How To Read Guitar Tabs

What is guitar tab?

Guitar tab is a simple way of writing out music for the guitar. It differs from standard musical notation in that, instead of just showing you what notes to play, it shows you the strings and the frets on which to play them.

Unlike regular musical notation, which will show you the notes as they can be played on any instrument, guitar tab can only be used on a guitar.. in fact a guitar tab that’s been written for a dropped or open tuning can’t be used on a standard tuning guitar, and vice versa.

So if guitar tabs are so much less flexible, why use them?

Well, mostly because they are easier. Standard musical notation is not exactly difficult, but there is a little bit of a learning curve involved and you do have to know what note is where on the fretboard.

If you’re brand new to playing guitar and you’re impatient to just learn some songs then tabs are a great way to start.

Many guitarists never bother to learn standard notation, although if you ever want to be a session player or to do jazz or classical music then you will probably need to become very familiar with it.

That’s great, but how do I read it?

Guitar tab consists of 6 lines, each representing a guitar string. Tab is written with the high strings at the top and the low strings at the bottom. Here is a diagram showing each string in standard tuning:


Each of these lines will contain numbers on them. Where that number is a 0, it means to play on open string. Any other number means to play the note at that fret. This tab here is instructing you to play an open low E string, then the low E string at the third fret, then the A string at the first fret, then the A string at the second fret, and finally the D string at the second fret.


Where the tab shows 2 or more numbers stacked on top of each other vertically, then that means to play them at the same time.

That’s great, but how do I know what rhythm to play?

One of the weaknesses of guitar tab is that, on its own, it doesn’t show you the rhythm of what to play. It doesn’t show how long to hold each note, nor does it show when to include rests, or for how long to hold them.


Oftentimes, beginner guitarists will be seeking out tabs of their favourite songs, and so will already have the rhythm of what they want to play in their head, meaning that it’s not such a problem. Where you are learning a brand new from tab though, you will need something else to refer to for the rhythm – usually a recording of the song. You also often see songs written for guitar published with guitar tab and standard musical notation together. If you know how to read the rhythm from the notation then this can provide the best of both worlds.

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