How To Read Guitar Tabs – (Part 1) – Straight To the Point.

Me Reading Guitar Tabs

Hey Friends! You are here to learn How To Read Guitar Tabs, and I am here to help you. A funny story before we start. I was writing this post and ended up writing double my standard length and thought, Nobody, is going to read all of this! So I cut it into 2 parts (that’s probably what movie directors do too!).  See Part 2 here if you wish.

This is the no-nonsense short version where we jump straight into the tools you need to read guitar tabs. The post where I share some helpful hints (in my opinion of course) to make your guitar tab reading journey a bit easier is here. Let’s hit it! (don’t actually hit anything)

The Basics – Like, Really Basic.

The main ideas of guitar tabs are simple.

  1. Show the Guitar Strings (dotted lines)
  2. Show the musician (that’s you) where to put their fingers on the strings to play the right note/chord.(numbers)
  3. Show the musician how to move from that note/chord to the next to play the song or piece

That is It! Next paragraph.

Pre Introduction – Easing You into The Tab.

Tab Layout

This is what most tabs look like. There may be variance but you should be able to understand them without too much hassle.

To use a tab you first have to understand the symbols and notation used. A detailed look at those items is seen below in The Guitar Legend. For a simpler introduction, we will start with the most important part of the tab, the numbers! Looking at a tab you can usually see the tuning of the guitar along the left side of the page.

Hint: Basically if you hold your guitar like you’re about to play, then simply rotate your guitar so the strings face the roof (guitar flat on your lap), this is what the strings would look like in order. It may seem confusing at first, but believe me, once you get used to it you hardly look at your strings or even the tab!

A. The dashed lines represent the guitar strings (probably dotted to make it easier to read the numbers)

B. The dashed lines represent the guitar strings.

C. The vertical lines represent bars (musical divisions)

D. The two black vertical lines represent the end of the musical bar.

The number you see on the dotted lines represent the fret you should play

    • A single number means to play that fret, on that string
    • Numbers in a vertical line indicate a chord (notes played simultaneously) – place your fingers on all relevant numbers
    • Single numbers in sequence indicate an Arpeggio (notes of a chord played individually)

The Guitar Legend – Or Map, Whatever!

This is basically the standard way to explain yourself to other people who use your tabs. It is essentially like the legend or key (no pun intended) to a map. Don’t be intimidated by these foreign-looking symbols (trust me its easier than learning sheet music). Most people have a legend below their tab so I will try to cover the 15 most common ones (common to me).

Hammer OnPull OffSlide UpSlide DownWhole bendHalf BendArtificial Harmonic String MutePalm MuteVibrato Ghost BendNatural Harmonic     Finger Tapping  TremoloRepeat   


How Does it Work? – User Manual

The part you have been waiting for! This is just an example that I made up so don’t get your hopes up for anything spectacular.

One Guitar Tab With Everything

  1. Pick the 5th note on the D string in a downwards motion
  2. Pick the 7th note on the G string in an upwards motion
  3. Pick the 7th note of the B string, then play the next note by hammering your finger down onto the 8th fret followed by hammering down on the 9th fret (Use whichever 3 fingers are most comfortable for you)
  4. Place three different fingers on the 5th, 7th and 8th frets of the B string. Pick the 8th note on the B string and then pull the B string down at the 8th fret. Release the bend to play the 7th note. Pull the 7th note down and release the string to play the 5th note.
  5. Bend the 5th note B string one full tone up (match the pitch of B string 7th fret).
  6. Bend the 5th note B string up a halftone (match the pitch of B string 6th Fret).
  7. Hold an A Major chord as shown (5,7,7,6,5,5) and strum once.
  8. Continue holding A Major chord and mute G string 6th fret with your finger and strum.
  9. Holding the A major chord. play each note of the chord one at a time (arpeggio) first ascending then descending.
  10. Upon arriving at the 7th note play a vibrato note.
  11. Play 5th fret G string tremolo.
  12. Play 5th fret Gstring Ghost bend (also known as prebend)
  13. Play 7th fret B string Artificial harmonic.
  14. Play 12th fret B string Natural Harmonic
  15. Place two different fingers at 7th and 9th frets. Play 12th fret B string with a single tap from a strumming hand finger. Once the tap is played pull the 12th fret down and release it to play the 9th fret. Pull fretting hand finger down at the 9th fret to play the 7th note.
  16. Repeat numbers 1-16 once more (due to repeat sign)

NOTE: There are different tunings (like DADGAD etc) but for simplicity sake, we shall stick with standard tuning.

Get Your Tab On – Its Up To You.

Personally, I find the guitar tabs to be wonderful teachers. They help you accelerate the learning process but also teach you not to believe everything you read. These tabs are made by other humans (like yourself) and therefore can contain mistakes. You will become more adept at picking up these mistakes as you play.

