Learning how to read guitar tab is an essential task for anyone new to the guitar. Most guitar players, unlike say violinists or pianists, are self taught and many have never learned how to read music. For guitarists who are able and happy to learn everything they want to play by ear, that’s not a problem. For the rest of us it makes it very difficult to learn new tunes, or it would if it wasn’t for guitar tab.
At its simplest, guitar tab is a way of representing which strings to play, where to fret them and in what order. The strings are represented by six horizontal lines, running from low E at the bottom to the high E at the top.
Numbers on the lines represent the fret to be played. So 0 would be an open string and 5 would mean pressing your finger on the fifth fret. Chords are represented by numbers aligned vertically, so the diagram below represents the chord of A.
And in the diagram below, you would strum the chord of A three times.
So far, so good. The one thing that guitar tab doesn’t do is represent the timing of the notes or their length — although some tab writers denote timing using spaces between notes. So when you learn to read guitar tab and want to learn a new song, you should listen to it as you follow the tab to get an idea of timing.
Those are the basics and if that is as far as you ever go when you learn to play guitar tab, then provided you have a reasonably good ear and listen to the track your trying to play, you’ll get along pretty well. However, tab goes much further than that and has conventions for a number of the methods guitar players use to generate different sounds and tones from a guitar. So, for example, there’s notation for bending strings, sliding from one fret to another, hammering on and pulling off, vibrato, and even tapping the fret Eddie Van Halen-style.
Here are some of the notation conventions:
h – hammer on.
So 5h7 would mean play the string fretted at the 5th fret then ‘hammer on’ to the 7th fret.
p – pull-off.
So 7p5 would mean play the string at the 7th fret while also holding the 5th fret and pull-off.
/ – slide up.
So 7/9 means play the note at the 7th fret and slide up to the 9th.
\ – slide down.
The reverse of slide up.
b – bend string up.
So 7b would mean play the string at the 7th fret and bend up.
v – vibrato
Play the string at the fret noted and vibrate by rotating your wrist quickly back and forth.
So part of a solo might look like this: