How to Easily Read Guitar Tabs: Tips for Reading Guitar Tabs the Easy Way

If you’ve never had any professional training, lessons, and didn’t learn any music theory while you were in school, the chances are that you aren’t somebody who can read sheet music.

Typically, when you learn how to play guitar in a school or private lesson session, you’re going to learn how to play scales, how to read sheet music, what different clefs are, and other music theory skills. Learning how to read sheet music fluently requires a lot of time and practice out of an individual. It can even take up to several years for a musician to be able to read sheet music on the fly fluently.

Guitar tabs are the natural way of reading sheet music. They offer a shorter and faster way to learn how to play songs, without requiring a whole lot of music theory training to be able to play fluently. Guitar tabs allow you to learn where to positions your fingers to be able to produce your notes.

The most significant downside to learning how to play guitar tabs in comparison to learning how to read sheet music is that you aren’t able to see tempo, dynamic changes, rhythm, or another musical ques.

While being able to read the sheet, music doesn’t mean that you’re a better musician than another person, the same goes for being able to read guitar tabs. It is entirely possible to learn how to fluently be able to read both guitar tabs and sheet music, as doing this will allow you to be a well-rounded musician.

Guitar tabs basics

If you’re learning how to play a six-string guitar, you’re going to want to get your hands on some six-string guitar tabs. For six strings tablature, you’re going to find that your tabs are writing using six horizontal lines, where each line is representing a string. For example:

  • E————
  • B————
  • G————
  • D————
  • A————
  • E————-

The bottom line is going to be your thickest string, which is your low E string if you’re in standard tuning.The top line is your thinnest string, which is referred to as high E. You read tablature from top to bottom, reading: high E, B, G, D, A, low E.

Understanding this basic tip will help to ensure that reading tabs will become a lot easier through practice, even if you aren’t too quick when it comes to finger placement.

When learning how to read tabs, you’ll also want to make sure that you have a solid understanding of what is a fret is and the placement of your frets. In the writing of tabs, the fret closest to the headstock is going to be labeled as ‘1’.

Frets are labeled as 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. as you move down the fretboard, towards the body of the guitar. If you happen to see a 0, you will not be placing any finger on that string. While learning guitar tabs is a lot easier and faster to learn that learning how to read sheet music, being able to fluently read guitar tabs is going to require time, patience, and practice to master it fully.

As a piece of advice, start off learning how to play guitar tab in small increments; don’t try to spend all of your time in one day to be able to master reading tablature.

Common symbols to look for

The more tablature that you become introduced to, you’re going to start running into symbols and letters in addition to your primary numbers. These symbols and letters are ques to let you know that you should apply some guitar technique when playing. We’ve created a list of some standard symbols and letters that you’re most likely going to run into, as well as what you should do when you see them.

– Bends: – B-

Bends are an extremely popular technique that is commonly used in guitar solos. You can typically find them being represented as ‘3-B-5’ or ‘5-B-7’. To bend a note, you’re going to hold the note on the fifth fret, and as you play, you’re going to push with your left index finger to bend the string. By bending the string, you’re looking to change the pitch of the string to match the pitch of the same string that has on the 7th fret.

– Muted notes: x

If you see an x over a note, this is going to let you know that that is supposed to be a muted note. To produce a muted note, you’re going to hold your finger down on a string without pressing down a fret. It produces a soft, yet muted sound.

– Vibrato: ~

Vibrato is achieved by quickly bending the releasing the bend.

– Hammer ons H-

Hammer ons are queued by the letter H showing up between two numbers. For example- 3-H-5. You will apply the hammer on technique by playing the fifth fret note and use a different finger to press down on the seventh fret on the same string, while the fifth fret note is still singing. H

– Slides: \ or /

Slides are identified with a backslash or a forward slash between notes, such as 5/7 or 7\5. If you see one of these, you are going to hold a note down with one of your fingers and ass you’re playing this note; you are going to slide your finger up or down the neck of the guitar, down to the next note. A forward slash shows that you need to slide up the neck of the guitar, while the backslash lets you know that you need to slide down to your next note.

– Down strokes: U

The symbol for a down stroke looks like a square upside down ‘U.’ In tabs, if there is a sign indicating that you should down stroke on a particular note or a chord, you should strum downwards. Not all tabs come with specific picking patterns, so feel free to experiment with your sound with tabs that don’t have any particular queues.

– Up strokes: V

Up strokes indicate that you should strum upwards.

How to read guitar tabs for single notes

Reading guitar tabs is just like reading a book. You’re going to want to read your tabs from left to right. When it comes to single notes in a tab, these are going to be represented by one number on one string. If you happen to come across stacked numbers, you’re going to play these all at the same time, which creates a chord.

How to read guitar tabs with chords

Once you understand how to read guitar tabs for single notes correctly, you’re now going to want to move forward and begin to learn how to read tabs for guitar chords. In tablature, you’re going to see numbers stacked on top of each other, which directs that you are going to playing a chord. A chord looks like this when written in tabs:

  • E—-0—-
  • B—-1—-
  • G—-0—-
  • D—-2—-
  • A—-3—-
  • E—-0—–

When you are learning how to play chords while reading guitar tabs, make sure you start out with learning just a few basic chords to get your fingers used to respond to your brain in that manner.

It’s going to feel awkward at first, but the more you practice, the more you’re going to get used to it.

To get used to everything quicker, make sure that when you’re first starting out practicing your finger placement, you’re going at everything slow. This way, this will help to ensure that you’re hitting your strings correctly, without muting other strings accidentally

It’s better to learn this correctly the first time than having to break a bad habit. Also, ensure that you’re comfortable with the location of your frets. This will help to do the reading and placing your fingers a lot faster, making the entire learning process a lot easier for you.

How to read guitar tabs for riffs

Even if you aren’t an experienced musician, you probably have heard of the term guitar riff. A guitar riff is a collection of notes that is repeated several times throughout the song. Guitar riffs are easily recognizable but are also very easy to play as well. In guitar tabs, a riff will look like this:

  • E—————————
  • B—————————-
  • G——0—-4—-0—2—-
  • D—2——2—-2———–
  • A-2—————————
  • E—0—-3—-4—————

When you’re playing riffs like this, you’re going to start reading from the left and work towards the right of the tabs, playing each note. If you are someone who is just getting started reading tabs, don’t get upset if you’re finding that you need a couple of tries to get the riff correct.

Programs to help you learn to read tabs

If you are someone who is interested in learning how to play guitar and how to read guitar tabs fluently, private guitar lessons may be an excellent choice for you. However, if you are not someone who can afford private lessons, several other options are available for you!

There are online guitar courses/programs that you can take for a fraction of the price that a private lesson would cost you and sometimes even for free! Here’s a quick little list of online guitar programs that you can look at that provide guitar tab training:

For Android:

For iOS:


Using guitar tabs allows a guitarist to expand the variety of music that they can play. This without having to learn how to read sheet music and learn complicated music theory. While guitar tabs don’t have the queues that allow composers to direct musicians to insert specific musical techniques, tabs have permitted millions of new musicians to easily share their passion for music among different languages and experience levels.

About the Author Danny Trent

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