The power of music is that it can teach you how to learn and the joy that comes with learning. Music will also keep you humble (the best attitude to have when you learn). This is because the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know! For some, this seems like a fruitless quest but for you and me, the chase is an exhilarating experience!

You now know How To Read A Guitar Tab!

Do your best and have some fun friend! See you around!





8 Replies to “How To Read Guitar Tabs – (Part 1) – Straight To the Point.”

  1. Great article and it will help a lot.

    Learning guitar isn’t simple, my best friend wanted to teach me, but seeing how difficult it is, he stopped it.

    Your guide seems to make it so easy, because you make it so simple.

    It doesn’t matter If haven’t learnt everything yet, right?

    Thanks for sharing it!

    1. Thank for the comment Emmanuel! I think that some people are guitarist first and foremost. The problem is they find Guitar so interesting and fun that it becomes easy for them. This situation present a problem as they may forget that not everyone knows the stuff they have accumulated in their head (the guitar stuff, not the other stuff).

      That may be why when they try to teach you something they will be like “its so simple, just do it like this!” meanwhile you don’t even know how to hold the guitar comfortably! This is why I try to break stuff down, and hopefully after a while I will have a large enough resource available for everyone from beginner to advanced.

      Guitar is about enjoying music, playing the music you want, how you want. You can learn as you go along. Guitar can be as simple or difficult as you choose, but to learn how to play a few songs or jam with your mates is not hard at all. In fact fooling around on guitar can help you learn a lot!

  2. Hi Renton,

    I am not a musician and cannot play any instrument to save my life, but I bought my niece a guitar for her birthday in August.  She always wanted one.  She is at it now for nearly 2 months, but she is struggling.  I read your post and tried to make sense of it.  If I can make sense of it, she will be able to also.

    To my surprise it actually did make sense.  I am going to give her the link to your website.  I am sure she will be able to learn a lot more from you.

    If you have any advice for a beginner guitar player, what will it be?

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us!

    1. Hey Rika, thank for the comment. I am glad that this article made sense to a non guitarist as well. That means I have achieved my goal of making these concepts accessible to anybody willing to learn them. I am absolutely delighted to hear that your niece has chosen guitar to explore the musical world.

      My advice to a beginner is to take it slow. Don’t be in a hurry to learn everything and end up quitting because you overwhelm yourself. Take it slow and build yourself up. Start simple with songs you find easy (like nursery rhymes) then as you steadily build your confidence move to more challenging pieces to help you grow.

      Some people learn theory and others just lay. While some basic theory is essential and can help you a lot, don’t pressure yourself, especially when starting out. Learning guitar by yourself is more difficult than with a teacher but is more rewarding in many ways (personal opinion).

      You will have to develop discipline and learn how to govern yourself and your actions to learn guitar. You will set up your structured approach and stick to it to achieve your guitar goals. There are many free resources on the net that can help you get real good, with time.

      Your niece may find my other post,Guitar Practice Motivation helpful when she feels like throwing in the towel.

  3. Hey this was a really good article and it was very interesting.  I have never really played a guitar before, only a couple of times when i was messing around.  This all seems pretty complicated and you must have a lot of information if you put it into 2 parts!  Overall really good article and this would teach a lot of guitar lovers!

    1. Thank for the comment! It seems quite funny that I said its simple but I had to split the post into 2 parts! I think that is because I really wanted to detail exactly how to play tabs. Breaking stuff down can take up a lot of words so don’t be intimidated by that.

  4. Hi Renton,

    Fabulous website, thank you,

    My history with music? Well, recorder, mmm.. great in my primary school years!  My Mum presented me with a guitar, ( my brother’s actually, well times were tough, way back then!  She  said he had tired of it), and sent me off to ‘ guitar school?’,  well anyway in Perth, somewhere. Not sure why she felt the need to do this, wish she was still with us so I could ask her! I really didn’t learn that much, although one of my first songs I learnt was, ‘ Michael Row the Boat Ashore,’ I was fifteen, a difficult age. So I really didn’t take it further. Now I long to play, so a website like yours is ideal. I went to a concert oh such a long time ago, Mandolins!  I fell in love with the sound, so a mandolin and a piano those two are my dream instruments that I would love to play.

    I shall book mark your wonderful site.

    Thank you


    1. Thanks for the comment Michele. I think its great that you inherited you brothers guitar (sort of a family heirloom right?) People (pianists) always tell me I should learn piano, and that its easier than guitar(in some ways I guess) but guitar has always drawn me to music.

      I think that fundamental music knowledge is applicable to multiple instruments. Obviously it takes a bit of time for your fingers and hands and muscles to adjust to the instrument, but once that happens its second nature. I think a solid foundation on guitar would translate well to mandolin and piano. If you think about how a piano works it is also a stringed instrument (you just dont play the string directly). I hope you will find much enjoyment on your musical journey.

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