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).
There are several ways to notate musical examples for the guitar. Standard Notation, Tablature (TAB) and Chord/Scale charts are the most common.
Chord and Scale charts are actually pretty simple once you understand the orientation.
The 6 vertical lines represent each string. The horizontal lines represent each fret.
The example above shows five frets of the guitar neck,
but chord/scale charts can contain as many frets as needed.
***Always assume the 1st space is the 1st fret…
…unless you see a fret number indicating a specific fret.
*If a fret number is specified, use the pattern based on that fret!
Now that you understand the orientation of the neck graphic, we need to number our fretting fingers…
(*it’s not uncommon to use your fretting thumb (T) to produce chords.)
Make sure you understand that:
1st finger=index finger
2nd finger=middle finger
3rd finger=ring finger
*By putting finger numbers on the chord/scale charts, we can create pictorial diagrams of a given chord.
To play this example, you would simply put your index finger (1) on the 5th string/2nd fret and your middle finger (2) on the 4th string/2nd fret. This is a chord called E minor (Em).
But wait!!! We need to know what strings to strum…
Strings are often omitted from a chord. Chord charts use a combination of X’s & O’s to tell us which strings to play or not (you always play the notes that you are fretting).
O=include this open string
Play the shape and strum all of the strings. Are we making music yet? If you are confused, reread the earlier sections of this article.
Let’s try a chord that omits 2 strings:
This chord (Fmaj7) can be made by putting your index on the 2nd string/1st fret, your middle on the 3rd string/2nd fret and your ring on the 4th string/3rd fret. Strum the 1st 4 strings.
REMEMBER NOT TO STRUM THE 5th & 6th STRINGS-THEY HAVE BEEN X’D OUT OF THE CHORD!!!
The orientation for chords and scale charts is the same:
The main difference with scale charts is how they explain fingering. In scales, one finger plays several notes on different strings. You can usually find a logical pattern in a given shape to “assign” a given finger to a specific fret:
This diagram reminds us that the index plays ALL the notes on the 2nd fret,the ring plays ALL the notes on the 4th fret and the pinky is stuck with ALL the notes on the 5th fret. (Notice we don’t use our middle in this example. If we had notes to play on the 3rd fret, it would be logical to use our middle finger to play it.
*Get REALLY used to this four finger grouping-
we’ll refer back to it often!!!
Now all we have to learn is the direction to play the scale.
If we want to play the scale ascending (Low to High), we would start on our root/tonic indicated by the circled dot. Now we continue up that string until we are out of notes. Now we move to the lowest note on the next string playing from Low to High. Continue this process until you are out of notes and/or strings…
Here is what it looks like in tab:
*To play the scale descending (going from High to Low), we would just reverse the order.
Most common scales use seven notes to give their specific sound, but we can also play “diet” FIVE note versions. A PENTATONIC SCALE is just a five note version of a full seven note scale (penta=five tonic=tone). Pentatonic just means omitting two notes from a given 7 note scale (there is also such a thing as a MAJOR Pentatonic scale that uses only five of the seven Major scale notes. We’ll learn all about this scale later). If you think of a full 7 note scale as a human body, the 5 note pentatonic version would be the skeleton. These skeletal notes give us the general outline of the full scale.
But why would I want to play a truncated version of a bigger scale? If I have 7 notes at my disposal why don’t I use them all?
Good question. The answer is simple-“less is more“. The more notes a scale has, the smoother it sounds (the space between notes is shorter). But when we play a pentatonic scale with less notes, it sounds more open and immediate. Pentatonic scales cut out the fat and get right to the meat of the scale. Think of them as “bullet points” for a scale-they give you just the highlights.
Because they sound so direct, they are used in several styles of music. Straight ahead R&R, Country, Rhythm & Blues, Folk, World Music, etc. all use these simple yet intimate scales in their respective genres.
Do you remember the FOUR FRET BLOCK that we learned earlier?
The Minor pentatonic scale incorporates this fingering but doesn’t use the middle (2nd) finger.
QUIZ TIME!!! HOW MANY MINOR PENTATONIC SCALES ARE THERE???
Twelve. Remember that minor pentatonic is just a scale formula or shape. We can start this shape on any of our 12 chromatic notes to produce 12 minor pentatonic scales. The same is true for other scales. For each type of scale, there are 12 possible starting places-meaning there are 12 of every kind of scale.
If, for example, we wanted to play an F# minor pentatonic scale, we would start on the letter F# as our tonic. Since our circled tonic is on the LOW E string, we need to find an F# on that string. From there, just follow the orange line for direction. Here is how you would play an F# minor pentatonic scale. Just remember that your index always plays the second fret, your ring (3rd finger) plays the fourth fret and your pinky plays the fifth fret in this example:
Follow the blue arrow to play the scale backwards (descending):
Here is the F# minor pentatonic scale ascending and descending: