How to Read Guitar Tabs for Beginners

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How to Read Guitar Tabs for Beginners

Learning how to play the guitar not only opens up a whole new world of musical possibilities – but it can also be a great source of enjoyment and relaxation. Though it may seem daunting at first, with a little practice, anyone can learn how to play the guitar.

One of the first things you’ll need to master is reading guitar tabs – the language of guitar music. Guitar tabs are a simple way to notate music. They are easy to read and write, making them perfect for beginners just starting to learn how to play.

This guide will teach you everything you need to know about reading guitar tabs, from the most basic concepts to more advanced techniques. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to read guitar tabs like a pro!

What Are Guitar Tabs?

Guitar tabs example

Guitar tablature is a visual representation of the notes in a song. Unlike traditional sheet music, which uses note symbols like treble and bass clef, guitar tabs show where to place your fingers on the fretboard.

Standard guitar tabs consist of six horizontal lines, each representing a string on the guitar. The bottom line (the thickest string) is the low E string, while the top line (thinnest string) is the high E string. This also reflects the view of the guitar when you’re looking down at the strings.

On each line of the tab music, you’ll see numbers. These numbers correspond to frets on the guitar neck, which are the raised metal bars on the guitar. Guitar frets are numbered from 1 to 24 (sometimes less, depending on guitar size), starting from the bar closest to the guitar’s headstock.

So, if the string has a 0, that means you’ll play that string “open,” meaning you don’t press down on any fret. If the tab has a 1, you’ll play the first fret. A 2 would be the second fret, and so on.

Guitar tabs should be read left to right, with the notes played chronologically. In other words, you’ll start at the left-most side of the tab and play through to the right.

What do You need to Know to Read Guitar Tabs?

There are a few things you need to know about guitar tablature in order to play successfully. Here’s a quick rundown:

The Guitar Staff

Guitar staff

One major difference between tablature and standard musical notation is their guitar staff. Instead of representing the actual notes, tab guitar staffs represent the six strings on the guitar.

This makes playing from tabs much easier for beginner guitarists since you don’t need to worry about reading notes on a staff. Instead, you can simply look at the tablature and know which string to play.

The Guitar Frets

Guitar frets

Most guitars will have 19 to 24 frets, with the lower frets being closer to the guitar’s body. A number on the tablature staff represents each fret.

So, you’ll also need to know where the different frets are located on the guitar neck. The best way to learn this is by memorizing the fretboard. You can also use a guitar fretboard diagram to help you out.

Guitar Tab Chords

Guitar tab chords

Chords are two or more notes played together. When you see two or more numbers written vertically on the guitar tab, that means you’re supposed to play those notes simultaneously as a chord.

For example, if you see a “3” on the fifth string and a “2” on the fourth string, you will play those two strings together as a chord. However, guitar tablature may not always indicate which chord you’re playing. Therefore, you may want to take lessons or watch some instructional videos to learn more about guitar chords.

Finger Placement and Guitar Tabs

In addition to knowing which frets to play, you’ll also need to know where to place your fingers. The fingers on your hand that push the strings down are numbered. For instance, the index finger is 1, the middle finger is 2, and the ring finger is 3. The pinky finger is 4.

This differs from the numbering found on tablature, which indicates which fret to play. For this reason, many guitar tabs include visual charts that show where to place your fingers when playing the song.

How to Read Guitar Tab Symbols

Along with lines and numbers, guitar tabs may include symbols representing different techniques you’ll need to use when playing. Learning to read these symbols will elevate your guitar-playing skills and make reading tablature much easier.

Here are some common guitar tab symbols that you’ll see when reading the tablature:


Hammer ons technique

Hammer-ons create a smooth, connected sound that’s often used in fast-paced songs. To play a hammer-on, you simply “hammer” your finger onto the string at the specified fret without picking the string.

In tablature, a hammer-on is represented by the letter “H” connecting two numbers on the same string. So, for example, you might see the H above a “3” and a “5.” This means you’ll play the third fret and then quickly hammer your finger onto the fifth fret while still holding the note at the third fret.


