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).
As we learned on the Introduction to notes page, music is comprised of a sequence of 12 notes that repeat as many times as your instrument can manage. Think about a standard piano keyboard with 88 keys. These aren’t all different notes, rather the 12 note sequence has been repeated 7 1/3 times. The guitar isn’t mapped out as visually as the piano (with its symmetric pattern of white and black keys), but we still follow the same sequence of twelve notes.
On a guitar, the more frets you have allow you to play more notes of the sequence. All guitars have at least 12 frets, so we know that they can hold at least one octave worth of music. A standard 22 fret neck goes 10 notes higher in the sequence.
Do you remember the string names from the Using a Digital Tunerpage?
“Eddie Ate Dynamite Good Bye, Eddie!”
(6th) (5th)(4th) (3rd) (2nd)(1st)
(LOW/thick strings) (HIGH/thin strings)
Let’s try to figure out the notes up the Low E (6th) string. We start on that note and count through the next note in the chromatic sequence. You can use this chart as a reference:
Starting here and counting “up” >
*Remember- it doesn’t matter where you start in the sequence. Just keep counting from one note to the next. (When you get to G#/Ab, the sequence starts over again on A).
If we count up (going L to R in the sequence)from the letter E, we get:
E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E
Here is how it would look on the guitar:
*You can find the rest of the notes on the Low E string by simply continuing the sequence until you run out of frets. You can fill in this chart using the same method that we used for the Low E string. Simply find the open string letter and count up the sequence from there. You will know you did it right if the 12th fret (the double dot) reads EADGBE again. We know there are only twelve notes in music, so wherever you start on a string, you can count up 12 frets and be on the octave of the same note you started on. (We don’t count the number we start on-that’s why you don’t end up with 13).
Most beginners feel that their hands are completely uncoordinated and independent of each other. This is a common complaint, but luckily there are several exercises and techniques that can help you to synchronize your left & right hands. Concentrate on placing your fretting hand on the correct fret while striking that same string with your picking hand. Both hands should “hit” at the same time.
Here’s an easy exercise: Start with your index finger on the Low E/5th fret. Next place your middle finger Low E/6th fret. Move over to the A string and play index (5th fret) and middle (6th fret). Follow this pattern up and down-while keeping the same fingering for the same frets.
You should get in the habit of playing every musical example forwards and backwards. Not only will your technique improve, but your ear will improve as well. Here is the same example switching the finger order . You’ll still use your index for the 5th fret and your middle for the 6th.
Now let’s try adding a third finger to the mix. Your index plays 5th fret, middle plays 6th fret & your ring plays the 7th fret:
Here is the the same example backwards (remember to keep the same fingering):
We can’t forget about the pinky, so…Your index plays 5th fret, middle plays 6th fret, ring plays the 7th fret & pinky takes the 8th fret.
And backwards (remember to keep the same fingering):
Notice that when we use all four fingers, we cover four frets (using one finger per fret). This “four fret block” is very important because it allows you to span two octaves without shifting your arm up or down the neck.
You can see how we used the four fret block in the exercises above. Let’s move it to a different fret and try to mimic the same fingering. Start on the Low E/12th fret with your index finger, then play Low E/13th fret with your middle. Next move your index to the A string/12th fret followed by your middle on the A string/13th fret, and so on. You’ll notice that this is the same fingering we did in the first example.
Try adding additional fingers until you can repeat the original exercises in this new location. Remember- you can move this four finger block anywhere on the neck…and you should. JUST REMEMBER TO KEEP THE BLOCK’S SHAPE INTACT! The same fingers should remain on the same frets throughout these exercises.
Practice these shapes on the lower, middle and higher registers, and you’ll feel comfortable playing anywhere on the neck.
*In the next lesson we’ll learn our first scale (the Chromatic Scale). It also uses the four fret block…but with a twist…
**Newbs are free to move on to the next lesson, OR stick around for some advanced finger independence.
In all of the previous examples, we used consecutive fingers to play from low-high, or high-low. Kind of like how you might drum your fingers on your desktop. Start the four fret block any where you like and try to play these sequences from string to string using: