Despite how much jazz and theater guitarists don’t like it, most players don’t know how to read standard music notation. Instead of learning by reading dots on a page, they end up relying on their ears and eyes, which has served many guitarists well. This isn’t another argument for or against standard notation (you can read about that here). Thing is, tablature is a fact of life for all guitarists in this modern world, and just like notes, chords, notation and technique, it is an important part of learning how to play this crazy instrument.
This article will explain how to read common guitar tablature, and explain symbols you might come across. This is written for the beginning guitarist, or for an advanced one who has never bothered to learn this notes-on-a-page thing.
A Little History
First, it is important to understand that tablature is a really old system of writing music, and much older than traditional notation. It was used for older stringed instruments like the lute, and later, the guitar. It fell out of favor as louder and more polyphonic instruments like the pipe organ and piano were developed, and tablature was pretty useless to those musicians. Another thing to understand is that it used to give us a lot more information about the music back then, compared to today’s ASCII tabs found online. Of course musicians then didn’t have CDs, MP3s and YouTube to refer to while reading the symbols on the page, either, so it was actually a lot more complex to read back then.
Tablature is a system of numbers written on lines, which are read from left to right, like reading a book. The lines are a graphical representation of the guitar strings, and look like this:
Notice one important thing: the lines are upside down from the way you hold your guitar. This is because they are in order by pitch, with the highest-sounding string on top, and the lowest sounding on the bottom.
Some tablature will contain the letter names of the strings to the left side of the lines to remind you of what string you are on. However, most tablature doesn’t. This is something you will have to remember.
The numbers are bisected by lines. They represent frets. 0’s are open strings (that is, ones you play but don’t have to press down). If there are no numbers on that string line, you simply avoid playing that string. Numbers stacked on top of each other form a chord. There may be vertical bar lines too, which may separate sections of a song, or correspond to the measures if the tablature is shown underneath standard notation.
Here is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in tablature, with notation on top. This is a common way for books (and some magazines) to show musical examples:
What’s it all Mean?
These are notated with a scoopy line extending above the 6 string lines. Usually at the top of the scoopy line, there is a number. This number shows you how far to bend the string. A ½ is a half-step bend, so the note sounds 1 fret higher than the note is bent. A 1-step bend (sometimes called a full bend) sounds 2 frets higher than the note is bent.
A bend and release is a note that is bent up, and then returns to it’s non-bent state. It looks like this:
A unison bend has the lower note bent to reach the pitch of the higher note. Both are played together, which is why the numbers are on top of each other.
This is the wiggly line extending to the right of a fretted note. You know this- it keeps the note sustaining longer than Nigel Tufnel’s Les Paul. It is also an expressive technique that is used by electric guitarists throughout history.
This is written as a diagonal line between numbers. You pick the first note, and slide to the second without picking that second note.
The first note is picked, and you ‘hammer’ another finger on a higher fret so that second note sounds without picking it. The curved line can be above or below the numbers.
This is the opposite of a hammer on. Two fingers start out on the same string. The higher note is picked, and that finger is removed from the string leaving the second, lower note to ring. Again, the curved line can be above or below the numbers.
We know this! Tapping with one of the right hand fingers or pick isn’t new to the guitar. To notate it in tablature, a T is used.
These are those chimey notes you get when you lightly touch over the 12th, 7th, and 5th frets. There are many more too, and to notate these, we use this diamond shape over the number. Sometimes you see ‘N.H.’ over the numbers.
This uses the picking hand thumb to strike the string right after the pick. This is responsible for those squealy sounds that some guitarists insist on putting in every low string riff. These can occur on any fret, since they are created with the right hand. This example combines the artificial harmonic with a bend, release and vibrato.
Usually notated with a ‘P.M’ above the tab, we achieve this by lightly touching the bridge with our picking hand enough to damp the vibration, but not enough to stop the string from vibrating.
Muffled or Damped Strings
These are picked notes muted with either hand. Usually, there is no sense of pitch here, as it just sounds like a series of clicks. These are notated with an X on the string that is muted.
All guitar magazines feature tablature online, and most of them make it a big part of their printed lessons. Tablature has evolved into a mature language for the modern guitarist, although not without faults (and these are big faults).
First, unlike notation, where every rhythm is spelled out for the player, most of tablature contains no rhythm markings at all. Sometimes it is printed with standard notation above the tablature (which shows us the rhythms, if you can read them), but many times, tablature has no rhythmic markings whatsoever. In this case, you’d better have an mp3, YouTube video or know how the song goes really well, or you will end up frustrated.
Magazines and books may also notate things differently (like bends), so always look for the ‘guide to tablature’ in every book or magazine if you see something you don’t understand. Tablature is still an evolving language, and as inventive guitarists come up with new ways of playing, the print industry has not always settled on a standard.
Online tabs can get us started on a song, or help us through a difficult part. However, being limited to ASCII and with many being incomplete or just plain inaccurate can frustrate someone just trying to learn a song. So if you are reading something online, and it sounds terrible, don’t assume it is you. It may be an inaccurate transcription by someone with more time and less skill than you have.
As a modern guitarist, learning is never bad. I don’t care what form it is in, tablature or notation, I will use it. It is all important to know, as this is the musical world we live in. Tab is a quick way to remember ideas and a fast way to learn how to play a favorite song. Once you decipher the quirks of tablature, an entire world opens up to us. We don’t always have to choose to use it, but if we come across it, we won’t be left in the dark.
Where are your favorite sites to go for online tablature? Which guitar magazines have the best transcriptions?