Guitar Tabs - What are they?

Tablature (or guitar tabs) is a form of musical notation designed for musical instruments which gives the player instructions on where to put their fingers rather than which notes to play. Tablature is often referred to by guitar players as guitar tab for short.

Tablature is commonly written for the guitar and bass, but in principle it can be used for any fretted stringed instrument, including, ukulele, mandolin, and banjo. It is commonly used in notating rock and pop music, and is often seen in folk music.


While standard musical notation represents the pitch and rhythm of each note, guitar tabs instead are a diagrammatic representation of the strings and frets of the instrument, showing where the player should put their fingers to produce the required notes. Tablature therefore represents the performance of the music, rather than the music itself.
Like standard notation, guitar tablature consists of a series of horizontal lines forming a staff (or stave). Each line represents one of the instrument's strings (so standard guitar tab has a six-line staff). Numbers are written on the lines, with each number representing a fret on the instrument. For instance, a number 3 written on the top line of the staff indicates that the player should press down on the high E (top/thin) string (instead of the low E, which is a thicker string) at the third fret.

Guitar Tablature vs. Standard Notation

Tablature has several advantages over standard notation. Since it is a direct visual representation of the instrument's fretboard, it can often be easier and quicker for the player to interpret. Musicians learning to play the guitar or lute often find tablature easier to read, even if they have a strong musical background and are adept at reading standard notation for piano or voice. This is because the guitar and lute, like the piano, are 'harmonic' instruments, meaning that multiple notes are played at once; yet there is more complexity to producing a particular pitch than is the case with the piano: to produce, say, middle C, a pianist simply presses the C key, while a guitarist must select the fifth string, press down the third fret with their left hand, and simultaneously pluck or pick the string with their right hand. These complexities make the relation between standard notation and playing technique the less direct in the case of fretted instruments than in the case of a piano.
Additionally, because standard guitar notation is written on one staff (compared to two staves for keyboard music), interpreting complex chords from standard notation can take a while for even the most experienced guitarist. Tablature does not suffer from this disadvantage.
Another strong advantage of tablature over standard notation is that tablature can easily be represented in a plain-text document, using numbers, letters and symbols to construct a rudimentary representation of an instrument's fretboard. This characteristic makes it easy to distribute tablature electronically, a practice that has become immensely widespread; it is now possible to find tablature for virtually any popular music on the Net. There are thus two types of tablature: 'standard' printed tablature, such as that found in published sheet music (usually along with standard notation), and 'text-tab' or ASCII tab, such as that found on the internet.
Printed guitar tablature looks like this (the tab notation is on the bottom staff, with the equivalent standard notation on top):

ASCII guitar tab is discussed in detail below. Guitar tab does have several disadvantages, however. It is instrument-specific, while standard notation is generic. This limitation means, for instance, that only a guitarist can read guitar tablature, while a melody written in standard notation can be played by any suitable instrument, including guitar.
Another limitation of the simplest form of tablature is that it does not represent the rhythm of the notes, only their pitch. In practice, this is not much of a limitation; some players read tablature and standard notation in tandem, while others listen to a recording to get the 'feel' of the music before consulting the tablature for instructions on how to play. Most published tablature is accompanied by standard notation so the two can be compared. Moreover, several more sophisticated variants of tablature have been developed which do include information about rhythm, and these variants are becoming increasingly common in printed tablature, though the limitations of plain-text format mean that ASCII tab rarely includes such information.

ASCII Guitar Tablature

Tab for a six-string guitar with standard guitar tuning begins with a staff of six lines. In ASCII tab, the tablature for the shape of a C major chord looks like this:

e |-----0------|
B |-----1------|
G |-----0------|
D |-----2------|
A |-----3------|
E |-----x------|

The number on each line corresponds to the fret on the neck of the guitar to be played. Fret "0" means that string is played open, or without any fingering. Fret one is the first fret from the headstock. Guitar tablature is done from high-to-low and left-to-right, like a musical staff. The bottom line on tablature corresponds to the "thick" E string, the one producing the lowest note. The low E string is not played (denoted by x) during a C major chord.

For arpeggiated chords, the notes will be in a progression. For instance, the song "Everybody Hurts" by R.E.M. uses arpeggiated D major and G major chords through the chorus of the song. Here are a D major chord and a G major chord written in tablature form:

e |---2-------3---|
B |---3-------3---|
G |---2-------0---|
D |---0-------0---|
A |---x-------2---|
E |---x-------3---|

The progression of the intro to "Everybody Hurts" looks like this:

e |----------2-----------2-------------3-----------3----|
B |--------3---3-------3---3---------3---3-------3---3--|
G |------2-------2---2-------2-----0-------0---0--------|
D |----0-----------0------------------------------------|
A |-----------------------------------------------------|
E |------------------------------3-----------3----------|

Tablatures often signify the chord being played, above the staff. Fingering the entire shape of a chord rather than the individual notes is a fundamental part of basic guitar knowledge.

Other techniques, such as hammer-ons, string pulls (or pull-offs), slides, and bends are also shown in tablature. Hammer-ons are usually shown with an "h" in between the fret to strike and the fret to hammer on. String pulls are shown with a "p". "Tribute to the Greatest Song in the World" by Tenacious D is one example of a song that uses both of these:

Am (A minor)
e |-------------0-0-0-0-0-0-----0-------0-0-0-0-0-|
B |-------------1-1-1-1-1-1h3p1p0h1-----1-1-1-1-1-|
G |-----0h2-----2-2-2-2-2-2-----2-------2-2-2-2-2-|
D |-0h2-------2-2-2-2-2-2-2-----2-----2-2-2-2-2-2-|
A |---------0---0-0-0-0-0-----------0---0-0-0-0-0-|
E |-----------------------------------------------|

Slides are shown in the same format, but with a slash (/) in between the fret to slide from and the fret to slide to. Slides are used primarily in blues music and country music. "ATWA" by System of a Down is a song that uses these:("ATWA" is played in Drop D tuning)

e |----------------------------------------------------|
B |----------------------------------------------------|
G |----3-----2-----5-----7------8------7-----5-----3---|
D |----------------------------------------------------|
A |----------------------------------------------------|
D |--5---5/3---3/7---7/8---8/10---10/8---8/7---7/5---5-|

Bending is shown by a letter b (not to be confused with a capital B for the B string). In tablature, a bend can show how far the string is to be bent, when the string is to be released (denoted by an r), or that it is a bend to an unspecific note. Examples:

e |---------------------------------------|
B |---------------------------------------|
G |--5b7--------5b7r5--------5b--------5br|
D |---------------------------------------|
A |---------------------------------------|
E |---------------------------------------|

In the first example, a note played at the fifth fret on the G string (the note C) is bent up one full step so that it sounds like a note played at the seventh fret on the G string (the note D); secondly, the same note is played, but the bend is released so that the string again sounds a C note; thirdly, the string is bent to an undetermined note; fourthly, the string is bent to an undetermined note, and released back to the C note.

Copyright 2005 Guitar Player Toolbox

blog counter

Learning Guitar?
You're covered!

Free eBook and Tips

Recommended Resource

Adult Guitar Lessons

Best Online Course- Adult Guitar Lessons