How To Read Guitar Tabs

One of the most important skills you can have as a musician is to read music. Most people aren’t naturally able to play by ear, so most song learning will either come from someone showing them how to play it, or by them reading the music notes for it. Unfortunately, learning to read guitar notation, or guitar notes on a musical staff, can be quite confusing and intimidating for us guitarists since we have so many duplicate notes on our instrument. One note on a staff could potentially be in five different places on your guitar. So how do you even decide where to play a note like that? A lot of times it’s just up to your best judgement and the context of all the other notes. The good news is that us guitarists have a music notation system called tablature (tab for short) that is much easier to read. And while it may be true that tab has some pitfalls, it’s definitely the most popular choice among guitarists and bassists.

Getting Started With Guitar Tab

So how do you read tab? Well, it’s actually pretty easy. Let’s take a look at the picture below and notice how there are 6 lines going left to right. These lines represent the 6 strings on your guitar. And you can even see on the far left, or the start of the tab, that each line is labeled as one of your string names.

how to read tab
Now, for a long time when I was first learning to read tab, I’d always confuse the lines and read it upside down. I use to read the line on the bottom as the High E string, not the Low E string. I’ve actually noticed that a lot of people do this at first too because as you’re holding your guitar and looking down at it, it does seem like your thick, Low E string is on top, right? So when you look at the tab, that line on top seems like it should be the Low E. Well, as you might have guessed, it’s actually the opposite and the best way to remember this is to think of it like note pitches. The lowest pitch is on bottom, and going up, the highest pitch is at the top. So that would mean that the Low E string is on bottom and the High E is on top.

Understanding The Numbers

Now let’s look now at the tab again and figure out what all those numbers mean. These numbers on the lines are the fret number, or space number, that you play. So that 2 on the top line means that you play a 2nd fret on your High E string. The 3 on the B String means that you would play a 3rd fret on your 2nd string, B. When you get to that 0, this just means that you would play the string “open”, or without pressing any fret note down.

But What About Chords?

The last thing I want to show you is the stacked numbers. So far we’ve been reading one note at a time, going left to right. When numbers are stacked up and down like this in a vertical way, it means that you play them all at the same time, as a chord. This chord happens to be a G chord, and you’d strum every string that has a number on it, in this case, all six strings. In other words, when you find a chord that only has 5, or 4, or even 3 or 2 notes stacked on each other, you would only strum the strings that have a number on the line. If there’s no number on the line, then don’t strum that string.

Learn And Master The Basics First

Well, that should at least get you going on a basic introduction level of reading and playing tabs. There are all kinds of symbols that can be added to tab for notating different playing techniques and tricks, but these can quickly become overwhelming at first if you’re not totally comfortable with these fundamental starting points. In fact, there so many symbols that can appear in tabs, and really any music notation in general, that even I have to look up what some of them mean sometimes.
So for now, this should be a good starting point to getting you up and running with playing songs by tab. If you have any questions or comments, always feel free to post them in the comment section below.