Tablature, or TAB, is a graphical representation of where to put your fingers on the guitar in order to play a certain chord, melody, or musical idea. Learning how to interpret TAB can be a mystery for some newer guitar players. In this guitar lesson we are going to go over the basic layout of TAB and some of the more common elements you will see when you pull up a TAB for a song you want to learn.
Let’s start with the basic layout of TAB. When you take a look at a TAB that you want to learn you will most likely see some standard notation on top and the TAB on the bottom. The six strings of the guitar are represented by the six horizontal lines of the TAB. The top line represents the high E string of the guitar and the bottom line represents the low E string of the guitar. This can seem a bit counterintuitive to some people so just remember that the top line is the thinnest string and you will be good to go.
The numbers you will see on a piece of tablature represent the frets you are supposed to put your fingers on. You read these numbers from left to right just like you would read a book. Single numbers from left to right represent a melody line or solo that you might play. Stacked numbers represent a chord of some kind. Check out the TAB legend for an example of this.
Now that we’ve gone over the basic layout of TAB let’s take a look at some of the more common elements that you will see when figuring out some of your favorite songs. You can refer to the TAB legend for a great example of any of these. The first element I want to go over with you is palm muting. Palm muting is represented by a “P.M.—“ marker. The little dashes represent how long you should continue to palm mute the notes.
Dead notes, or muted notes, are represented by an “x” on a particular string. When you see a dead note you should mute the note with either your left or right hand and play that note so the pitch is completely muted. This happens a lot in strumming patterns and raked parts of lead lines.
Bending is pretty common element of TAB. You can tell that you are supposed to bend a note by an upward pointing arrow next to one or more numbers. The distance you are to bend the note will be defined by an indicator next to the arrow. It might be a “full” bend or a “1/2” bend. Once you are exposed to a couple of bends you will quickly catch on to the basic idea.
Sliding on the guitar is represented by a fret number, a line, and then another fret number. The line will be slanted up or down depending on if you are sliding from a higher pitch to a lower pitch or vice versa. Take a look at the TAB Legend for a graphical representation of this.
You can identify hammer-ons and pull-offs by a little slur or arc between two or more adjacent notes. It can take a while to get to where you can quickly interpret this, but once you are exposed to a few musical situations like this you will get the idea. Give the example on this page a try.
Vibrato is when you repeatedly bend and release a note over and over for an expressive vocal effect. This is usually represented by a squiggly line over a note. You can tell how intense or wide the vibrato should be by the thickness or boldness of the squiggly line.
Downstroke indicators look like a squared off upside down “U”, and upstrokes indicators look like a downward facing arrow. If the composer wrote a piece of music with a specific picking pattern in mind you will see picking indicators. If they didn’t you will not see any indicators and be free to experiment with your own picking patterns.
That’s all of the common elements of TAB for this lesson, but you should continue your TAB education on your own. Pick out a song that you want to learn and look for the elements that we’ve gone over in this lesson. You can also try to intuitively figure out any new elements of TAB that you may run into. It may be slow going at first but the more you do this the better you will get at it. If you have any questions or comments about TAB you can leave them below.