4: How to Read Guitar Tabs

Now you know your way around the guitar, there are a couple more things you need to learn before we play something. The first is how to read guitar tabs.

Guitar tabs, also known as tab notation or TAB, tell you how to play a song by showing where to place your fingers on the frets and strings.

Learning how to read and understand guitar tabs makes it easy for even beginner guitarists to play their favorite songs—with a bit of practice! 

In this article, we’ll explain how to read guitar tabs. We’ll also explain the benefits of guitar tabs and address the cons of using them. 

The basics of how to read guitar tabs

Guitar tabs consist of a series of lines that represent the guitar strings. The top line represents the thinnest string on your guitar and the bottom line represents the thickest string. 

These lines have numbers on them. These represent the frets that you should hold down with your fingers. A zero means you play the string open. For example, if there’s the number three on the third string, you’ll press that string on the third fret and play that string. 

The notes that each open string represents are sometimes shown on the left side or above the tab. Most songs are in standard tuning. If a song requires alternative tuning then it will be shown here.

Tabs also show symbols. These represent other guitar techniques. In the example below, we’ve shown a slide.

How to Read Guitar Tabs: Advantages and Disadvantages

If you can learn how to read guitar tabs then you can learn almost any song.

There are plenty of pros and cons to guitar tabs. One of the main advantages of using guitar tabs, whether online or via books, is that they’re very easy to follow along with. 

How to Read Guitar Tabs: the pros

Guitar tabs allow you to quickly see which frets and strings to play on the guitar. 

This makes it easy for beginners to learn how to play songs In turn, this also makes it easier for you to start learning how to play guitar.

Standard musical notation, on the other hand, can take years to master. This makes it harder for you to start learning guitar.

Online guitar tabs are free most of the time. This means that you can learn to play almost any song.

How to Read Guitar Tabs: the cons

One of the downsides to using tabs is that they can’t express rhythm and aren’t as dynamic as traditional sheet music. This means you’ll have to listen to the song before you learn to play it using tab. 

Another downside to guitar tabs is that sometimes they’re not as accurate as sheet music. This is especially true of those tabs found online. You can often find multiple versions of the same tune. It can be hard to tell which is correct.

Types of Guitar Tabs

There are two types of guitar tabs: formal guitar tabs and internet tabs. 

With internet tabs, each line starts with the string, going E, B, G, D, A, E. 







Formal guitar tabs also have six lines but you’ll need to remember which line is associated with which string.

Formal guitar tabs are found in books that you can purchase online or at a music or book store. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, though.

It comes down to where you are reading the tab – internet tabs are often written using word processing software.

Do Guitar Tabs Show Chords?

Yes, guitar tabs are used to show chords.

They are represented by multiple numbers being stacked above each other. Here’s an example of a G chord.

Tabs will sometimes be accompanied by chord charts. This saves the writer time tabbing every single chord.

Arpeggiated Chords

An arpeggio is when the notes of a chord are played individually. They are often played in ascending or descending order. These are sometimes called rolled chords. Here’s how that G looks as an arpeggio.

How to Read Guitar Tabs Symbols

As you explore different guitar tabs, you may notice various symbols in addition to the numbers. Some of the most commonly used symbols you’ll want to know for reading guitar tabs include: 

  • p – pull off
  • h – hammer on 
  • t – tapping 
  • b – bend 
  • / – slide up 
  • \ – slide down 
  • ~ or v – vibrato 

Pull Off 

Pull out is shown on the tab as a “p.” On tabs, this will be depicted like “4p3”, or with another combination of strings and frets. To pull off, you’ll press down on both strings. You’ll then pick the string, and immediately take your finger off the higher note. So you hear the 4th sound, and then you hear the 3rd as you pull your finger off.

It’s important to grip the string slightly with your fretting finger as you pull off. This ensures that you get a clear sound. A good way to test this is to practice playing pull-offs without plucking the string. If you are doing it right, then you should still be able to hear a noise.

Hammer On 

If you see an “h” on the guitar tab, it means to hammer on. For example, if you see “2h4”, you’ll pick the string that corresponds with the two while you hammer on the 4th fret. This technique means that you don’t pick the second string again. Some people find this a little challenging, but practice makes perfect. 


Tapping is when you use both hands to push down on the frets on the neck of the guitar. By doing this with a slight percussive force – or tapping – you produce a sound. Tapping is shown on a guitar tab as “t.” If you see this, you’ll need to use your middle or pointer finger, whichever is more comfortable for you. Most of the time, tapping is combined with a pull-off or hammer on instructions. 


If you see a “b” on the tab, it means to bend. Let’s say that the tab shows “3b4”. You’ll put your finger on the third fret, whichever note it is, and then bend the string so that it makes the sound that’s on the fourth fret. 

It’s important to note that you don’t put your finger on the fourth fret. When done correctly, this will allow you to make the sound without touching it. 

Slide Up

Many guitar players think sliding up or sliding down is relatively easy. Slide up is represented by a slash symbol. For example, if you were to slide from the second fret up to the fourth then it would appear as 2/4on the tab. 

Slide Down

Sliding down on a guitar tab is essentially the same thing as sliding up, but the opposite way. It’s shown on the tab with “\,” so it would look something like this 4/2. You’ll press down on the fourth fret and then slide your finger down to the second.  


If you see this symbol, “~,” it stands for vibrato. Some guitar tabs will show this with a “v,” but it means the same thing. If the tab says 4~, you’ll place your finger on the fourth fret, play the string and then move your finger up and down to create a vibrato sound. Some tabs will have several of the symbols after the number to show how long you’re supposed to create the sound. 

Now You Know How to Read Guitar Tabs, it’s Time to Play!

Now you know how to read guitar tabs, it’s time to practice them. Try out your new skills by learning some beginner guitar riffs.

Even if it’s your first day playing guitar, you have a wealth of resources right at your fingertips. Reading music in a traditional clef-and-staff system can take many years to get familiar with. With guitar, you can use tab to speed up your understanding because they show you which frets to use and strings to play. 

In our next lesson, we’ll teach you how to tune the guitar.

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