You are currently viewing Brain-Dead Simple Way to Read Guitar Tabs – Full Guide

Last Updated on February 13, 2024 by Teemu Suomala

photo reveals owner of guitaristnextdoor.com

Author: Teemu Suomala

I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I love guitars and have played dozens and dozens of different guitars through different amps and pedals over the years, and also, building a website interested me, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website.

I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have also been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as SongsterrMusicnotesGuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar.

I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog (I guess that went the right way…).


Want to make learning your favorite songs easier for you? Tabs (tablatures) will help you do just that!

When you start playing the guitar, learning from guitar tabs is a good choice. Period. I’m so glad that I did that when I started, it made learning songs a lot easier for me. In my opinion, reading guitar tabs is one of the easiest ways to learn songs for beginners.

But how to read guitar tabs you might ask…

In this post, you will learn all that you need about how to read guitar tab. I included videos, photos, and text for you. Let’s get started!


How do you read Guitar tabS?

Guitar tab is read left to right, the top to bottom. This is much the same way people read books in most countries. This is also the same direction standard notation is read.

The guitar tab staff (horizontal lines) represent the guitar strings with the thickest string (low e string) at the bottom and the thinnest string (high e string) at the top.

What do the big numbers mean in guitar tabs?

The numbers represent the frets that need to be pressed behind with the fretting hand (hand on the neck) to then be played with the strumming/picking hand (hand over the guitar body) to make the note.

What does 0 mean in Guitar tabs?

0 (zero) represents the open string. This is when you do not fret (press behind a fret) any string. You simply sound (with your strumming/picking hand) the string without using your fret hand.

How to Read Guitar Tabs (A more detailed version)

If video works best for you, watch this video and you learn the basics in 5 minutes. I also wrote a text version(with photos) for you. These are below the video.

YouTube video

Learn How To Read TAB in 5 Minutes

Text version:

Reading guitar tab, you look at the guitar fretboard from up, like this:

Guitar Fretboard From above

Here’s what this looks like on paper or screen:

image shows how to read guitar tabs from thinnest to thickest string

Six horizontal lines represent the six strings of the guitar. Thickest at the bottom and thinnest at the top.

When you are looking at tabs, those horizontal lines include numbers. Usually from 0 to 24. Those numbers show you which fret you should play/press. 0 is an open string, 1 is the 1st fret, 2 is the 2nd fret, 3 is the 3rd fret, and so on… It looks like this:

image reveals basic of guitar tabulature
You play from left to right. So the 1st fret on the left is played first.

That really covered up all the basics, tablatures are really simple. You can now learn songs with tabs!

When you are starting out, you only need to know these basics, but when you learn more and more, you will face more and more symbols.

I recommend that you bookmark this site, go play the guitar and learn new songs. When you learn songs from tabs, at some point you will face some unknown symbols, then you can go back here and learn what those guitar tab symbols mean.

If you want to learn about symbol meanings now, keep reading.

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Other Tab Symbols and Techniques

Tablature softwares and raw tabs use a little bit different symbols. I’m going to show you both symbols and meanings.

Hammer ons and Pull offs

What does h mean in guitar tabs?

An ‘h’ in tablature stands for “hammer on”. This is when you hammer the string with your fret hand without any help or strumming of your pick hand. This produces a note without plucking.

What does p mean in guitar tabs?

The ‘p’ in guitar tabs mean “pull off”. This is the opposite of the hammer on. This is when you reverse the hammer on by “pulling” (similar to plucking) your fretted finger off the string to sound the note you are fretting below the higher note.

These two techniques look like this in modern tabs:

image reveals how Hammer-on and pull-of in tabs

In the “hammer-on” above, one of your fingers is already pressing the 10th fret of the B string. Then you hammer the 12th fret with one of your other fingers.

In pull-of above, you do it in another way around, you pull your finger out of the 12th fret and let the 10th string ring.

Slides and Vibrato

What does / mean in guitar tabs?

‘/’ shows us to ‘slide’ the note upwards. The slide will have the first number at the bottom and the second number at the top. You play the 1st fret number and slide to the 2nd fret number at the pace given by the music. You need to arrive at the second number on the correct beat.

Slides are also denoted by an ‘s’ sometimes.

What does \ mean in guitar tabs?

‘\’ shows us to ‘slide’ the note downwards. This time the slide will the first number at the top of the slope and the second number at the bottom. You will play the 1st fret number and slide down to the 2nd fret number at the pace given by the music. You need to arrive at the second number on the correct beat.

What does ~ mean in guitar tabs?