Pull-offs technique

A pull-off is the opposite of a hammer-on. To play a pull-off, you first pick the string and then quickly “pull” your finger off the specified fret while still holding down the other frets. This technique creates a softer sound than a hammer-on.

In tablature, a pull-off is represented by the letter “P” connecting two numbers on the same string. So, for example, you might see the P above a “5” and a “3.” This means you’ll pick the fifth fret and quickly pull your finger off while holding the note at the third fret.


Bending strings

Bends are one of the most common guitar techniques and add a lot of expression to your playing. To play a bend, you’ll first pick the string and then push or pull your finger to raise or lower the note’s pitch. The further you bend the string, the higher the pitch will be.

In guitar tab music, bends are represented by an arrow pointing up or down. When you perform a bend, you’ll hold down the string at the specified fret and push or pull the string in the direction of the arrow.

Bending a note also means moving the pitch to a new note. Typical bends include 1/2 step (m 2nd), whole step (M 2nd), 1 1/2 steps (m 3rd) & even 2 whole steps (M 3rd). Microtones may also be involved in bends, but it takes experience to do them correctly.

Be Natural Music has guitar instructors who can help you learn the complexity of bends.


Sliding notes

Slides are similar to bends, but instead of holding down the string at a certain fret, you simply place your finger on the specified fret and then slide it up or down the string. Slides can be performed in one pluck or can be combined with bends for a more complex sound.

In guitar tab music, slides are represented by an upward or downward pointing line with a slash through it (\). To play a slide, place your finger on the string at the specified fret, then slide to the next fret in the direction of the arrow.



Vibrato is a technique that involves quickly shaking your finger back and forth on the string after you’ve already plucked it. This technique can add a lot of expression to your playing and make notes sound more “alive.”

In guitar tab music, vibrato is represented by squiggly lines above or below the specified fret number. To perform vibrato, pluck the string and then quickly shake your finger back and forth on the fret.


Tapping guitar tab

Tapping is similar to the hammer-on technique, but instead of using your fretting hand to “hammer” the string, you use your picking hand. Tapping is often used in fast-paced songs and can create some interesting sounds.

In tablature, tapping is represented by the letter “T” followed by the number of the fret you should tap. So, for example, you might see the note “T12.” To play this, you would use your picking hand to tap the string at the 12th fret.

How to Play Muted Guitar Notes

Palm muting

Muting is a guitar-playing technique that’s often used in rock, metal, and alternative music. It creates character and adds a bit of edge to the sound. To play a muted note, place your finger on the specified string and fret and then lightly touch the string with the side of your palm. This will deaden the sound, so it doesn’t ring out.

Muted notes are represented by an “X” in the guitar tablature. For example, if you see an X above the number “5” on the sixth string – that means you’ll place your palm on the fifth fret of the sixth string to mute it.

How to Strum Guitar Notes in Tablature

Strumming in guitar tab

In guitar tablature, strums are represented by a series of numbers in a vertical line. These numbers represent which strings you should strum.

For example, if you see the pattern “1-2-3-4” above the notes, you should only strum those strings in order – from the first to the fourth. If you see a “0” in the pattern, that means you shouldn’t strum that string at all. This can be a bit tricky to master at first, but with the help of a guitar instructor and a little patience, it will become second nature.

In Conclusion

Learning how to read guitar tabs is a valuable skill for any guitar player. By becoming familiar with the different symbols and notation, you’ll be able to interpret any piece of guitar music quickly and easily you come across. While it may take some time to get comfortable reading tabs, it’s well worth the effort as it will open up a whole new world of music for you to explore.

If you’re interested in learning to play the guitar, Be Natural Music offers a variety of guitar classes for all skill levels. Our experienced instructors will help you understand the basics, develop your technique, and hone your skills so you can play the music you love.

Contact us today to learn more!

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Matthew Pinck

Matt, fondly known as "Yoga Matt" on stage, has collectively studied music since the age of five and has been teaching in Santa Cruz County since 1998. Among his arsenal of music expertise are: guitar, vocals, composition, piano, electric bass and drums. His vast formal training has taken place in top schools, such as UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, and Cabrillo College, eventually earning his Bachelors in Jazz Guitar from Skidmore College in New York.

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