How To Read Tabs For Guitar – Step By Step Explained

You might have read a lot about “tabs” online. What are these tabs, and why do we need them? Isn’t it enough to just read chords? And most importantly, how do you read them?

Here’s the good news: It’s quite simple. You don’t need to know much about music theory and you don’t need to know how to read notes. It’s something that can be learned in a short time. And once you know how to do it, it’s a skill that will be useful for the rest of your guitar playing life. A skill that will help you learn songs efficiently, which will lead to you getting better at guitar.

Tablatures

So what are they? Tabs (or tablature) are a form of musical notation. Instead of focusing on notes and musical pitch, as standard musical notation does, tabs focus on the position of the finger on the instrument. It will tell you exactly where to put your finger.

It’s very commonly used on the internet. Sites like Ultimate-Guitar have over a million songs cataloged in their database. But even centuries ago it was common. The following picture shows a tablature from the 16th century.

How to read tabs for guitar

Are Tabs Necessary?

No. You can just learn standard notation and you will be absolutely fine.

But: learning standard notation takes a lot of time to master. Learning how to read tabs takes about the length of this article. After that, it’s just a matter of getting better at it whilst doing it. As mentioned before, it’s also very commonly used on the internet. It takes about 20 seconds to find six tabs of your favorite song. It’s a lot harder with standard music notation. The beginning phase of learning how to play the guitar should be as exciting as possible. Not being able to learn your favorite song because it’s not online, is simply discouraging.

What Do They Look Like?

This is the font of a guitar tab:

E|---------------------
B|---------------------
G|---------------------
D|---------------------
A|---------------------
E|---------------------

The six lines represent the six strings on a guitar. The letters before the lines are the notes of the open strings:

How to read tabs for guitar

The bottom line represents the thickest string of your guitar. In the beginning, this may make it feel like tabs are upside-down.

How to read tabs for guitar

This would mean that the second string from above (the one that has the B before it) is this one:

How to read tabs for guitar

How To Read Tabs For Guitar?

-Singular notes:
E|--------------
B|--------------
G|--------------
D|--------------
A|--3-----------
E|--------------

So where do we play this note? First, we look at which string we’re supposed to play. It’s the A string. Then we count our frets:

How to read tabs for guitar

-Guitar tabs are read from left to right:
E|--------------
B|--------------
G|--------------
D|-----2--------
A|--3-----------
E|--------------

First, we play the third fret on the A string, then we play the second fret on the D string:

How to read tabs for guitar

Chords:

Sometimes you’ll see multiple notes vertically under each other:

E|--0-----------
B|--1-----------
G|--0-----------
D|--2-----------
A|--3-----------
E|--------------

These notes are played at the same time with a single strum.

In this case this is a simple C major chord:

How to read tabs for guitar

-Combining chords and single notes:

A combination of chords and single notes looks like this:

E|--0-----------------
B|--1-----------------
G|--0-----------0-----
D|--2--------2--------
A|--3-----3--------3--
E|--------------------

First, we play the C chord, then we play the third fret on the A string, then we play the second fret on the D string, then we play an open G string and we end on the third fret of the A string again.

It should sound like this:

Exercises

So now we know how to read them it’s really just a matter of doing it. That’s the only way to get better at them. But before you leave this page and start looking for your favorite song (which you really should do), here are some exercises. You can do these exercises however you want. My advice is to try to read the tabs first, play it on your guitar, and then listen to my version if you played it correctly. Your rhythm might be off, that’s very normal.

Exercise 1

E|-----------------------
B|------------------0--1-
G|------------0--2-------
D|---0--2--3-------------
A|-3---------------------
E|-----------------------

If you played it correctly it should sound like this.

If you’ve read this post this might sound familiar, because it’s a C major scale.

Exercise 2

E|-----------------0--
B|--------------0--0--
G|-----------0-----0--
D|--------2--------2--
A|-----2-----------2--
E|--0--------------0--

If you played it correctly it should sound like this.

Exercise 3

E|-0----0----3----2-
B|-0----1----0----3-
G|-0----0----0----2-
D|-2----2----0----0-
A|-2----3----2------
E|-0---------3------

If you played this correctly it should sound like this:

We discussed these four chords in this lesson.

Outro

For now, I think we’ve covered the most important aspects of how to read tabs on guitar. But sometimes there will be letters and symbols in a tab, which refer to special techniques. I will focus on those in another blog. I don’t think beginning guitarists should worry about those yet. If you have any questions about those though, or about anything else in this lesson, please leave them below.

Happy strumming,

Timo

2 thoughts on “How To Read Tabs For Guitar – Step By Step Explained

  1. Hello Timo,

    I found this article to be very helpful and informative. I always wanted to learn more songs but never knew how to learn them. My teacher said tabs are better not to be used and makes me read real notes (standard notation). 

    Your exercises are very helpful to me! Thank you very much!

    Daniel

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Teachers often don’t like tabs because it kinda feels like cheating. I always advise people to learn standard notation as well, but when you’re just starting out you just want to play songs. 

      Thanks for your comment!

      Timo

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