If you want to get better at playing guitar and learn your favorite songs, you should learn how to read tablature. It will help in the long run.
By Kristin Bigness
Tabs, short for tablature, are shorthand charts that document music for stringed, fretted instruments like guitar and bass.
Tabs make it quick and easy to learn songs by telling you which strings to pluck and which frets to place your fingers on. If you’re familiar with guitar chord charts, they are really similar. Let’s get into it.
There are a few basic components to tabs, which we’ll cover here. For this post, we’ll show you two guitar tabs as examples, but keep in mind that the same principles apply to reading bass tabs (you just have fewer strings to worry about!).
The lines in a tab represent the strings on a guitar. The top line is the 1st string and the bottom line is the 6th string. In standard tuning, they represent the high E and low E notes, respectively:
In standard tuning, the lines of tabs represent these notes:
Playing single notes and riffs in tablature: Each number on a line represents which fret you should play on that specific string. In the example above, the first note is the 0 fret on the 5th string (a 0 means that you play the open string). The second note is the 1st fret on the 5th string. As you read and play the tabs from left to right, you begin to string together the song (pun intended). If you’re playing a melody, like the riff of “Ring of Fire” shown above, you’ll see one number at a time, left to right.
Playing chords using tabs: In addition to playing single notes and riffs, tablature can also be used to show you how to play a chord. If you’re learning “Wonderwall” (you know you want to), you’ll see multiple numbers stacked—one on each line. These stacked numbers show you which notes you have to play all at once in order to form a chord — like the A7sus4 chord — that makes you feel feelings when you hear this song.
When it comes to incorporating techniques into tabs, there are some commonly-used symbols to keep in mind. For instance, in the beginning of the iconic “Man of Constant Sorrow” from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you’ll see “3h5” on the 5th string. The “h” means that you should do a hammer-on from the 3rd to the 5th fret to get that folky sound.
Here are some more commonly-used symbols:
As a rule, tabs don’t provide a ton of direction on rhythm; it’s important that you’ve heard the song before and can use a combination of the tabs and your ear to get it down. That said, some tabs will give you additional info to help you with timing, such as the tempo (communicated in beats-per-minute) and time signature (is it a 3/4 waltz or a 4/4 rock beat, for instance). The notes themselves will sometimes be spaced apart from one another in a way that helps you understand if they should be played closer together or farther apart.
Tabs should also tell you what kind of tuning is being used. The examples above are in standard tuning.
Traditional sheet music is much more detailed than tablature. It will tell you the time signature, key signature, tempo, and dynamics. It will include the notes on bass and/or treble clefs that indicate both pitch and precise rhythm. If you know how to read music, all that detail is great.
If all of that sounds foreign to you, don’t worry. Learning a riff with sheet music requires you to be able to read music — but tabs don’t.
Tabs are incredibly useful, whether you’re a beginner or a more advanced player. If you know what the song sounds like, you can use a tab to learn a riff in minutes and skip the sheet music! Think of the iconic intro from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones, the contagious riff from “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People, the badassery of the bassline in “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa.
A final note: tabs are really popular and easy to produce, and you’ll probably see tons of free options online. Unfortunately, they aren’t always reliable (a waste of your time) or legally licensed (musicians gotta eat, too!). If you want to make sure you’re putting your time into learning an accurate tab that supports artists, check out a free trial of Fender Play. You can access tabs for all of our songs, and we also include the traditional sheet music so you can switch back and forth, learning at your own pace and in your own way.