Tablature is a kind of “musical shorthand” that has been around since the 14th century. All modern guitar players should make themselves familiar with reading it because it’s the easiest way to convey melodies and chords. To start reading tab, you’ll need to know the string and fret numbers.
*Remember that your Low E is the thickest string- High E is the thinnest. The bigger the string number, the bigger the string…
If the orientation is confusing, try laying your guitar down in your lap with the strings facing your chin.
TAB is as easy as reading a sentence from left to right. All we need to do is determine what string and fret to play.
Low E STRING (6th)
We already know how the strings are laid out- the numbers placed on the lines (strings) tell us what frets to play. In this simple example we start off playing the 6th string/1st fret, 6th string/2nd fret, 6th string/3rd fret, 6th string/4th fret and finally 6th string/5th fret.
Notice how all the fret numbers were on the same line (the 6th string). You can look at this example and immediately see that we are only using the Low E string.
*How would you annotate an open string? With a 0 (zero). Think of it as “playing no frets” on that string. Some of my students find it easier to think of the zero as the letter O as in Open string.
Let’s try reading another example incorporating open strings and the other five strings.
Try to visualize TAB like you are connecting dots from left to right:
*Just remember that numbers will switch to different lines, BUT THEY ALWAYS READ LEFT TO RIGHT!!!
Can you write out chords with TAB? Sure, but just remember that the L-R movement is a reference for elapsed time. Single notes happen one at a time, but chords hit several notes at one time. To show that the notes occur simultaneously, they need to occur in the same “frame” in time. We notate this by stacking the numbers of the chord in a vertical line.
The example above has you playing a common Em chord at the beginning and end. Because the numbers of the chord are stacked upon each other, they occur simultaneously.
If you see a collective of numbers stacked vertically, you know that you will be playing several notes at once- but just think of that group as just one more number in the Left to Right progression.
TAB does have many benefits (easy to read & write, plenty of TABS available online, etc.), but it does have a few major drawbacks. For one thing, we have no idea how long any of these notes are held. Most melodies have certain notes held longer for emphasis. TAB alone has no way to express this. If I handed you TAB from a song you have never heard, it would be impossible for you to get it right rhythmically.
Standard notation (sheet music) shows us the duration of each note you play, along with the note itself. It is common practice in modern guitar books to have Standard guitar notation with TAB printed directly below. The note values are aligned vertically with their respective TAB numbers so that, with a basic study of note values, you should have a pretty good idea of how long to hold each note.
(*Later on you will find that TAB can contain more advanced information on technique, fingering and phrasing. You can find out more on the TAB GLOSSARY PAGE).
Tuning forks might seem a bit archaic in a world with tuner-equipped guitars and self tuning instruments, but there is a reason they have managed to stay around longer than their ill-fated cousin the pitch pipe (which sounded really annoying and produced questionable pitches).
For one thing, tuning forks never need to be calibrated (meaning they always produce the same pitch). Some old needle type tuners would routinely need to be calibrated-and the trusty “flatware” would correct their deficiencies.
Tuning forks can come in several pitches, but the most common one is A=440 Hz. This is what is known as concert pitch.
***Most all tuning forks have the letter they produce stamped into the handle. Don’t guess-you can break strings and damage the bridge!!!
If your tuning fork is labeled E, this will tune your 6th/Low E string. After it’s tuned, you can tune the other strings the way we learned in the Tuning a Guitar to Itselfsection. Now we are at concert pitch.
If your tuning fork is labeled A, this will tune your 5th/A string.After it’s tuned, you can tune the other strings (DGBE) the way we learned in the Tuning a Guitar to Itselfsection. Remember we still have to tune your 6th/Low E. The easiest way is to play the Low E 5th fret and tune your 6th string to match the open A string.
An essential skill in learning the guitar is how to tune your instrument. The strings are under constant tension and will loosen over time. You should get in the habit of checking the tuning every time you pick up a guitar. Remember, if the tuning is off- everything sounds off.
