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TabNabber's Guide to Guitar Chords and Tablature

 

How to READ GUITAR CHORDS and TABS

A GUIDE TO GUITAR TAB NOTATION

Adapted from Howard Wright's (OLGA) guide to tablature

Last Updated: Oct 2014
 

Contents

 

What is a Tab?

"Guitar Tab" or "tablature" is a method of writing down (or transcribing) notes and chords in music.  Tabs, unlike standard musical notation, do not use symbols (ie: ) to represent notes. 

Most tabs are easier to read - but not nearly as detailed - as traditional sheet music.  Tabs enable both beginners and experienced musicians alike to learn, share, and expand their music making talents.

TabNabber is proud to be the only place where you can take guitar tabs from other sites and easily play them in our midi player and hear what they actually sound like.

 

 

Guitar Tab Notation - the basics:

Guitar tabs show you what notes to play, which strings to strum and which fret to fret it at.  Tabs usually won't show you anything about picking, strumming, or where to use upstrokes / downstrokes.

Start out with 6 lines (or four for bass). These correspond to the strings of the instrument. The top line is the highest pitch "e" string, and the bottom line is the lowest pitch "e" string. If the string names aren't given explicitly, assume normal (e-b-g-d-a-e) tuning.  Here are some blank tab lines with only the string names:
 
Guitar Tab (normal tuning) Bass Tab
E|-----------------------------------
B|-----------------------------------
G|-----------------------------------
D|-----------------------------------
A|-----------------------------------
E|-----------------------------------
G|-----------------------------------
D|-----------------------------------
A|-----------------------------------
E|-----------------------------------

The numbers on the lines show where to fret the string (with your fingers). A zero ("0") means play the open string. "1" means to play the string with your finger on the 1st fret.  Like standard musical notation, you read from left to right. The following piece of tab would mean play the sequence of notes (E, F, F#, G, G#, A) - one at a time - all 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---
   Play!   <- Click the play button to hear it!
OK so far?  If two or more notes are to be played together, they are written on top of one another.  Here we have a G bar chord:
E|----3-----------------
B|----3-----------------
G|----4-----------------
D|----5-----------------
A|----5-----------------
E|----3-----------------
   Play!
So this means play all these notes together as a chord.  The same chord could be written like this:
E|--------3-------------
B|-------3--------------
G|------4---------------
D|-----5----------------
A|----5-----------------
E|---3------------------
   Play!
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--
   Play!
You might ask - How do I know how fast or slow to play this ? Are all the notes supposed to be the same length?  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).  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. 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----------------------------------------------------------------
   Play!

 

 

Chords in a Tab:

Most songs can be broken down into a sequence of chords (2 or more notes played simultaneously).  Tabs that list out a song's chords are often easy to read and play and write!  So, instead of writing this:

E|---2---
B|---1---
G|---2---
D|---0---
A|---0---
E|-------

You could also define (or redefine) the chord in this format:

EADGBE     <-String names
x00212     <-Frets
Note that in this chord form, an 'x' means to not play the string. You could represent the same thing simply as:

[D7]

This is the easiest way to represent a chord.  We'll automatically link chords in brackets like the one above with a handy chord chart.  Here's how to read the chart:

 

Guitar Chord Chart Diagram:
 

If you want to explicitly describe how each chord should be played, then you can redefine them and show the chord shapes like this:

EADGBE   EADGBE   EADGBE   EADGBE   EADGBE
x02020   x02010   320003   xx0232   x00003

 [A7]    [Am7]     [G]      [D]      [G/A]

Note the [G/A] chord chart looks just the [G] chord chart.  They are almost the same chord, but the slash in [G/A] indicates there is an additional "A" note. Chords with the slash ("/") are called "split chords". A split chord is just a regular chord with an additional bass note. The slash separates the chord name and the bass note. So the [G/A] chord is actually an "G" major chord with a lower "A" bass note added to it. [D/Bb] would be a "D" major chord with a "Bb" note added to it.

