How to read TAB: 5 Top Tips for Non-Guitarists

I always think of TAB as a bit like playing by numbers.  Or a grid reference on a map.  For years it confused me.  Why is it upside down?  What do the numbers mean?  Which line is which?  How do you know what rhythm to play?

For a lifelong wind player, learning a whole new notation system by myself has been a bit of a challenge.  But when I show students it is all worthwhile.  Suddenly a student can pick up a guitar and play a melody.  They may not know what notes they are playing or anything about the theory of music, but they are making music and having fun.

Have you downloaded the FREE KEYWORD SUPERFOLDER yet?  An amazing time-saving, workload-reducing pack of resources containing all keywords needed for GCSE/BTEC, with listening links and definitions.  Check it out HERE. 

So this is a post for you music teachers out there who, like me, have never been taught guitar or TAB but would love your students to be playing the instruments you have in your room.  And for you pro-guitarists out there.......walk on by, this post is not for you!!!


1. Which line is which?

TAB has always seemed to me to be upside down.  It is not a reflection of the guitar, as if you are looking in a mirror.  The lowest line represent the lowest pitched string (E), whilst the highest line is the highest pitched string (also E).  I have found that some students find it easier to lay the guitar flat on their lap so they can follow the TAB 'map' more logically.  


So anything appearing on the 'D' line should be played on the D string and so on. 



2. What do the numbers mean?

The numbers represent which fret to put your finger on.  For those of you who are still not sure, a fret refers to the vertical divisions on the fingerboard.  1 is nearest to the pegs, then 2 is the next semitone higher and so on. 

A '0' means to pluck an open string, so no left hand at all. 

This is why TAB reminds me of a grid reference - you find the string (y axis) and cross reference it with the fret (x axis) to find the correct pitch. 


3. How do we know what rhythm to play?

The majority of TAB simply depicts pitch and there is no evidence of rhythm.  So how do you know how to play the notes?  For those of brought up on good old fashioned notation this can be quite baffling.  Why create a notation system that only gives you half the information?

This is where aural tradition comes in.  TAB is a great way to improve a student's listening skills.  They have to hear the music and repeat it back, using TAB only to help them get the correct pitches.  The rhythm must come from their listening experience. 

Some advanced TABs do show some rhythmic markings.  In this excerpt I have copied the original notation into a TAB score and it has very helpfully included the rhythm beams.  


Another rhythm technique you may see is letter markings vertically aligned with a note.  These are labelled as:

  • = whole note / semibreve
  • h = half note / minim
  • q = quarter note / crotchet
  • e = eighth note / quaver
  • s = sixteenth note / semiquaver
  • & = a note or rest lies on the "and" of a certain beat
  • . = note or rest is dotted. eg q. = dotted quarter note


4. How do the numbers relate to chords?

Just as in traditional notation, numbers that are stacked up on top of each other denote a chord.   So in this example a I-V-VI-IV progression in root position looks like:



5. What are the numbers and symbols?

When I first started printing TAB off super helpful websites such as SongsterrUltimate Guitar and Guitar Pro Tabs I was somewhat confused by the enormous amount of symbols and seemingly random letters that are all over the TAB.  I have since learnt that these are to instruct the player on which technique to use.  There are so many guitar techniques that I'm not going to list them all here, but the most common seem to be:

  • = Hammer on
    • inserted between two notes, eg 6h8.  Sometimes you will see '^' instead
  • p = Pull off
    • inserted between two notes eg 8p6.  Sometimes you will see '^' instead.  The way you can tell the difference between a hammer on and pull off in this eventuality is that in a pull off the second note is lower, and in a hammer on the second note is higher
  • b = Bend
    • inserted between two notes eg 7b9 so that you play the first note then bend it up until it sounds like the second note
  • s = Slide
    • an ascending slide is marked by '/', whilst a descending slide is marked by a '\'
  • x = mute
    • sometimes marked by a dot, this means to mute the string


So do not be scared any longer of those alien guitars hanging around in your department.  They make a great change from keyboard work and, with a simple set of instructions, students can work independently to learn a huge library of pieces. 


Have you downloaded the FREE KEYWORD SUPERFOLDER yet?  An amazing time-saving, workload-reducing pack of resources containing all keywords needed for GCSE/BTEC, with listening links and definitions.  Check it out HERE.



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