How to Read a Guitar Tab for Beginners

how to read a guitar tab
A guitar tab shows you the strings and frets that are to be played, as well as some techniques that are to be applied, such as slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, vibrato, etc. Let’s learn how to read a guitar tab!

What is a guitar tab or tablature?

A guitar tab is a system of notation that graphically represents music by showing you the strings and frets that are to be played. It also can show some degree of “feel” or technique with slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slurs, vibrato, etc. I prefer to read tabs, since these are somewhat of a shortcut system and much easier to read than standard music notation!

How do I read a guitar tab?

In tabs, a note is represented by placing a number (which indicates the fret to play), on the appropriate string. One thing that tablature does not illustrate is the duration of notes. It does not tell you how long a note should be held out. That being said, most people don’t use tablature unless it’s a song that they already know and can hum, so that part becomes less of an issue, except with more intricate parts.

Each line represents a string on the guitar. The thickest string is the bottom line and the thinnest string is the top line. So basically, it’s the opposite of the way that you think it might be. One way to remember this is to think of the higher lines as the higher pitched strings and the lower lines as the lower pitched strings.

Guitar tab

The numbers placed on those lines represent the frets. Tablature does NOT tell you what fingers to use. That is where a good guitar instructor or proper technique comes in handy!

When numbers are placed vertically like below, you will play them like a chord, as in a strum. Below is a G major chord.

guitar tab notes

Guitar Tab Symbols

The following tablature symbols that you will find on a guitar tab represent various techniques:

h – hammer ontr – trill
p – pull-offT – tap
b – bend stringTP or 3 diagonal lines under note – tremelo picking
/ – slide upPM – palm muting
\ – slide down\n/ – tremelo bar dip; n=amount to dip
v – vibrato (sometimes written as ~)\n – tremelo bar down
t – pick hand tapn/ – tremelo bar up
Harm – natural harmonic/n\ – tremelo bar inverted dip
A.H. – artificial harmonic< > – volume swell (louder/softer)
A.T. – tapped harmonicx – on rhythm slash represents muted slash

Main Guitar Techniques

I’ll give you a short description of all the techniques mentioned in the table but, really and truly, you just need to focus on the first 5 or 6 techniques if you’re a beginner – I rarely use the other ones!

Hammer On

A “hammer-on” is a technique performed by sharply bringing a fretting-hand finger down on the fingerboard behind a fret causing a note to sound. For our example here, you would pick the fifth fret and hammer the seventh or eighth fret as indicated. As the name indicates, hammer your finger in a quick snapping motion so that the string does not have time to fade out.

hammer on guitar tab

Pull-Off

A “pull-off” is the opposite of a hammer-on. A pull-off is a technique performed by plucking a string by “pulling” the string off the fingerboard with one of the fingers being used to fret the note. For our example here, you would pick the seventh or eighth fret as indicated and pull-off to the fifth fret. As its name indicates, pulling your finger off the fingerboard in a snapping motion causes the string to vibrate as if picked.

pull off guitar tab

Bend

A bend is represented by the symbol ‘b’ or an arrow bending up or down. A bend occurs when the guitarist physically pushes the string across the fret board causing a change in pitch. Since bend vary in duration and style, often times each arrow is illustrated differently. Often times, the word “full”, or “1/2” will be written along with this, indicating that the note should be bent up either one whole-step or one half-step. Bends of larger intervals can occur. Typically the actual pitch change will be denoted.

bend technique

Slide-Up/ Slide-Down

A slide-up occurs when a note is picked and slid up to another note. The second note is not picked, but instead is still vibrating from the previous pick and the agitation of the string during the slide. Opposite of a slide-up, a slide- down occurs when a note is picked and slide down to another note.

Slide technique

Vibrato

Vibrato is a pulsating effect by bending the string in a rhythmic fashion. This technique is created by bending the string up and down rhythmically or shaking the string. This effect works best after a string is picked.

vibrato technique

Tapping

The tapping technique is similar to a hammer-on, except it is done with the picking hand. It is almost always followed by a pull-off. The technique is performed when the picking hand taps the string hard enough to push the string against the fret creating a note to sound at that specific fret.

Tapping technique

Other Guitar Techniques

Harmonic (Natural)

A harmonic is a “chimed” string. This technique is produced by plucking the string while lightly touching the string over the indicated fret. The fret is not actually played in the traditional sense. When done correctly, a chime-like sound will be produced.

Harmonic (Artificial)

Artificial harmonics are also known as a pseudo-harmonics, pinch-harmonics or “squealies.” This technique requires allowing the string to lightly graze the side of your thumb after picking it. Don’t try to over-think the process. When you pick a note, allow your thumb to keep traveling towards the string until it mutes it. Once you get the hang of that, try letting the thumb just barely touch the string. If done properly, you will hear a slight chime.

Trill

The term “trill” is typically used when referring to a continuous back-and-forth, hammer on and pull-off of two notes.

Tremolo Picking

Tremolo picking refers to fast, repetitive picking on one note. This technique is achieved by quickly picking a note up and down. Typically tremolo picking refers to single notes (not chords).

Palm Muting

Palm muting refers to the muting of strings with the picking hand in order to create a percussive or staccato (sharp attack) effect on notes or chords. This technique is achieved by placing the picking hand palm on the bridge of the guitar just where the strings meet the bridge. Backing the hand further towards the bridge creates a more standard, open sound. Moving the hand slightly closer to the strings will create a tighter, more closed-type sound.

Tremolo Tricks

Slash used this technique to move the note down or up, or both in some fashion. Often times the targeted note will be denoted by the fret number, meaning that the designated fret number should be the desired pitch.

Volume Swell

This notation is used in tablature, musical notation and charts. Changing the volume can obviously be done in numerous ways.


Here is where I look for the guitar tabs whenever I want to learn how to play a song. Check it out now!

Check other posts about guitar in the Guitar section of my blog

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