 

Advanced symbols in Tab

Other important information that can be included in a tab includes hammer-ons, pull offs, slides, bends and vibrato.  The standard practice is to write extra letters or symbols between notes to indicate how to play them. Here are the symbols most often used :

  • h - hammer on (also written as "^" - for a hammer on or pull off) 
  • p - pull off
  • b - bend string up
  • r - release bend
  • / - slide up  (also written as "s" - for an up or down slide)
  • \ - slide down
  • v - vibrato or tremolo (also written as "~"). Created by wiggling the string back and forth.
  • t - note is tapped. As taps can be done with either hand, you may see an L or R next to the T (indicating the Left or Right hand). Otherwise, assume the Right Hand (strumming hand).
  • x - play string muted - with heavy damping to get a choppy, percussive sound. Use your fretting hand to lightly damp the string so that when played it sounds dead. Note that the use of an x in tablature is totally different from the use of an x in chords.

Bass tabs use a few extra symbols for the different techniques used in bass playing. These bass symbols are often written underneath the lines of tab (so they're not confused with slides and pulloffs), and include:

  • S - a thumb slap
  • P - a pop

   

Hammer ons and pull offs 

Hammer ons are played by quickly and firmly pressing a finger on the fret (without picking the string).  In this example you would strum the open E string twice, then strum the A string at the 5th fret and hammer on the 7th fret:
E--------------------------------
B--------------------------------
G--------------------------------
D--------------------------------
A---------5h7-----------5h7------
E---0--0----------0--0-----------
Pull offs are played by quickly releasing a finger on a fret (without picking the string). In this example of pull offs,  you would pick the notes on the 2nd fret with your right (strumming) hand, and the open strings would be sounded by pulling off:
E----2p0------------------------
B---------2p0-------------------
G--------------2p0--------------
D-------------------------------
A-------------------------------
E-------------------------------

In hammer-ons and pull-offs, the second note tends to be less loud than the first (especially on an acoustic).  A slight sideways motion of the fretting finger while pulling off will add extra vibration to the string and give you some extra volume.  Here's another example, a long string of hammer-ons and pull-offs, where only the first note would be picked:

E------------------------------
B------------------------------
G---2h4p2h4p2h4p2h4p2h4p2------
D------------------------------
A------------------------------
E------------------------------

   

Bends

When bends are involved you need to know how much to bend the note up. This is indicated by writing a number after the 'b'. For example, if you see this:
E--------------------
B------7b9-----------
G--------------------
D--------------------
A--------------------
E--------------------
it means strike the B string at the 7th fret, then bend the note up two semitones (one whole step) so that it sounds the same pitch as a note fretted at the 9th fret would do. The bent note can be put in brackets, eg: ---7b(9)---. The bend can then be released like this:

E------------------
B------7b9--9r7----
G------------------
D------------------
A------------------
E------------------
Here we would play the note at the 7th fret, bend up two semitones, strike the note again while it is still bent, then release the bend so that the note has it's normal pitch. Sometimes a pre-bend is used - this is where the string is bent up *before* the note is struck. After striking the note, the bend is released. Pre-bends are usually written like this:
E------------------
B------(7)b9r7-----
G------------------
D------------------
A------------------
E------------------
This means: fret the note at the 7th fret and bend the string up two semitones (without actually playing the note). Now strike the string and release the bend.

You sometimes get a note which is bent up only a quarter of a tone or so. In these cases it's best to write instructions on how much to bend above the note, like so:

      bend up 1/4 tone
E----------------------
B------7b--------------
G----------------------
D----------------------
A----------------------
E----------------------
   

Slides

The most common symbols used for slides are / for a slide up and \ for a slide down.  You might also see 's' used to mean slide.  You don't always need separate symbols for 'up' and 'down' slides since a line of tab reading :
E-------------
B------7/9----
G-------------
D-------------
A-------------
E-------------
is clearly a slide up from 7th to 9th fret. However you might also see things like these :
E---------------
B------/7-9-7\--
G---------------
D---------------
A---------------
E---------------
where the exact start or finish of a slide is not given. Here you have to know whether you're sliding up or down. In these cases use your judgment to choose the starting or finishing fret. The effect usually desired is to have a note 'swooping in' from a lower pitch or dropping suddenly in pitch as the note fades. You could have a whole series of slides running together, like this:
E----------------------------
B------7/9/11\9\7\6\7--------
G----------------------------
D----------------------------
A----------------------------
E----------------------------
In this example, you would only strike the first note with the pick using the sustain to produce the other notes.