The ‘~’ (known as the ’tilde’ symbol) represents vibrato. This is similar to multiple bend-releases back to back. Normally this happens as fast as the player can perform it so it is very hard to notate this accurately. It is a useful technique for maintaining sustain on a note.

In slide, you, play a note from the fret and slide your finger to another fret. In this tab, you play the 4th fret and slide your hand to the 7th fret of the B strings. All this time the string should make a sound.

To perform Vibrato, you vibrate/shake your fret finger after pressing and playing a specific fret.
In TAB these look like this:

image reveals how Slides and vibrato look on tabs

Percussive Playing Techniques

What does pm mean in guitar tabs?

No, you do not need to play the note in the afternoon! This stands for “palm mute”. This technique is a percussive playing technique that stops the note playing out, making the sound muted and lower in tone. This is very common in rock and metal, and is the foundation of thrash riffing. It does appear in other genres but rock genres use it extensively.

To palm mute you simply rest the heel of you hand on the strings close to the bridge and strike the strings normally with your plectrum/pick.

What does x mean in guitar tabs?

This is similar to palm muting but happens with the fretting hand. The ‘x’ is known as a “dead note”. You apply uniform pressure, but not fretting, with your fretting (neck) hand and strike the strings normally with your playing (guitar body) hand.

This is also known as a “left hand mute”.

When you are palm muting, you place picking hand at the edge of the bridge and lightly touch the string there.

Palm mute is a technique, which can be taught easily with a video such as this.

YouTube video

How to Read Guitar Tabs: How to Read Palm Muting on Guitar Tabs
image reveals how Palm mute and dead notes look in tabs

When you want to play dead notes, you just block the strings with your fret hand and play those same strings with your picking hand.

Bend Techniques

What does b mean in guitar tabs?

‘b’ represents a bend in guitar tabs. This technique is when you push the string across the fretboard after sounding the note. This “bends” the note upwards. Bending guitar strings is very common in blues, but is used across most genres.

A bend is sometimes indicated by a ‘^

What does pb mean in guitar tabs?

‘pb’ is “pre bend”. Strings under increased tension provide different feedback to the player. The string is bent before the note is sounded. By pre-bending it is easier to move the string about to play with the note. This technique is very important to blues soloing.

What does br mean in guitar tabs?

No, this is not a British technique! This signifies that you will bend the note up and then release it down whilst maintaining the sound. You might strike the note once or many times during this process.

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What does pbr mean in guitar tabs?

‘pbr’ is “pre bend release”. This technique allows for the opposite effect to a bend. Instead of the note being bent up, it is released down. By pushing the string across the fretboard before sounding the note you can release the bend and lower the pitch.

What does brb mean in guitar tabs?

‘brb’ mean ‘bend release bend’. This signifies that the string will be stretched, released and stretched again whilst maintaining the sound. This can be done with high sustain or by repeatedly playing the string as you change the pitch.

If you want to perform a bend, you raise or lower the string from a certain note with your fret hand. When the tone reaches the sound of one fret forward(for example: you bend the 8th fret and it starts to sound like the 9th fret) it’s called a Half bend. If it reaches the sound of two frets forward, it’s called a Full bend (for example: you bend the 8th fret and it starts to sound like the 10th fret).

Bends look like this in a TAB:

image reveals how Bends look in tabs

GUITAR TRICKS LIKE TAPPING AND HARMONICS

What does t mean in guitar tabs?

‘t’ is for two-handed tapping. Just watching any Eddie Van Halen for more than 30 seconds and you’ll see what this is. Whilst playing a note on a string you use the picking hand to strike another note on the fretboard. This is the same technique as a hammer on, but with your playing (guitar body) hand.

There are also times where you will tap with both hands and even perform pull-offs with the fretboard (neck) hand. Again, watch Eddie Van Halen. Sure, many other guitarists use this technique, yet it is EVH who is credited with bringing this technique to the mainstream.

When you are tapping, you use your picking hand to tap specific frets. You can use the pick or fingers. This is one of the coolest techniques in my opinion, and it’s relatively easy to learn too, especially the one-string tapping.

What does + mean in guitar tabs?

A ‘+’ is a harmonic note. You will also see bracketed numbers such as <7> for harmonics. There are a variety of harmonic techniques for the guitar such as touch harmonics, 12 fret harmonic tapping and pinch harmonics (this is a whole other post, hey Teemu, what do you think?)

All of these techniques produce the effect of allowing the natural harmonics of a note to sound out more than the actual note. This has a bell like tone or an almost screaming tone for the pinch harmonic.

