How to Read Guitar Tabs

Knowing how to read the notes on a musical staff is important, as any experienced musician will tell you.  But for the modern guitarist, of equal or greater value is knowing how to read guitar tabs.  Tabs, or “tablature” as it’s otherwise known, is a system of notation that shows you exactly where to place your fingers on the fretboard.  It is not a replacement for traditional musical notation, and should not be used as an excuse not to learn traditional notation.  However, it is a useful tool for learning how to play guitar songs, and these days it is so widely used that it is absolutely necessary for an aspiring guitarist to be familiar with it.

The vast majority of guitar music, from the most complex classical guitar piece to the most hassle, free easy guitar songs for beginners, is available in tablature. This lesson will show you how to read some easy guitar tabs, and introduce you to some fun and important guitar tabs for beginners to learn.

As we have seen, a musical staff consists of horizontal lines and spaces that represent musical notes.  Tablature also uses horizontal lines, but these lines represent the strings of the guitar.  The spaces between tablature lines are not used, so ignore them.

The lowest line of tablature represents the low E string.  The next one up is the A string, and so forth like so:

reading guitar tabs

Typically, tablature doesn’t include labels identifying which string each line represents, but assumes that the reader already knows how to read guitar tabs.  Therefore, all the tab throughout the remainder of this lesson will likewise not include labels.  Don’t let this worry you, they will all be easy guitar tabs. At first.

On the chord charts we have already looked at, we used numbers to show which finger to use on each string.  With tablature, however, the numbers on each string show, not which finger to use, but what fret you’re playing.  It’s up to you to decide which finger to use. As you become more familiar with how to play guitar songs, you will know right away which fingers to use. So, when we see this…

how to read guitar tabs

…we know that we are playing the A string at the 3rd fret.  That, as you will remember, is Middle C.  Now, knowing what we have already learned, it’s probably a good idea to play this note with the middle finger, right?  That is because chances are pretty good that the next note will be one of the other notes from the C major scale. In fact, while we’re at it, let’s take a look at what the C major scale looks like in tab:

easy guitar tabs

Now, keeping your fingers in the same position, try to play this simple tune using tab:

beginner guitar tabs

guitar tabs for beginners

Certainly you recognized this tune right away, didn’t you?  This is one of many easy guitar tabs that we will be looking at during our lessons.  Like many guitar tabs for beginners, it is a very simple melody, but, as you continue to learn to play guitar, you are likely to encounter many very complex tabs, so it’s a good idea to practice as often as possible.

There are many sources online for free easy guitar songs for beginners.  It would be to your advantage to seek them out and learn as many of them as possible.  Becoming familiar with a wide variety of music is the best way to learn how to play guitar songs.

When first learning how to read guitar tabs, it is also important to become familiar with how they represent guitar chords.  As we have already seen, chords are shown on a staff by stacking three or more notes vertically on the staff.  This signifies that these notes are played simultaneously rather than one at a time, as with a scale.

Likewise, on guitar tablature, the numbers are stacked vertically in order to show that they are to be played together as a chord.  Here is an example of the C major chord we have already learned:

chord beginner guitar tabs

At this point I will repeat that the numbers on guitar tablature do not represent the fingers you use to play the chord.  They represent the frets.  This is the most important element of guitar tabs for beginners to remember.

On this particular chord the fret numbers happen to correspond with the fingers used, but you will see as we continue to learn how to read guitar tabs that this is not always the case.  Here is another example:

chord guitar tabs

This of course is an A minor chord.  You will notice the (0) on the low E string on both of these chords.  The parentheses indicate that this string is optional.  If there is not a number on a string, that means that you do not play that string, as with the F major chord:

chord easy guitar tabs

Here we see that the Middle C is optional, but the low E is not played at all.  Avoiding this low E string can be achieved by “muting” it with your thumb.  We will learn how to play guitar songs using this technique when we get to our blues guitar lessons.

Sometimes, you will see easy guitar tabs that require you to form a chord with your left hand, but play the notes individually.  More often than not, the name of the chord will be shown above the tablature, so you can get your fingers in place quickly.

Some books that include guitar tabs for beginners will also include a musical staff above or below the tablature, showing the corresponding notes. Here is an example:

how to read tabs for guitar

This tab tells you that you are playing the notes of a C major chord one at a time.  This is called an “arpeggio.”

Okay, now let’s have some fun.

We already know how to form the chords from the key of C major, and we know how to read guitar tabs.  But we haven’t spent any time moving from one chord to another.  Let’s try that now.  Here is a simple, and very common, chord sequence:

guitar tabs and chords

Before we get to some easy songs to play on guitar, let’s take a look at something else. Here is the very same chord progression, however, instead of playing the notes of each chord all at once, we will be playing them one at a time.  But beware: these notes are not in order as with an arpeggio:

easy guitar tabs for beginners

It’s a bit challenging isn’t it?  In fact it is one of the simplest and most widely-used guitar chord progressions in the world.  As far as easy guitar tabs go, this is among the easiest. It is important, however, when learning guitar tabs for beginners to become comfortable with this exercise before progressing to more complex ones.

We will be covering some easy guitar songs, but the difficult ones require much hard work. So practice it, and practice it again.  Learning how to play guitar songs takes discipline and dedication, and hours of practice.  As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of ways to find free easy guitar songs for beginners, so take advantage of them, and get comfortable playing a variety of music.