[Back To Contents]

   

Writing Guitar Tablature 

So you've decided to share your musical and transcribing talents with the world.  Congratulations, thanks, and welcome, fellow tabber!

One of the most important things to do when tabbing is to decide exactly how much detail to include, and whether to tab it with chords, tab lines, or both. Questions you can ask yourself are:

  • Is the song played using mostly chords?
  • Are there a number of riffs which appear throughout the song?
  • Is there a clear verse/chorus/middle bit structure?

If you're writing a tab outside of TabNabber, make sure the font characters you use are monospaced - all the same width - "Courier" and "Courier New" are common. If an 'm' is wider than an 'i' character then your tab will be hard to space out correctly and will therefore - most likely - suck.

   

Tab Writing Tips

Here's some tips to make your tabs clear and easily readable.
  • Use     spaces   !

    It's amazing the difference it can make if you insert a few blank lines in the right place. If you are used to writing the words above or below the lines of tab make sure you leave a few lines free so that it's clear whether the words belong to the line of tab above or below. Space out the individual lines and the tab will be a lot easier to understand.

  • Define the symbols you use.

    Hammer ons and bends are represented by a fairly standard set of symbols.  Other effects, such as grace notes and harmonics you may see a variety of symbols used. Even in standard music notation, an accepted way of writing natural and artificial harmonics has never been agreed upon! Using brackets, eg: "<>", is the most common way of writing harmonics, so a natural harmonic at the 12th fret would be :

E----------------
B----------------
G----------------
D----------------
A----------------
E------<12>------
Grace notes (or optional notes) are usually designated using parentheses, eg: "()".  If you are writing a tab with harmonics, it's best to add a comment to specify whether they are natural harmonics (most commonly at the 5th, 7th and 12th frets) or artificial (pinched) harmonics. With artificial harmonics, you have to fret a note with the left hand (say at the 2nd fret) and pinch the harmonic an octave above (at the 14th fret) so you should make it clear whether the number you write in the tab is the fretted or pinched note. It is more common to tab out the pinched notes, so if you see tab like this :
E----------------------------------------------------------------
B----------------------------------------------------------------
G----------------------------------------------------------------
D----------------------------------------------------------------
A----------------------------------------------------------------
E------<14>--<16>--<17>--<16>--<14>------------------------------
It will usually mean fret notes at the 2nd, 4th and 5th frets, and play the artificial harmonics at the frets shown in the tab.
  • Identify and Label Song Structures

    Many songs have clear 'verse' and 'chorus' structures - so you can tab the riffs/chords once and then indicate where they repeat. Or there may be riffs which are reused - so when you tab these out you can label them 'Riff One' and 'Riff Two' and when they repeat in the song you can just say 'repeat Riff One four times' (instead of tabbing the whole thing again).

  • Include Artist / Album / other details and comments

    Including song information on the composers, recording artists, albums, or if the song is used on a tv show or soundtrack will help more people find your tab through search engines. Note: Please see our terms of use for site specific policies on what kinds of material are allowed.

Indicating features such as alternative tunings and use of capos will help give your fellow musicians hit the right notes and understand the playing style.

For a tab using a capo, it's standard practice to write the numbers of the frets relative to the position of the capo. If you had a D major shape with a capo at the 2nd fret the tab would be :

E----2-------
B----3-------
G----2-------
D----0-------
A------------
E------------
The notes fretted on the top three strings are 2 or 3 frets above the capo position, so they are written with the numbers 2 or 3, even though you actually fret the notes at the 4th and 5th frets.

