How To Read Guitar Tabs

Guitar tab is kind-of like sheet music for a guitar, except that it’s not the same as Sheet Music in any way at all. I realise this may sound off-putting, but bare with me- it’s much easier than it looks!

Basically a guitar tab consists of 6 lines, which represent the strings of the guitar. The thickest string is represented by the bottom line, and the thinnest string is represented by the top line.

The numbers on the lines correspond to frets on the guitar. If a line is empty then do not play that string- either avoid plucking it or just mute it as you play. However if it contains a zero (0) then it means that you should play the open string (play it un-fretted). If it has a 2 then fret the 2nd fret of that string- if it has a 12 then fret the 12th fret of the applicable string et cetera.

I should point out that there is going to be a lot of pictures in this post- as this is one of them topics I just a lot of pictures to explain in detail!


how to read guitar tabs

So here’s a very basic guitar tab; the pair of notes that are plucked in the verses of: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. These notes are played separately as single notes because they do not lie on top of each other, the 2 notes are C and F:

The numbers on each string represent the fret numbers. So in this case you would press down on the 1st fret on the b-string and play that note, followed by the 1st fret of the high-e-string and play that note afterwards.

Some guitar tabs also have note durations written above them, but many (such as this one) assume that you know the durations of the notes from listening to the song beforehand. It is generally a good idea to know how a song goes before reading the tab for it- tabs don’t tend to give as much musical information as actual Stave Music.


In a tab- when the fret-numbers lie on top of each other, it’s because they make a chord and should be therefore played simultaneously. So to stick with Nirvana, if we look at the ending chord from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which is an F5 or “F Power-chord”) it looks like this:

learn guitar tab

So to play this chord, you would fret the 1st fret of the low-e-string, 3rd fret of the a-string and 3rd fret of the d-string. You would not play any of the other strings because they do not contain numbers- you would just pick these 3 strings.


Guitar tabs can be simple or they can be complicated.

If a song includes some more advanced guitar techniques, then these will often we shown in the tab with certain symbols- here are the most common ones.

Tab Legend

h – hammer-on
perform a hammer-on between the 2 notes

hammer on

p – pull-off
perform a pull-off between the 2 notes

pull off

b – bend
bend the note up until it has the same pitch as if you were pressing the next note

r – release bend
release the bended note back to its normal pitch

/ – slide into or out of (from/to “nowhere”)
either slide up “into” a note, or down “out of” a note

* – natural harmonic
perform a natural harmonic at the specified fret

[n] – artificial/ pinch harmonic
perform an artificial/pinch harmonic at the specified fret

~ – vibrato
perform a vibrato on the note/chord

PM (.) – palm muting
palm-mute the specified note/chord

Palm muting is shown in a number of ways by different Tabbers. Usually if a song includes consecutive notes/chords where some should be palm-muted and some not, the ones to be palm-muted are shown with a dot (“.”) underneath. Take this example from the verse of: “Talk Dirty To Me” by Poison.

Tabs are very useful, and are fairly unique to Guitarists. Things such as piano tabs do exist, but they just aren’t as useful for the instrument as guitar tabs are for guitar. Sometimes in Guitar Tab books (as opposed to Guitar Tabs from the internet) the tablature will be shown along with the Sheet Music, so you get a complete visual representation on what you need to play and how you can play it!

If you know the rhythm of the song in question- then Guitar Tabs are definitely easier to read than Sheet Music!

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