theory 101 - how to read guitar tabs

Theory 101 – How To Read Tabs

By Craig Goudge
In May 5, 2016

In this video we are learning how to read tabs (short for ‘tablature’) – a simpler way of reading music for guitarists.

Below you will see a diagram consisting of 6 horizontal lines. Each of these lines represents a string on your guitar. The top line represents the High e, or 1st string and the bottom line represents the Low E, or 6th string. Note that the High e is in lower case while the Low E is in capital. Tab lines may be numbered 1 through 6, where “1” is the high e string and “2” is the B string.

The numbers that are written on the lines represent the fret used to obtain the desired note or sound. For example, the number 2 written on the bottom line of the tabs indicates that you are required to play the 2nd fret of the low E string.  The number 0 represents an open string. So the number 0 on the High e string simply means you play the open high e string.


How To Read Tabs With Chords

You will also see numbers that are stacked on top of each other, like in the diagram below. This means you are being asked to play a chord. Normally the chord name is listed below the tab so if you know your chords it becomes easier to read. Otherwise, we fret each required note and strum all the notes at the same time, with one stoke of the pick.

how to read tabs 1










There are a few down sides to tabs; there is no rhythmic value represented by the numbers so we are not told how long to hold a note or a chord. This means that you need to be familiar with the song you are trying to learn or have the song to listen to as a reference. However, they are very simple to read and a perfect way to get started.


How To Read Tabs With Basic Technique Symbols

These are some of the more basic symbols that represent various techniques in beginner guitar playing;

  • h hammer on
  • p pull off
  • b bend string up
  • r release bend
  • / slide up
  • \ slide down
  • v vibrato (sometimes written as ~)

These symbols would be placed in front of the number on the tabs. For example:

how to read tabs 2










The above tab is requiring you to slide from the 5th fret to the 7th fret on the D string, followed by a hammer on from the 5th fret onto the 7th fret of the G string.


Sticking Points

Here are some basic sticking points to remember when learning how to read tab:

  • Tabs are read upside down. It’s important to get used to that as soon as possible.
  • The number on the Tab represents the fret on whatever line the number is placed.
  • Numbers stacked on top of each other mean that the notes are played at the same time.
  • None of the Beatles could read music.


Knowing how to read tabs opens up a whole new world for you! Now you can go out there and learn all of your favourite songs. The more you read tabs, the better you’ll get at it, so go and do a Google search for the tabs of the songs you’re looking for, and start rocking!

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Profile photo of Craig Goudge

* Plays for the heavy underground band Pestroy * Graduated in top 3 @ Campus Of Performing Arts * Has been gigging for 5 years * He is best air guitar player at Guitar Excellence * Has 3 years teaching experience * Has mastered an ancient form of power stance – “The Crab” * Likes dune surfing

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