Confused about how to read guitar TAB? Have no fear! We’ve got you covered. If you’re looking to learn how to read TAB on guitar, this handy guide will break down everything you need to know – from the absolute basics to all of the expressive symbols you’ll encounter when reading TAB.

Ever since fretted instruments came on the scene, there have been attempts to design a system that would cater for the idiosyncrasies of the guitar’s multiple strings and frets. Most guitarists assume that guitar TAB is a fairly new system, designed for all the up-and-coming guitarists who couldn’t be bothered with learning how to read standard notation. However, TAB, (from the word tablature) has been around for ages! 

Guitar TAB vs. sheet music (AKA standard notation)

There’s an old adage – how do you get a guitar player to turn down? Give him some sheet music. 

Unlike some other instruments, guitars are set up so that you can play the same pitch note in several places on a fretboard. 

  • The difference between a B on the 19th fret of the low e string, and the same B on the 4th fret of the G string is huge! 
  • Standard notation doesn’t account for this, so it can be confusing for guitarists. 

Reading sheet music for guitar can indeed be very challenging – luckily the TAB system simplifies the process. One downside of reading TAB that you should know about is that it sometimes doesn’t give note lengths or rhythms like sheet music does. Some TAB, however, accounts for this via sheet music-style rhythmic structures outlined underneath the TAB.

How you can read guitar TAB

Here’s a basic overview of how to read TAB, with an overview of the key features and symbols you’ll encounter.

How to read TAB symbols

TAB is generally very simple to read. However, as you encounter more complex pieces, there are over a dozen handy symbols that’ll help guide you through exactly how to play a piece. We’ll break them down for you below.

Tie

A tie is when you extend the duration of a note or chord.

  • In TAB: A curved line connects two notes of the same pitch
  • How to perform: The first note is struck and held for the length of the second note, but the second note is not struck.

Hammer on

A hammer on is a technique where you slam your finger onto the fret with a hammering motion, (either from an open string or a note fretted by another finger) hard enough so that it rings out without the need for your picking hand to play the string. 

It takes some practice to hammer the finger on the fretboard hard enough to make a sound, and is often coupled with a pull off. Using these techniques in conjunction with each other allows several notes to be played without the use of the picking hand. 

  • In TAB: A curved line (slur) connects a lower note to a higher note. You may also see the letter H, either replacing or adding to the curved line.
  • How to perform: Strike the lower note, then hammer your finger onto the fretboard to produce the note, without picking the string.

Pull off

A pull off is performed by pulling a finger off a string, so that the lower note (either an open string or a note fretted at a lower pitch than pulled-off fret) rings out without the need for picking.

  • In TAB: A curved line (slur) connects a higher note to a lower note. You may also see the letter P, either replacing or adding to the curved line.
  • How to perform: Strike the higher note, then flick off the finger to produce the lower note. Usually dragging the finger downwards across the string will produce the best result. If the finger is just lifted off the fret, less or no sound is produced.

Slide

A slide is a technique where a note slides from a lower pitch to a higher pitch, or vice versa.

  • In TAB: The note you’re sliding from is connected to the note you are sliding to, by a diagonal line and a curved line (slur) and/or the symbol ‘sl.’
  • How to perform: The first note is struck, then, without releasing pressure on the fingerboard, the finger slides up or down to the next note.
  • If too much pressure is applied, the slide is not smooth and sounds stiff. If not enough pressure is used, the sound cuts off and is not continuous.

Bend

Bending strings is a personal technique with a ton of possible variation. The way you bend strings really forms a large part of your playing style and personality.

  • In TAB: The symbol for a bend is a curved upward arrow, which can also be coupled with or replaced by the letter B
  • The word Full indicates a tone bend, the equivalent of two frets
  • ½ signifies a semitone bend, the same as one fret
  • ¼ indicates a slight bend

How to perform: 

  • Play the first note shown in TAB, then push/pull the string upward/downward to raise the pitch the amount specified. 
  • As a general rule the Low E, A, and D strings are (for right-handed guitarists) bent downward towards the floor, whereas the higher strings, G, B, and e are bent upward. 
  • Often the G string is bent towards the floor too – each direction gives a different flavor. 
  • Generally, it’s a good idea to have plenty of fretboard available, just in case you fancy performing one of those David Gilmour-style double bends!

Bend and release

Bending and releasing a note allows you to bend the note up to a higher one, then return it back down, usually to the note you started from.

  • In TAB: This is indicated by a bend followed by an arrow curving downwards
  • How to perform: Once you have bent the note upward, you keep pressure on the string and release the tension, (normally) returning to the note you started from

Pre-bend or ghost bend

This technique requires a great deal of practice to master. The string is first bent to a higher note, but without first having been struck. Once in its bent position the note is then plucked.

  • In TAB: The symbol PB is used
  • How to perform: Choose a note, but don’t play it. Bend the string upward to a desired pitch and held there. Pluck the bent string with the note either remaining in this bent position, or released.
  • One advantage of the ghost bend is the ability to play the note slightly below pitch, which is not possible when the note is fretted.
  • One of the unusual techniques associated with this is the ghost bend vibrato, where relaxing the bend of the note slightly, and returning it to its previously bent position, allows for a type of vibrato, which shifts the pitch bend underneath the note rather than above it.

Grace note

Also known as an appoggiatura (!) the grace note is a very quick note played immediately before another note, with emphasis generally being placed on the second note.

  • In TAB: The note used is smaller in size than a regular note. The Grace Note is always shown with the symbol H, P, sl., or B.
  • How to perform: Perform a quick H, P, sl., or B before the following note.

