Reading TAB

This is a lesson on reading TAB (tablature)

What is TAB? How do I read it, use it, or write it? What does it offer? What are its limitations?

TAB is the abbreviation for tablature. Tablature is a means of communicatingmusic for string instruments. Although it has been around for a long time, its popularity has dramatically increased since the 1980s (with their widespread proliferation through guitar magazines). Nowadays, they've found their way into instruction manuals, and even incorporated into musical scores.

Tablature consists of a number of horizontal lines which represent the strings of the instrument you're playing. So a 6-string guitar has 6 horizontal lines, a 7-string guitar has 7 horizontal lines, an electric bass has 4 lines, a 5-string bass has 5 lines, etc. A 12-string guitar has 6 lines (one for each pair of strings), a mandolin has 4 lines, a banjo has 4 or 5 lines depending on the number of strings.

Sympathetic or drone strings are generally not notated. And in general any string instrument that is merely plucked but not pressed down onto a surface is not notated with TAB (e.g. pianos, harps, harpsichords, psaltrys, etc.) It is possible to write TAB for fretless instruments (such as violins, fretless basses, uprights, shamisens, etc.). I've yet to see TAB for sitars (up to 60 strings, moveable frets, sympathetic and drone strings) but maybe one day. The medium of TAB is highly flexible.

Typically, the lines represent the strings in order from lowest sounding (on the bottom) to highest sounding (on top). On a 6 string guitar, that means the lowest line would represent the low E-string. The 2nd lowest linje would represent the A string, etc., Like so:


Sometimes people will write in the letters, sometimes they won't. Unless otherwise noted, the above string/line designations are the accepted norm for 6-string guitar tablatures. What if we are in another tuning (different than standard tuning = EADGBE)? We can put the tuning letters in front of the lines, or write the tuning above the staff at the beginning of the tune.

Ok, now that we understand what the horizontal lines mean...

We write TAB using numbers that represent notes being played at that time. The numbers tell us what fret is being fingered, with 0 being used for open notes. time is expressed from left to right, and if you see more than one note stacked in the same spot, that means you play those notes at the same time.

many things that can be notated in standard notation can also be notated in tablature. For example:

p = pull-off
h = hammer-on
sl = slide
gl = glissando
T = tap
( ) used to show that a note is ounding but wasn't attacked at that time (such as a tied note or bent note)

Here is an example of a fill (piece of melody) in TAB that has open notes, and pull-offs.



Here is an example of a chord (C) in TAB.


The above chord means the same thing as


And sometimes when reading chords on the net (or web, whatever) we see this chord written as C=X32010, which we can see now is a form of TAB where X means "don't play this string", 0 means "play this string open", and the numbers say 'play this string at this fret".

What doesn't TAB do or tell us?

1.) TAB tells us where to put our fingers, not what notes we are actually playingh. this can be compensated for by memorizing the names of the notes on the frets on the strings.

2.) TAB offers a vague sense of timing/rhythm. It is generally assumed that you have access to a recording of the music, or know the song (in your head) in order to properly interpret the rhythm. The TAB can be amended by adding barlines, placing rhythm marks above the staff, etc.

3.) TAB doesn't distinguish between voices. A clever transcriptionist may find ways to indicate particular notes being held, or break voices into different staffs, etc.

Well that wraps it up for now. You can find a TAB legend (to explain common symbols) in most guitar magazines. Go to your library and see what they've got or can get.

Below is a fingering exercise to develop finger agaility, muscle memory, and eventually speed. Every note gets the same amount of time. listen carefully to every note. Strive for accuracy and a clean tone (speed will come on its own). This may sound silly now, but sing (out loud) with every note that you play.






Chris Roberts

*note: this lesson crosses several lesson streams. Carefully read the link descriptions if you're moving document to document, and not from an index page.

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Last updated December 24, 2002.
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