If you’ve taken an interest in learning how to play the guitar, then you’ve undoubtedly heard of guitar tabs at least once or twice.
Guitar tabs are integral to your musical journey and they’ll open the doors for you to learn all kinds of songs in whatever genre you like.
If you’ve held back from learning how to read guitar tablature because you think it’s too complicated or overwhelming, you’re in luck!
This guide will help you get started and you’ll be on your way to learning your favorite songs in no time!
Familiarize yourself with the numbering systems for fingers, strings, and frets.
One of the first things that you should learn about guitar tabs is that there are several numbering systems for you to learn. The same number can mean different things depending on where you see it, and knowing the difference is crucial.
Fingers: Your fingers are numbered one through four from pointer to pinky. Your pointer finger is number one, your middle finger is number two, your ring finger is number three, and your pinky is number four. You can see this in the diagram of a left hand below:
These are the numbers you’ll most often run across when reading chord boxes because they’re what change the most: Guitar strings, after all, tend to stay more or less in the same place.
Strings: You’ve probably heard at least one artist reference their “six-string” during a catchy song! Guitar strings are simply numbered from top to bottom when you hold the guitar to fret with your left hand.
One way to remember this is to remind yourself that the thickest string is the first, the next one down is the second, and so on. Since the numbers assigned to your guitar strings do not change, they are generally implied rather than written out in a way that would clutter the tablature.
Another great way to get comfortable with the strings is to learn this mnemonic phrase: “Every Amateur Does Get Better Eventually”. The first letter of each word stands for the key of the corresponding guitar string, and you simply start at the top and work your way down one string at a time to get familiar with the numbers!
Frets: The frets are the bars that run horizontally across the neck of your guitar. You press the strings against the frets in specific patterns in order to create the right notes and chords. These are numbered very simply from top to bottom. The first fret encompasses both the first bar you see and the space between it and the guitar nut that braces the strings. Numerically, you just work your way down from there as displayed in this diagram:
What are Guitar Tabs?
Guitar tablature, also known as guitar tabs or TAB, is different from the type of sheet music you’d use to play the piano. You don’t need to know how to read sheet music written for other instruments in order to read guitar tabs!
Take a look at how the sheet music and guitar tabs for the childhood classic “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” compare. The standard notation is on the top of each row, and the guitar tablature is labeled on the bottom:
You can probably already see how different the two types of notation are just by looking at them side-by-side! Keep in mind that, while knowledge of traditional sheet music might help you get started more easily with guitar tablature, you can also learn to read guitar tabs without ever having touched it.
One thing to be aware of is that a lot of free tablature you can find online is written out with keyboard characters and dashes. It may look different but it gives you all the same basic information:
Many beginners prefer text-based tabs that look nice and simple over those that have standard notation alongside them. Others prefer it the other way around since sheet music for guitar provides more rhythmic information. Your choice is entirely your own–just experiment and find what you’re most comfortable with!
What types of information can you find in the tablature?
Guitar tabs are written specifically for guitar, and they mirror the structure of the instrument. In fact, all you have to do is tip a chord box over on its left side to see it! If you’re having trouble visualizing it, don’t worry: We’ll go into more detail about chord boxes later and you’ll have some diagrams to compare. Each of the horizontal lines in the guitar tab represents–you guessed it–one of the strings on your guitar.
One detail to note that sometimes throws beginners off is that the strings are represented “upside-down” in guitar tablature. Remember the mnemonic “Every Amateur Does Get Better Eventually”? Well, while that handy phrase names the strings from top to bottom on the guitar itself, it goes from bottom to top on the tablature. This might sound a bit odd at first, but you’ll catch on once you start playing the tabs and realize that it actually matches what you see when you look down at your fretboard to get into position.
One last thing: Sometimes you might see guitar tabs with a string labeled with a different key than the default, deviating from our handy mnemonic. When you see that, it likely just means that this string is tuned differently for that particular piece of music.
Each number that you see on the guitar tab represents the number of the fret where you will press the string. If you see the numeral “3” on the A string, like at the beginning of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” then you should press the A string down on the third fret.
The sequence of numbers in the tab is read from left to right. That means that you should play the note farthest to the left first, regardless of its height on the tab, and work your way to the right from there. This is another detail that may be second nature if you have previous experience with sheet music, but it is extremely easy to remember even if you haven’t.
One bit of information that’s conspicuously absent on guitar tablature is a number to tell you which finger to use to fret the note. The only way to learn this is by learning traditional hand shapes, practicing chords, and getting a good feel for your instrument!