When writing out the names of chords played using a capo, it's usually best to use chord names that take into account the actual pitch of the notes. For example, in the tab example above, guitarists recognize the chord shape as a "D shape", but because the capo is at the 2nd fret the actual chord is an E (2 semitones up from a D), so you should write the chord name as E. This makes it easier for other musicians (or other guitarists who aren't using a capo) to play along in the right key.

It's similar with tab for guitars tuned a semitone or tone lower than usual. If a song should be played with the guitar tuned to Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb, and it has this chord :

Eb-----0---------
Bb-----0---------
Gb-----1---------
Db-----2---------
Ab-----2---------
Eb-----0---------
although it "looks like an E chord" it is actually an Eb, because of the tuning, so in the long run, it avoids confusion to call it an Eb.
  • Rhythm / Timing information

    Timing and note lengths are most often determined by varying the amount of spaces/dashes between notes.  Use of bar lines (staff) is also a helpful way of conveying timing information.  Each staff is assumed to be equal lengths of time.  Simply insert vertical lines like this -|- to indicate the end of a bar. Here's the national anthem example we had before with bar lines:

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

However if you want to get fancy about it, you may wish to make the timing in your tabs more closely resemble sheet music. One way of doing this is to use one letter/symbol for each note type.  For example use e for 8th note (quaver), s for 16th note (semi- quaver) and so on. The letters you use may well differ depending on whether you're used to the American system of quarter notes, 8th notes etc or the English system of crotchets and quavers:

American SystemEnglish System
whole notesemibreve
half noteminim
quarter notecrotchet
8th notequaver
16th notesemiquaver
32nd notedemisemiquaver
64th notehemidemisemiquaver

Simply write the timing letters above the corresponding note in the tab.  Here's an example with q for quarter note, e for 8th note and t for triplet quarter note:

    q    e  e  t  t  t    q   e  e  t  t  t
E--------0-----------0--------0-----------0----------------------
B-----------2-----0--------------2-----0-------------------------
G---2----------2----------2---------2----------------------------
D----------------------------------------------------------------
A----------------------------------------------------------------
E----------------------------------------------------------------

If you include timing information like this then it's essential to explain the system you used so others can work out what the hell you're on about.

  • Lyrics

    It's easier to follow a piece of tab when you have some of the lyrics to follow and you can match up the notes/riffs in the tab to the lyrics. It will also help more people find your tab through search engines. Note: Please see our terms of use for site specific policies on what kinds of material is allowed.

[Back To Contents]

   

Tab Writing Tips - THINGS TO AVOID

  • Crowded numbers
  • In the first tab below, you can't tell if you are supposed to play 1-2-1, or 12-1, or 1-21. Moral: keep at least one space between each separate note.

    Hard to read   Easy to read
    E--------|
    B-121--12|
    G--------|
    D--------|
    A--------|
    E--------|
    E-----------|
    B-1-2-1--1-2|
    G-----------|
    D-----------|
    A-----------|
    E-----------|

  • Fat Tab Lines
  • Tab lines that are too wide can be difficult to read due to line wrapping. More than 80 characters on a single line of tab can end up spanning multiple lines, like this:

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

    Disgusting. Even if it looks fine because you can fit the whole thing on your screen, other viewers could run into problems. Just make sure the maximum width of your lines are less than 80 characters, you fatty.



  • Very squashed TAB
  • It's amazing how easy it is to ruin an otherwise good piece of tab by not spacing it out so that the end result is a mass of cramped text. See if you can insert a few blank lines here and there to separate verse from chorus or whatever. It really does make it a lot easier for others to read.



  • Unneeded, repetitious, unnecessary repetition
  • If a line of tab or a particular riff is repeated a number of times, then tab it once.  It's also easier to read like this.

Have an addition or improvement to the tab notation?

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