Guitar Tab: Learn How To Read Guitar Tab And What Notation Program To Purchase


Guitar Tab - Primer on How to Read it

Guitar Tab Plays an Important Part in How to Play the Guitar

Georgia Luthier Supply
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Reading Guitar Tab

If you are not familiar with the term guitar tab, you are in the right place. We will start with the very beginning essentials on how to read this music notation style.

Tab is short for tabulation. What it does is places the note for the guitar (or any stringed instrument for that matter) in graphical format. This can give the musician who cannot read music, inroads to arrangements without having to depend completely on practice by ear techniques.

Tab is also a great tool for those who can read music. I find it very easy to read and less taxing on your thought process. So even if you are well versed in reading musical notation, tabulation would be something you want to add to your arsenal.

Tabulation is written for all stringed instruments from mandolin, to banjo, guitar to bass. Why even play musical notation? Even though tab can capture almost all of the musical nuances, notation will always be the standard by which we play music.

Let's take a look at how tabs are formed:
C Major Scale

This guitar tab is for fingerstyle guitar and more specifically, classical guitar. The song is the first 15 measures of Eric Clapton's Version of Classical Gas.

This example of guitar tab is the most basic form of tab you may find and is known as ASCII. It is also the most prevalent. To create this tab the author does not need any special software, just a text edit program using a fixed font for everything. Unfortunately, this kind of tab gives you little feedback for timing of each note and within each measure.

If you do come across a version of ASCII tab you can't do without and you want to load it into your notation software program, check out Guitar Pro by eMedia. This software is very reasonably priced and you can even get a trial demo copy to try for a couple of weeks. We love it here at Ultimate Guitar on Line and is our software choice for authoring all our arrangements.

You can get a rough ideas as the tab is divided into measures, but it is up to you to figure out the timing within each measure. Sometime there is descriptive information that will accompany the tab, giving you tips for playing, timing and the key signature.

All this means that with this style of tab, you will need to have some knowledge of the song, (familiar with it at least). Also, there is usually a midi file that accompanies the song to help you with basic timing.

Midi songs can also be slowed down with special software to allow you to read and play the tab at a much slower pace until you have the song memorized or can play it easily from the tab.

The horizontal lines that are on the tab do not represent staff lines, like they do in standard musical notation, but each represents a string on your instrument.

  • Guitar will have 6 lines, one for each string
  • Banjo will have 4 or 5 depending on a 4 or 5 string banjo
  • Bass, Mandolin and Violin will have 4 lines. This is true for a tenor guitar and ukulele which also have 4 strings.
  • The top line represents the high "E" or first string on the guitar as the bottom line represents the low "E" or 6th string.

    The hardest thing for trained musicians to overcome is that there is no correlation to the musical staff. But, once you become accustomed to the difference it is real easy.

    This example of guitar tab is the most basic form of tab you may find. It is also the most prevalent. To create this tab the author needs no special software, just a text edit program using a fixed font for everything.

    Unfortunately, this kind of tab gives you little feedback for timing of each note. You can get a rough ideas as the tab is divided into measures, but it is up to you to figure out the timing within each measure.

    This means you will need to have some knowledge of the song, (familiar with it at least). Also, there is usually a midi file that accompanies the song

    The chord indications on top of each guitar tab measure give you good feedback as to how the notes are formed, because usually the notes follow the chord forms quite closely. For example, look at the first measure. There are (3) notes - the "C" on the second string, the open "A" and the "A" on the 2nd fret of the third string. All three of these notes follow the Am chord form exactly.

    The 2nd and 3rd measures of this guitar tab do the same with the "G" chord and the "Em" chord. The 4th measure again forms (3) of the Aminor chord form.

    Also note that when note indications on different strings are directly over each other, they are played together at the same time. This is called a "pinch" because it's like to pinch the thumb and from one to three fingers together. When playing with a flat pick, when notes are directly over each other, it designates a chord strum.

    Ornamentation of Notes:

    Ornamentations of notes. These are descriptors in the tab that document special effects. Here are a few:

    Hammer-on:

    This is a special effect that gets more "mileage" out of a picked note because you actually pick the first note with your right hand once and "hammer-on" with another finger, on the same string, while holding the first or picked note to get the second note. Refer to the above diagram, in the 7th measure, and note the hammer-on by the "0h2" designation.

    Let's try it!
  • Play the second or "b" note open with your right hand then hammer-on your first finger on the second string to sound a "c" note.
  • Work on it until you sound both notes very clearly and the with practice the second note can have just as much volume as the first note.
  • Now try it with 2 fingered notes rather than an open string:

    Place your first finger on the first fret of the second string or a "c" note. While holding that note, hammer on your third finger on the 3rd fret of the second string for a "d" note.

    Spend some time with these hammer-on combinations:
  • 1st hammer-on 2nd
  • 1st hammer-on 3rd
  • 2nd hammer-on 3rd
  • Open String hammer on 1st
  • Open String hammer on 2nd
  • Open String hammer on 3rd
  • Pull-off:

    Basically the reverse of a hammer-on. Here is how you do it.

  • You place both fingers on their respective notes that they will play.
  • The higher note is picked and the second note is played by flicking or "pulling-of" your finger to sound the second note.
  • A trick it to pull your left-hand finger directly toward the palm of your hand to get a clear sound.
  • Don't get too discouraged with this one as you have to develop finger strength to to it correctly. Just spend some time in practice with different notes and fingers.

    Here are some finger combinations to try:
  • 3rd to 1st finger
  • 3rd to 2nd finger
  • 3rd to "Open string"
  • 2nd to "Open string"
  • 1st to "Open string"
  • Most often the 4th finger is left out of this exercise as it lacks the strength to pull-off a string.

    Special note for your fingers in the first position is this:
  • The first finger plays note on the first fret
  • The second finger plays notes on the second fret
  • The third finger plays notes on the third fret
  • The fourth finger plays notes on the fourth fret
  • This holds true for about 90% of the notes.

    Hammer-On Pull-Off Combination:

    This technique combines both of the ornamentations together into what is more technically called a slur. One note is picked and you first hammer-on the note, then use the same finger to pull-off the note, arriving at the original picked note. So, three note for the price of one.

    Look at the 12th measure of the tab diagram and you see: "0h1p0".

    In your mind you say:

    "Open Second to Hammer-on First to Pull-off Open Second String"

    The "h" indicates hammer-on for the first fret, 2nd string The "p" indicates you pull-off the note you just hammered-on back to the open "b" note (where you started).

    Easy enough? Nope not at all. This takes considerable practice to get it just right. You will get it right though and soon you will not even think about and you just add it to your arsenal of guitar licks.

    In our next article on Reading Guitar Tab we will explore the more graphic guitar tab authoring programs.

    Click HERE for Part 2