant on the indicated notes to prevent the pick from getting trapped behind or in front of any string at any point. In the following TAB you’d need to use upward pickslanting on the D string and downward pickslanting on the g string. The “!” simply tells you where to change slant. 


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