Slap

A slap is often used as a percussive technique, a way to cut off several ringing notes, or a method of rhythmic syncopation.

  • In TAB: The slap is symbolized by ‘x’ note heads and an S.
  • How to perform: The strings of the guitar are slapped with the strumming hand.

Vibrato

Vibrato is a wildly variable technique, and is often the key to the individual style of a player. The speed, width, onset, and symmetry, or lack of it, of the vibrato makes it a valuable asset.

  • In TAB: Vibrato is indicated by a wavy horizontal line.
  • How to perform: The pitch of the fretted note is modulated by either bending the string up and down, or moving the fretting finger from side to side within the fret

Want to take the next step as a guitarist?

Tap

Tapping has become a common technique these days, especially amongst the shredding community. Most people assume it’s a recent development, though there is a wonderful black and white video of a guitarist using a tapping technique in 1965.

Paganini was using tapping techniques on his violin in the 18th Century. There’s also footage of a ukulele player tapping in the 1930s!

  • In TAB: This is indicated by a slur and the letter T.
  • How to perform: The first note is played, then the second note is produced by using a finger of the strumming hand to tap a note on another fret.

Palm mute

Palm muting is a technique achieved by resting the palm of the strumming hand on the strings at a position near the bridge.

  • In TAB: The symbol for Palm Muting is P.M. followed by a dashed horizontal line to show the duration.
  • How to perform: By resting the palm of the strumming hand on the strings, near the bridge, the strings are muted.
  • Depending on the distance from the bridge, the notes will become more muted the further towards the headstock the palm is placed. 
  • This technique is invaluable to achieve a solid chugging chord sound, or a staccato vibe for melodic lines.

Dead or muted note

A muted note occurs when the finger rests on the fret, but no pressure is exerted to make that fretted note sound. The result is a percussive sound with an indistinct pitch. Sometimes if a single finger is resting on a harmonic, that harmonic pitch will sound, in which case more than one finger needs to be applied, to avoid the harmonic note sounding.

  • In TAB: Instead of a fret number, an X is used in its place
  • How to perform: Mute the string marked with an X with a finger or group of fingers, and pick the string the same as playing a normal fretted note.

Downstroke

This indicates picking or strumming in a downward motion. Similar symbols are used for stringed instruments like the violin, to indicate bow direction.

  • In TAB: An arch above a note or chord that looks like a flag you’d see on a ski slop
  • How to perform: Pick or strum in a downward motion.

Upstroke

This indicates picking or strumming in an upward motion.

  • In TAB: A narrow V-like symbol above a note or chord
  • How to perform: Pick or strum in an upward motion.

Picking-hand fingering

Fingerpicking generally dispenses with the pick, and either the nails, the ends of the fingers, or individual steel or plastic nail substitutes, attached to the ends of the fingers, are used to play the strings. 

If you do venture into using ‘steels’ or their plastic counterparts, make sure you have them on the correct way round. They attach to the finger with the nail substitute on the opposite side of the finger to the actual nail, so that the ‘steel’ can slide easily off the strings. 

  • In TAB: p = thumb, i = index, m = middle, and a = ring
  • These letters stand for pulgar, indice, medio, and anular, derived from the Spanish words for the fingers and thumb.
  • On rare occasions you may see c or e - this indicates the use of the pinky!
  • How to perform: Pick the strings using the suggested fingers.

Rake

Raking the strings involves striking muted strings before playing an actual note. This action can be performed from low strings to high strings and also in the other direction.

  • In TAB: The word rake is used, combined with muted grace notes preceding a note.
  • How to perform: The indicated strings are muted with the left and/or right hand. These strings are then struck, following through to the target note in one motion.

Arpeggiate

When you arpeggiate a chord, you are playing the notes in a staggered fashion. It is also known as spreading the chord. An arpeggio is when notes in a chord are played sequentially, rather than all at the same time.

  • In TAB: The symbol used to indicate arpeggiation is a wavy vertical line.
  • Sometimes an up or down arrowhead is used to signify the direction of the arpeggiation.
  • How to perform: The notes of a chord are not played simultaneously, but slightly spread out.

Natural harmonic

Harmonic notes occur in numerous places on the fretboard. A Natural Harmonic is played by touching the string over a particular fret, rather than using pressure behind the fret. The bell-like nature of these harmonics produces a sound akin to a harp.

Waterfall harmonics, so deftly demonstrated by players like Tommy Emmanual are indeed a thing of great beauty. Having had the extreme pleasure of watching him demonstrate this technique from a couple of feet away, I can assure you it looked like some kind of voodoo or close-up magic!

  • In TAB: The word harm is used to indicate a natural harmonic.
  • How to perform: A finger is placed directly over the indicated fret, resting rather than with pressure, after which the note is struck.

Artificial harmonic

In this technique the string is being shortened by fretting a note, which places the harmonic positions in different places on the fretboard. This allows you to play harmonics that differ from those produced using open strings. 

  • In TAB: The letters A.H. are used.
  • The smaller note shows the fretted note, the larger note indicates the position of the harmonic.
  • How to perform: Fret the lower note, then place a finger of the strumming hand directly over the indicated fret. The note is then struck by the thumb.

Tap harmonic

This method allows you to create a harmonic note by simply tapping at the correct point above the indicated fret.

  • In TAB: The letters T.H. are used.
  • The smaller note shows the fretted note, the larger note indicates the position of the harmonic.
  • How to perform: The lower note is fretted as normal, then tapped directly on the indicated fret and quickly released.

You won’t encounter all of these symbols on a daily basis, but it’s smart to get a sense of them so you’re prepared for anything in your guitar journey. Feel free to bookmark this guide as a reference until you’re a TAB master.