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How To Read Guitar Tabs

Learning how to read guitar tab is quite easy, all but one problem. Unlike standard music notation, there is no real standard to how TABS are written. The differences aren't huge but you do need to get familiar with the various forms of guitar tab. Another major problem with guitar tabs is that there might be no indication of rhythm. This subject is a little bit misleading and really only affects guitar tabs that are created in ASCII, but even some ASCII tabs do have the rhythmic value included.

Guitar tab basics

We'll start off with the absolute basics of guitar tab, how to read the notes. Guitar TAB consists of six lines, each line represents a guitar string. The lines are laid out as though you had the guitar lying down face up on your lap and were looking down at it, presuming you are a right handed player.

Blank Guitar Tab

The vertical lines represent each bar and each bar is one measure. Because each line represents a guitar string, writing tabs is as simple as writing the fret number on each string. The horizontal axis equals time so you play each note on the fretboard from left to right.

Guitar Tab Chromatic Run

The numbers on the fretboard below show the exact note order in which you would play the above tab.

Fretboard chromatic notes

Because the horizontal axis equals time, chords will have their notes shown in the same vertical line. The Guitar tab below shows how an A minor chord strummed four times in one measure.

Chords Tab

So far so good, reading the notes from the guitar tab is easy enough, what we need to know now is the timing / rhythm information and how to read various guitar techniques such as slides, bends pull offs etc. This will depend on the various types of guitar tabs. Let's take a look at these before moving onto the more advanced parts of reading TABS.

Various types of guitar tab

Three main types of guitar tab are the ASCII Tab, plain tab with rhythm information and Tab with notation.

Ascii Guitar TAB

First let's take a look at ASCII Tab, this is quite a common type of guitar tab found on guitar forums. The thing that makes this kind of Tab unique is the whole thing uses simple text to reperesent ordinary Tab. Here is an example of the same chromatic run shown above but text generated.

Guitar tab text chromatic

As handy as this kind of Tab is, it has some drawbacks.

  • If a monospaced font isn't used then the whole thing can become an unreadable mess.
  • It relies on a standard which is fine for fret numbers but can get messy when we need to show techniques like bends, vibrato etc.
  • Rarely used with timing / rhythm information.

Basic Guitar Tab

Next we have basic guitar tab with timing information. This TAB lets us know the time signature and the note duration so that we know whether we should play quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets etc. This kind of Tab needs to be in image format for the web. It's also used a lot in books and magazines.

Standard guitar tab chromatic

Guitar TAB with notation

This is the ultimate kind of guitar tab, we get two staffs. One with full notation and the other with basic tab like the one above.

Tab with notation

As we can see, guitar tabs with note timing value makes a lot more sense. Even though most text style of tabs you find on the internet has no indication of note duration, it is still possible to include it to an extent. Ascii tab exported from Guitar-Pro for instance does show note duration by placing text above the TAB. Here is an example of guitar Tab exported from Guitar-Pro using the same chromatic run as above played with eighth notes. The 'E' indicates an eighth note.

Text Tab with note duration

Guitar-Pro Guitar Tab Legend

Guitar Pro Legend

How to read guitar tab in ASCII format

Here are a few examples showing how to read guitar tabs various techniques with ASCII tableature

Slide up from fret 3 to 5 on the third string

Guitar Tab example 1

Slide out downwards from the 5th fret third string

Guitar Tab example 2

Pull off from 8th fret to 5th on the first string

Guitar Tab example 3

Hammer on from the open B string to the third fret

Guitar Tab example 4

Typical pentatonic lick with bend, played as 8th note triplets

Guitar Tab example 5

How to read guitar tabs in standard Guitar TAB format

Here are the same five examples shown in standard tab format.

Standard Guitar Tab example 1

Click here for the standard guitar tabs full legend

Reading standard guitar tab is obviously a lot easier than the text version because there aren't the same limitations. Most text based tabs posted on the internet are handy for getting the general idea but actually listening to the song as well makes it a lot clearer. There are also a ton of guitar tabs available for Power Tab and Guitar-Pro that you can download and play on the appropriate software. Power Tab is free and very popular but unfortunaletly is no longer updated. It is still a very powerfull guitar tab reader and generator. Playing guitar tab in a software reader is also very handy for slowing down guitar solos.

Guitar-Pro has more features and is probably easier to use, with a wide database of users. Guitar tabs for Guitar-Pro are also widespread across the internet. One advantage to using Guitar-Pro is the RSE engine which gives realistic audio. Although it is not free it does have a lot of useful features.