How to read guitar tabs: Tabs simply explained

If you can't (or don't want to) read sheet music, there's a simple remedy, especially for the guitar and bass instruments: tablature, or tabs for short. Here you are not dealing with a regular staff (notation), but with a simplified, pictorial representation of notes on the fretboard.

Our guitar teacher Thomas has made a video for you. If you prefer to read, you will find the necessary information in this article.

Example of a tab

The following example shows a simple guitar tab. Basically, you read tabs from bottom to top, because the lines represent the individual strings on a guitar from the guitarist's point of view. The bottom line represents the low E-string, the top line the high E-string.

The numbers represent the position of the finger on the fretboard. For example, if there is a "2" on the A string, the second fret on the A string is played, if there is a "3", the third fret is played, and so on. If there is a "0" in the tabs, it means that the corresponding string is played empty.

If the numbers are in one vertical line, you play the notes at the same time. If they are slightly offset, play them shortly after each other.

This tab is played as follows:

  • at first, fret 3 on the E-string

  • shortly thereafter fret 5 on the A-string, fret 5 on the D-string and fret 4 on the G-string simultaneously

  • then fret 3 on the B-string and fret 3 on the high e-string at the same time.

The chord C major, for example, looks like this in tabs:

Tab symbols: recognizing and understanding them

To identify hammer-ons, pull-offs, etc. as mentioned earlier, the following overview of the different symbols will help:

p - pull-off

/ - slide up

\ - slide down

h - hammer-on

b - bend string up

r - release bend

v - vibrato (or ~)

t - tap (with the right hand)

x - play "note" very strongly muted

PM - palm muting: strings are muted with the palm of the strumming hand

Examples of playing techniques with symbols

To give you a better understanding of the symbols, here are some tab examples for you to play:

Hammer-on

A hammer-on is performed by hitting a note and then tapping the following note with another finger of your fretting hand. This makes the note sound in a special way. Hammer-ons are always a deeper note followed by a higher note on the same string.

Pull-off

A Pull-off is played by playing one note and pulling the fretting finger from the string in a way, that the string keeps on ringing. But since the initially played note is not fretted anymore, a deeper note is audible. In this example you fret both the fifth and the seventh fret, play the string and pull the finger from the seventh fret, but keep the finger on the fifth fret.

Bending

Here you pull the string upwards until the second indicated note sounds.

Recognize special symbols in tablatures

r = Release Bend
Example: 7b9r7
The bent note is released back to the original note.

/ oder \ = Slides
Example: 7/9\7
You play a note, slide your finger up or down the string (without lifting) and let the next note ring without plucking the string again.

Ascending slide: "/"

Descending slide: "\"

/ oder \ = Shift-Slides

Beispiel: /7 oder 7\
If there is no fret indication in front of the slide symbol, you slide your finger very quickly from any fret along the string and strike only during this slide, i.e. immediately before the indicated fret sounds.

If, on the other hand, the slide symbol is behind the fret indication, you first play the note in the indicated fret and just before it should stop sounding, you perform a quick slide that barely sounds.

~ oder v = vibrato
Make the pitch vibrate by playing a note and moving your finger up and down quickly, but only with a small range of motion.

x = dead note

Place the finger of the fretting hand on the string in order to dampen it. The result is a percussive sound.

PM = palm mute
Place the palm of your strumming hand on the strings next to the bridge. If you then play the notes, they will sound muted. The further up you position your hand toward the neck, the more dampening you get.

t = tapping
Example: 5t12p
Tapping works almost like a Hammer-on, but instead of using another finger of your fretting hand, you use a finger of the strumming hand. That way you can achieve higher intervals compared to a Hammer-on and you can also combine tapping with Hammer-ons and Pull-offs.

< > = Natural harmonics or flageolet.

Example: <5>

To create natural harmonics (very distinct tones), you don't press your finger in the middle of the fret as usual, but just touch the string exactly above the indicated fret bar.

tr = triller

Example: 3tr5

Play the first and the second note alternating and really fast, over and over again.

TP = tremolo picking

Play the same note over and over again as fast as possible.

Advantages of guitar tabs

Tabs help you...

  • ...identify the correct note on the guitar - it shows on which string and which fret the note is to be played

  • ...find out when to use a pull-off, bending, slide, hammer-on or other techniques

  • ...determine which guitar tuning is correct or if a capo should be used.

  • ...to get a very basic understanding of the rhythm

Disadvantages of Tabs

Guitar tabs will not help you if...

  • ...you need exact information about note length or rhythm, as it is the case with a regular staff (notation)

  • ...you are searching for an exact fingering

  • ...you want to know if you should strum with an upstroke or a downstroke (some tabs do include that information, but most do not)

written by:
Mirco Sontag
Mirco Sontag

Guitar teacher

Post last updated: 10.08.2023
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