How to read tablature

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What is TAB?

TAB or tablature is a method of writing down music played on guitar or bass. Instead of using symbols like in standard musical notation, it uses ordinary ASCII characters and numbers, making it ideal for places like the internet where anybody with any computer can link up, copy a TAB file, and read it.

What TAB will tell you.

TAB will tell you what notes to play - it will tell you which string to hit and which fret to fret it at.

TAB will tell you where hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, slides, harmonics and vibrato are used.

TAB will tell you what tuning the piece is in. If this isn't given explicitly, assume normal tuning. TAB should also give you information on use of capos etc.

TAB will give you an indication of the rhythm of the piece, i.e. it will tell you which are the long notes and which are the short notes.

However it will not tell you exactly how long or how short they are.

This leads me on to ...

What TAB won't tell you.

TAB will (usually) not tell you the note lengths of the notes - so in most cases you will have to listen to the song yourself, with the TAB in front of you to work out the rhythm of the notes.

TAB will not tell you which fingers you use to fret which note.

TAB will (usually) not tell you anything about picking and strumming - you will have to decide for yourself where to use upstrokes/downstrokes and so on.

TAB notation - the basics

TAB is simple to read, and should be simple to write if you want to submit a song you have worked out yourself. The idea is this:

You start out with 6 lines (or four for bass). These correspond to the strings of the instrument. The top line is the highest pitch string, and the bottom line is the lowest pitch string. Below is a blank bit of TAB with the string names at the left.

Blank tabs.jpg

Numbers are written on the lines to show you where to fret the string with the left hand. If a zero appears , this means play the open string. Like standard musical notation, you read from left to right to find out what order to play the notes. The following piece of TAB would mean play the sequence of notes (E F F# G G# A) on the bottom E string by moving up a fret at a time, starting with the open string.


E-------------------------------------------------
B-------------------------------------------------
G-------------------------------------------------
D-------------------------------------------------
A-------------------------------------------------
E---0--1--2--3--4--5------------------------------

OK so far ?

Here we have notes being played one at a time. If two or more notes are to be played together, they are written on top of one another, again just like standard notation.

In the next example we have a G bar chord.
E----3--------------------------------------------
B----3--------------------------------------------
G----4--------------------------------------------
D----5--------------------------------------------
A----5--------------------------------------------
E----3--------------------------------------------

So this means play all these notes together as a chord.

You might see the same chord written like this:
E--------3----------------------------------------
B-------3-----------------------------------------
G------4------------------------------------------
D-----5-------------------------------------------
A----5--------------------------------------------
E---3---------------------------------------------

Which would mean strum the same shape starting at the bottom string, so that each string is hit slightly later than the last string, but all notes will ring together. Below is an example of the same shape again, but now the gaps between the notes are bigger - so you would probably pick the strings separately instead of slowly strumming the shape.
E------------------3------------------------------
B---------------3-----3---------------------------
G------------4-----------4------------------------
D---------5-----------------5---------------------
A------5-----------------------5------------------
E---3-----------------------------3---------------

You might ask - How do I know how fast or slow to play this? Are all the notes supposed to be the same length?

This is where TAB differs from standard notation. Most often TAB will not give you any information on the note lengths. It is usually left up to you to listen to the song to pick up the rhythm.

However - don't despair. TAB should give you some indications of timing. In the example above all the notes are evenly spaced so you can reasonably assume that the notes are the same length (maybe all eighth notes or quavers) but this may not always be true - it depends on who wrote the TAB.

As a general rule, the spacing of the notes on the TAB should tell you which notes are the long ones, and which are the short and fast ones, but obviously it won't tell you if a note is a triplet or anything like that. Again, this will depend strongly on the person who wrote the TAB.

As an example, here are the first few notes of the American National Anthem in TAB. You should see fairly clearly that the different spacing corresponds to the different note lengths.
E-----------------------0---4--2-0----------------
B---0--------------0----------------------------0-
G------1------1-----------------------1----3------
D--------2----------------------------------------
A-------------------------------------------------
E-------------------------------------------------

Obviously it will be a lot easier to play the TAB for a song you know well than for a song you've never heard of because you will already be familiar with the rhythms of the familiar song.

Tablature symbols

Here's a list of the most commonly used symbols:

h - hammer on
p - pull off
b - bend string up
r - release bend
/ - slide up
\ - slide down
v - vibrato (sometimes written as ~)
t - tap (with strumming hand)
x - muted, struck string

Copyright Howard Wright and the olga-grunts (Howard.Wright@ed.ac.uk)
Originally named A Guide To Tablature Notation by Howard Wright



Question: What does * mean in a TAB? And what do I have to do when a chord apears above a TAB? Play the chord, thats obvious, but what do I have to do with the strings indicated too on the TAB? I can't play the chord and the strings at the same time can I? Or are the strings indicated the same the chord mentioned above it? Loran C. would be grateful if you could answer this, thanks. Also thanks for the help you already gave me by this guide.

Answer: Tabbers sometimes use different symbols, but if they do they should include a key. I am guessing that the * symbol relates to some sort of harmonic. As for the second question, the chord name above the tab is simply the name of the chord you play. For instance, the following example simply means play the chord in the tab (which just happens to be the A chord):

  A
e-0-|
B-2-|
G-2-|
D-2-|
A-0-|
E---|

Thanks a lot :D

Oh and about the hammer on and pull off, I tried looking it up what it was, but I'm from Belgium so the books I have here are in dutch. I couldn't find the dutch translation. If you could please explain it to me what it is, I would be even more grateful (I am very grateful already). And could it be that the H and P are mentionned above the TAB instead of in it? I saw it at the TAB of Under The Brigde by The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Here is the link for the TAB if you would like to see it: http://cleantab.com/under-the-bridge/red-hot-chilli-peppers-guitar-tab/v1

The example below has slides (/ or \), legato slides (// or \\), hammer-ons (h), pull-offs (p), bends and releases (b and r), vibratos (^), taps (T), palm mutes (p.m.) and harmonics (<?>):

                                      T       p.m.-|
e---------------------------------------------------------|
B---------------------------------------------------------|
G---------------------------------------------8--8-8------|
D-------------------------------6^^^--15-(6)--6--6-6------|
A-----------------5h7p5--7b8r7----------------------------|
E-3/5\3--3//7\\5--------------------------------------<7>-|


Slides are simply that: slide the fretted finger up or down to the next indicated fret. Legato slides are the same thing, except slower. Hammer-ons and pull-offs are the opposite of each other and usually work together. To hammer on, fret the first number, then "hammer" the next number with another finger. Pull-offs are trickier because you have to fret the number and then take it off the fret to sound the fretted note before it. Try almost pulling the string with the finger to make the string sound. Bends just mean to push the string into another adjacent strings space. Here the the A string is fretted at the 7th fret then pushed up until it sounds like the note fretted at 8. Releases are just bringing the bend back down to the original note. Tremolos are wavers in the sound and can be played by bending the string slightly and releasing repeatedly and quickly. The taps are located above the tab interface and requires the picking hand to hammer on the string at the indicated fret, then pull off to sound the ghost note (indicated by the parentheses). Palm mutes can be played by laying the picking hand over the strings close to the bridge. The bar after the "p.m." indicates how long to palm mute the strings. Lastly harmonics are played by very lightly touching the string at the indicated fret and plucking the string. Once the harmonic sounds, move your fretting finger so as not to mute the sound. Easy harmonics are at the 12th, 7th and 5th frets, but they can be played elsewhere.

This has been pulled directly from uNDERGROUND tABLATURE at http://ut.mertonslair.com