Natural harmonics are high notes, that sound like a bell or flute. You can play these by gently pressing the fret bar, after that, play the note and release your finger from the stings. There are a couple of different natural harmonic symbols, I’ll show you three different versions.

Tapping and harmonics look like this in a TAB:

image reveals how Tapping and natural harmonics look on tab

Raw tab symbols

You saw a lot of these raw tabs back in the day. People made these tabs using simple text-softwares. And sometimes you can still find some of these when searching for tabs.

Here are basic tab symbols used in raw tabs:

SymbolMeaning
hhammer on
ppull off
/slide up
\slide down
xdead note
~vibrato
bbend
+harmonic
pbpre-bend
brbend release
pbrpre-bend release
brbbend release bend
Ttap this note with the pick hand
P.M.palm mute

These are the basic and slightly less basic tab symbols. There are also other less common technique symbols in tabs, but if these are used, the maker of to tab usually provides symbol meanings for you.


How to Make Things Even Easier

If you want to make learning even easier, Tab-software/interactive tabs can do just that. You can learn, see, and hear how the song sounds at the same time. You can also easily learn the right speed and rhythm, and you get a simple backing track to play along. I would recommend Songsterr for this purpose. I use it and it’s great!


FAQs

Is it hard to read Guitar tabs?

With any new knowledge, it can take a little time to get used to using guitar tabs. That said, it is far more intuitive for people that don’t know how to read traditional sheet music.

With the same note being available in multiple positions on the guitar it is useful to have guidance as to where your hand should be on the fretboard at any time.

This saves the player from moving about unnecessarily. This is why guitar tabs are more popular than sheet music outside of classical guitar playing. It is sheet music for guitarists, by guitarists.

How do you read Guitar tabs like a pro?

We all learn at a different pace and have a different style of learning. However, it is almost certain for people with no previous music theory training that learning guitar tabs is far more intuitive than learning to read sheet music.

Learning your favorite songs on the guitar will have your rapidly learning to use tabs. With a little practice you’ll soon be able to sight-read on the guitar.

Personally, I learned to reading music on the piano. I can sight-read the piano. However, when I started to learn the guitar I found it easier to learn tab than to learn to sight-read sheet music for the guitar.

Why can’t guitarists learn sheet music?

They can, and they do! It is just a lot easier to learn tab, so you’ll rarely meet a guitarist who extensively uses traditional music notation.

My favorite guitar teacher looked at Joe Satriani’s “Circles” (Surfing With The Alien) tab and sheet music. He sight-read the sheet music on his ES355 (jazz musician) and played it in a completely different position to the tabs. He was using open strings whenever he could. It sounded perfect (maybe even better).

I still have a tiny itch to apply my sheet music knowledge to the guitar….but tabs are SO easy to master!

How do guitarists remember tabs?

Repetition in practice. This is how we learn anything well. Muscle memory takes time to develop. We all learned to walk by falling over.

Go, make your mistakes and then improve on that. You’ll be a guitar pro and have the “Beat It” solo memorized quicker than you think!

Can you practice guitar too much?

Yes. There comes a point when you will start to get muscle strains. This is known as RSI (repetitive strain injury). You want to avoid this where you can.

Up to 4 hours a day would be very dedicated. Pay attention to your body, do not ignore aches and pains. If there is any discomfort, stop. Give your hands a break. There is always tomorrow.

What is a ghost note in guitar?

A ghost note is a note in tablature that is not being played. You will see these bracketed in round brackets, such as (5). This indicates that this note is not being played but is still being fretted or might have been sounded by an effects pedal or heavy sustain.

Are left handed guitar tabs different?

No, they are not. In fact, guitar tabs are much easier for left-handed players to interpret than chord charts. After all, if you think about it, guitar tabs are upside down….or are we?


Conclusion

I hope that this guide taught you how to read guitar tabs! You can easily learn hundreds and hundreds of songs from the best guitar players of all time with this basic knowledge. If you have any questions about these symbols, tabs, or guitar playing in general, leave a comment below.

Check our picks for the top 11 Youtube channels for free guitar lessons!

Now, please go and play your guitar. Learn new chords. Master new songs. Use tabs and keep rocking!
Teemu Suomala

This infographic reveals how to read guitar tabs


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Teemu Suomala

I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I also noticed that most guitar websites don’t do a really good job, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website. I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as Songsterr, Musicnotes, GuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar. I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog(I guess that went the right way…). Expertise: guitar learning techniques, electric guitars, and guitar amplifiers. You can connect with me on LinkedIn or just email me.
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