Just about the only time you’ll see numbers on the tablature that don’t correspond with where you’ll fret is when you see a zero. When you see the zero, or “O” you should play that string in open position without fretting it, just like you would if you saw the O on a chord box. This enables you to form more complex sounds and give the piece much more body.
One more detail: If you see multiple frets numbered on the tab that line up vertically then you play those notes at the same time. The same goes for strings played in open position: Play them simultaneously if they’re stacked on top of each other on the tab. It’s as simple as that!
All in good time:
Let’s move on to timing. Unfortunately, timing is more difficult to gather from guitar tablature. Many tabs don’t specify timing at all, which will require you to listen to someone else’s rendition of the song and catch onto the rhythm by ear.
When people do write down the timing for guitar tablature, they often do it in different ways based on personal preference rather than adhering to a universal norm. So, your best bet is to listen to your favorite guitar songs and then practice until you get a feel for them yourself!
What about special symbols?
There are tons of songs out there that spice things up by pulling in other techniques such as slides and bends. These all have their own special symbols that show up accordingly in the tablature. While you shouldn’t let yourself get hung up on these too early on in your journey as a guitarist, here are a few that you’re likely to encounter as you progress:
Again: Beginner guitarists shouldn’t worry too much about these! If you run across them while you learn, simply familiarize yourself with them as they come and practice them when they appear.
So, what’s the difference between chord boxes and guitar tabs?
Now that you’ve nailed down the right numbering systems and gained some solid knowledge of guitar tabs, let’s break chord boxes down in more detail. A lot of beginners are eager to dive into music written for guitar but wind up confused if they don’t realize that chord boxes and guitar tabs are two different things!
Chord boxes enable you to familiarize yourself with the hand shapes you’ll use to form chords on the guitar and build a solid foundation for your music.
Let’s dive right in! Here is a basic chord box, or chord diagram, for a D Major chord:
You might already be able to get a vague idea of what this chord box is all about just by looking at it. If you compare it with your guitar, you’ll find that each of the six vertical lines in the diagram mirror the six strings on your instrument. As you saw in the first diagram, the horizontal lines represent the fret bars on your guitar, even though they might look a bit different packed so closely together.
The black dots over the strings in the diagram stand for the tip of each finger that you’ll use to press down the string so that it’s held against the right fret to create the proper sound. By the way, don’t forget how important it is to press the strings with the very tips of your fingers instead of with your flattened finger pads! Using only your fingertips will keep the notes nice and crisp.
The numbers at the bottom of the chord box sometimes trip up unwary beginners: Those numbers stand for your fingers, not for the guitar strings. That’s part of why learning the different numbering systems is so important! Remember that the numbers count away from your thumb, beginning with your pointer finger. So, to form the right hand shape for the D Major chord in the diagram, you’ll use your pointer, middle, and ring fingers.
Now, if you direct your attention to the top of the chord box, there’s still more useful information packed into the diagram. Remember that the thicker bar at the top of the chord box signifies the guitar nut that braces the strings at the very top of the fretboard. When you see this, you know that the chord is played in “open position.” This implies that at least one of the strings will be left alone and lets you know that you’ll be playing the chord without a capo.
So, how do you know which strings to pick and which to let rest? Well, if you look at the top of the chord box to find the X and O markings, you’ll find out! If there’s an X above a particular string, then you won’t pick that string. Referring to the D Major chord as an example once more: The two X marks above the E and A strings indicate that you will not play them.
If there is an O or no marking at all, then you will use that string when you strum the chord. Traditionally, there is no O marking above a string that has a finger number in the diagram: if you’re fretting the string, then it’s implied that you’ll pick it to hear the sound that you’ve created!
If you’ve already encountered barre chords in your learning sessions, then you’ll be glad to know that it’s easy to spot these in chord boxes. All you have to look out for is the same finger number repeated across several strings in the diagram. This will generally be your first finger. Some people also include an arc over the box that sweeps over all strings to let you know straight away that you’re looking at a barre chord, just like in the F Major diagram below:
Guitar tabs and chord boxes aren’t as intimidating as they might seem to musicians who are just starting out! Familiarizing yourself with the details outlined here and taking advantage of great instructional videos like this one will give you all you need to get started. Refer back to the basics whenever you need to, but always remember that the best way to learn is by doing. Put in the time and work to practice diligently, and you’ll be on the road to a repertoire that includes all your favorites!
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Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.