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How do you read guitar tabs?

By Jon, published on 05/03/2018 We Love Prof > Music > Guitar > How to understand guitar tabs

If you want to learn how to play the guitar but you don’t know any music theory and reading music is impossible for you, there’s a great alternative – guitar tabs.

Whatever your nationality or playing level, guitar tabs are easy to read for everyone.

(You will, however, still need to know the basics of reading!)

How do you read guitar tabs? Are there universal symbols for everyone to understand? Are there guitar tutorials to learn how to read tabs?

Superprof has put it all together for you so that you can learn this method of playing the guitar.

Description of a guitar tab

It’s no longer necessary to learn to read music in order to play the guitar. Nowadays guitarists often read their music on tabs.

Although they have a few drawbacks, tabs are quick and easy to learn and you can share many different types of music with fellow musicians.

If you’ve already taken a few guitar lessons for beginners, then you’ll know that reading tabs is sine qua non for any guitarist worthy of the title – it’s the lingua franca of musicians.

What’s a tab?

Tabs are a specialized and simplified way of reading music for a specific instrument – you can find tabs for piano, guitar, bass guitar, and even drums.

What string should you play?

Each string is represented by a line on the tab.

How to learn guitar quickly? By learning the basic tablatures. The main chords, represented as chord boxes.

The main chords, represented as chord boxes.

The bottom string on a tab is the bass, or 6th string on your guitar.

The top string is the highest string.

Reading tabs

You read a tab from left to right, and each number tells you where to put your finger.

Guitar tabs tell you where to put your fingers on the neck of the guitar.

Strings without any markings are not played.

Numbers on the tabs represent the frets on the neck and tell you where to put your fingers.

The number 1 represents the fret closest to the tuning nut (hence, the deepest note on that string).

Another tip: the first box with 2 dots corresponds to the 12th fret down from the nut on the neck.

When several numbers are in a line, they represent a chord, and they should all be played together.

Reading the tab on its own isn’t difficult. You read it from left to right just like any other piece of music, and when you get to the end of the line you go down to the next one and continue following the notes in the same direction.

In fact, learning to read tabs is as essential to learning rhythm and both are fundamental guitar playing!

The quirks of guitar tabs

Nonetheless, guitar tabs do have several unique features of which you must be aware:

  • Most tabs don’t have any indication regarding the speed or rhythm at which you should play.
  • The tab is broken up into measures, but it is very rare to know the rhythm to play the guitar
  • The best advice is to really listen to the piece of music that you’re trying to play. Notice how it is structured, and how many counts are in each measure (90% of rock, pop and folk songs have 4 beats, or are in 4/4 time).

work-on-different-guitar-techniques Recognize guitar tabs to improve your guitar playing!

  • In more complex tabs, sometimes the rhythm is included. You’ll see notations next to each note which tell you how long it should be held for.
  • Symbols that denote rhythm are written like this: ‘w’ for a whole note, ‘h’ for a half note, ‘e’ for an eighth note, and ’s’ for a sixteenth note.
  • If there’s a dot after a letter like ’w’, that means that you need to hold the note for half of its length.

Special symbols for tabs

You’ll notice that there are many different symbols on tabs that tell you how to play the notes or link them together.

It’s important to learn to recognize the symbols by heart so that reading them becomes second nature. This way you can perfectly reproduce your favorite songs and play your arpeggios on the guitar.

Here are a few of the most common symbols.


To play a hammer-on, you need to strum the string horizontally between two frets and let the vibration play.

The sound that results from this ‘hammering’ becomes sharper than the one you actually hit.

Hammer-ons are often represented by the letter ‘h’, and are written between the first fret you play and the one on which you’re doing a hammer on. (for example, 4h9 means strum the 4th fret and then the 9th).

Sometimes the ‘h’ can also be replaced by a ^ (4^9).


Playing a pull-off is the opposite of a hammer-on.

To play a pull-off, pull your fingers away quickly from the fret in order to create a lower note.

 How to nuance your 6-string play? With the pull-off technique! Learn new guitar techniques with pull-offs and hammer-ons!

Pull-offs are generally represented by ‘p’ or ‘po’ and are placed between the first fret you play and the one on which you’re performing a pull-off.

An example could be written as either 8p6 or 8po6.

Practise your tabs during bass guitar lessons.


Bends are performed by twisting a string after playing a note, in order to change the note while staying on the same fret.

Bends are generally indicated by a curved arrow and then a notation like ‘½’ or ‘¼’ or ‘full’ to tell you how to change the note.

If the arrow curves back on itself, or is marked by an ‘R’ for ‘bend and return’, that means that you should go back to the original note after you perform the bend.

Another way of writing a bend is with ‘b’ where it is placed between the first note to play, and the second that sounds due to the bend (for example 10b12).

The letter ‘r’ for return could also be added to this combination, telling you to return to the original pitch (8b10r8).


To play a slide, you slide along the string from one fret to another, either to get a higher sound (slide up) or a lower one (slide down), by continuing to hold the string down.

Slide ups are noted by a ‘/‘ and a slide down as ‘\’ as with 6/8\6.

You can also play slides legato, meaning a slide where you don’t use your pick for the first note of the slide.

The note sounds natural, without any effect.

 How to surprise your friends on the guitar? Using a bottleneck and the slide process. Show off your slides and other tricks on the guitar!

Some guitarists think that you should also avoid using a pick on the base note, but the most important thing is to play without leaving a gap between the two notes.

Another feature of the slide is the slide and shift, where you play a note on the same string instead of on another string, so that only one sounds at once.

This will also help you to avoid having to change your guitar strings too often.

This is marked in tabs as ’S’.

Less common symbols

Other less common symbols are also important to recognize in tabs. Recognizing them is an important part of getting the right sound as you work on improving your guitar technique.

  • A ‘~’ is a sign to play vibrato, where you change the tone of the note. This is a common technique used by electric guitarists, who often have a special pedal plugged into their guitar to get a manual vibrato.
  • ’S’ or ’T’ symbolize Slap or Thumb, a method where you hit the string with your thumb. It’s a common technique on bass guitar, as well as for electric guitars and electric acoustics.
  • PM means Palm Mute – this is a technique where you gradually soften the sound by using the hand that was strumming the strings to gently push on them near the sound hole.
  • PM will usually be put above a series of notes, marked by the series of small dots above the notes.
  • The ‘X’ for mute tells you to use your left hand to completely stop the sound.
  • A number between two slashes tells you to do a tremolo. The number between the two slashes tells you how many notes to play. A \6/ tells you to decrease the volume of your note by 6 half tones.
  • Similarly, a backslash followed by a number (\6) tells you to play the note and then do a tremolo going lower and reducing the sound, while a forward slash (6/) tells you to increase volume and pitch.
  • Finally, a lower case ’t’ is a sign for finger tapping, a technique performed by your right hand. This technique is a great way to quickly change the volume of a note.
  • Altogether you’ll see something like this on a tab – 2h6t12p6p2 – that tells you which chords to play.

To learn to read guitar tabs, the most important thing to do is to stay motivated at guitar.


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