The best solution is to get a tuner. There are several free tuner apps that you can download, or you could always purchase a clip-on or stand-alone tuner. I’d strongly suggest getting both. A tuner will tune your instrument to a standardized pitch (often referred to as Concert Pitch (A=440)). Click here for the Using a Tuner video.
But you will occasionally find yourself without a tuner handy. In this case, you can tune the guitar to itself -tuning each string relative to each other.
To do this, you’ll need to know the names and numbers of the strings:
Put your right-hand index finger on the 5th (A) string and follow it up to its tuner. If your guitar is strung correctly, turning the tuner clockwise should loosen/lower the pitch.
Turning the tuner counter-clockwise will tighten/raise the pitch.
Play your 5th string open and try raising and lowering the pitch by about a quarter turn.
In the following tuning methods, we will listen to two different pitches. Our job is to decide if the second note is higher/lower and adjust that string to match the other’s pitch.
The most common method is called “5th fret tuning”.
Since we don’t have any reference for concert pitch, let’s assume our Low E string is in tune.
*play the 5th fret on the Low E and tune your open A (5th string) to match that pitch. Play the Low E string (6th) and while it is still ringing, play the A (5th) open. The first pitch is our reference tone. Is the second pitch higher or lower? If the second pitch is too low, we need to tighten it to raise the pitch. If the second pitch is too high, we need to lower it.
(Remember to turn the tuning machine for the A string!!! Low E is our reference. It’s much easier to match these two sounds when they ring simultaneously. Some players will play the two notes and reach over with their PICKING hand and turn the tuner. This way, they can hear both notes at the same time and make adjustments to the A if needed).
After you have matched the tones, your LOW E and A (5th) strings are now in tune with each other.
*Now play the A string/5th fret and tune your open D (4th) string to match it.
*Play the D string/5th fret and tune your open G (3rd) string to match it. *IF YOU HAVE A GUITAR WITH 3 to a side TUNERS, THEY ARE NOW OPPOSITE!!!
Play G string/4th fret and tune your open B (2nd) string to match it.
*Play G string/4th fret and tune your open B (2nd) string to match it.
*Finally play B string/5th fret and tune open High E (1st) to match it.
Now strum a chord and hope for the best.
Tuning with harmonics- video and tab *Remember, if your intonation is off, this will affect the tuning.
The second way is to tune with HARMONICS– progressively matching the new strings pitch to the previous. Many guitarists think that this is easier to hear than the first way, but remember that if a guitar’s intonation is off-the harmonics will be off as well. We’ll use Low E again as our reference pitch. *play the LOW E string’s 5th fret harmonic and tune your A string’s 7th fret harmonic to it. *play the A string’s 5th fret harmonic and tune your D string’s 7th fret harmonic to it. *play the D string’s 5th fret harmonic and tune your G string’s 7th fret harmonic to it. *play the G string’s 4th fret harmonic and tune your B string’s 5th fret harmonic to it. *play the B string’s 5th fret harmonic and tune your High E string’s 7th fret harmonic to it.
Tuning to open strings- video and tab
*If it still sounds bad, repeat the steps.
I lied…there are actually 3 ways to tune without a tuner or tuning fork handy. As your ear gets more practice listening to the differences between 2 tones, you’ll find that you start recognizing how different tones harmonize.
Try this simple ear training exercise. MAKE SURE YOUR GUITAR IS PROPERLY TUNED FIRST!
Play your open D and open G strings together. Can you hear how the two tones work well together- even though they are different pitches (remember the frequency/wavelength idea we talked about at the beginning of the article?) These 2 pitches sound nice together because they complement each other. Now try lowering/flattening just your G string about a quarter turn. Our nice harmony just went out the window! The vibrations sound really harsh in comparison. Now play your open D and open G strings together again. While they ring out, try to SLOWLY raise/sharpen the pitch of the G string until it compliments the D. If you tune slowly, you will hear the frequencies start to merge like a picture coming into focus.
Start listening to how different open strings complement one another and eventually you can tune all of your strings without fretting anything!!!
*A note on tuning with distortion:
Only tune with distortion if you are using the last two methods.
Distortion adds sustain to the two notes and clarifies/ accentuates the harmonics we are using to tune.