When you’re a beginner just starting out to learn how to play the guitar. There may be many things about the whole deal that may seem a bit overwhelming to you. For many players, the idea of learning to read sheet music or guitar tablature can be one of them.

And, truthfully, for a good reason. Let’s be completely clear here, though. Taking the time to learn how to decipher all of those guitar tablature symbols can benefit you as a guitar player. Especially if your goals are to play professionally (particularly studio work and ‘paid sideman’ gigs).

But…wow…what an undertaking. Especially when you have your hands full learning about chords, scales, solos, and phrasing, well, hopefully, you get the picture here.

But does it have to be that hard? Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a quick and easy way to learn how to play a song. Without mastering a skill like sight-reading traditional sheet music, often called ‘standard notation’?

Guitar tablature

Luckily for the majority of guitar players out there, there is. It’s called ‘guitar tablature’ (‘tab’ for short). While it may not be a perfect substitute for sheet music, It most definitely can get you where you need to go. It’s intuitive and straightforward. It doesn’t take all that long to get the gist of how it works.

It’ll only take a few minutes for you to ‘get it’ – we promise!

How to read guitar tablature

Whether you are looking at the latest issue of your favorite guitar magazine, or you are surfing the internet on one of the bazillion guitar tab sites. Before long, you’re going to come across a host of various diagrams that will look something like the one below:

Guitar tab - fret numbers and string numbers

Guitar tab – fret numbers and string numbers

It seems crazy, right? It’s not. We’ll do a quick breakdown of all the components. You’ll quickly see how easy it is to understand how it works.

The top portion is typical sheet music. Don’t fear it, though! You don’t have to understand how to read it to use the tab. It’s not uncommon to see it here, and it is an excellent reference to the actual tab.

The bottom lines are where the tab lives and breathes. Actually, it’s a simple graphical view of the guitar itself. The six horizontal lines are meant to depict each of the six strings on your guitar. The lines at the top represent the high E (thinnest) string. The bottom line shows the low E (thickest) string. It makes sense, right?

How to use guitar tabs 5th and 8th frets low E string

How to use guitar tabs 5th and 8th frets low E string

One difference that tab has compared to sheet music is that there are many numbers instead of dots. That’s how you know where you put your fingers on a particular string to play a specific note. (or notes…more on that to follow). In our example above, you’ll see that the first two numbers (5 and 8) are on the bottom line. That means you play two notes, one right after the other. First, you play the note on the 5th fret of the low E string, then play the note on the 8th fret of the same string.

Fingers on the guitar naming convention

See the image for the naming conventions examples.

Guitar chords finger names

Guitar chords finger names

Pretty easy, right? It is just that simple!

Furthermore, your following two notes are on the 5th and 7th frets of the A string. Then the 5th and 7th frets of the D string, and so on.

Tablature - A minor pentatonic scale 5th position

A minor pentatonic scale 5th position

Put all of the single notes in this exercise together, and you’ve just played an A minor pentatonic scale. All without having to read a single note of sheet music or having to dig heavily into a ton of music theory!

Just as a side note (no pun intended., If a string is to be played open, you’ll see a ‘0’ for the number.

Guitar tab example open strings

Guitar tab example of open strings

How to play several strings at once

Sure, we all love a great guitar solo. Truth be told, though, soloing typically is a relatively small percentage of what a good guitarist plays. So how can tab show you how to play chords?

Take a look at the numbers at the very end of our example:

Tablature - open position Am chord

Tablature guitar chords. Open position Am chord

See how all of the numbers are on top of each other? It’s the same thing as the sheet music above. When more than one number is stacked vertically on top of each other, all of those notes will be played simultaneously.

We have an open position Am chord, which perfectly matches our A minor pentatonic scale.

Pros and cons of guitar tablature

Just as with anything, there are pros and cons to using the guitar tab. In our opinion, the pros outweigh the con., However, we would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t lay things on the line…

Tab up and down stokes

Tab up and down strokes

Pro – Simplicity

Do you see how powerful guitar tabs can be? It’s an excellent tool that many guitar players of all skill levels have used to quickly learn how to play a particular song or guitar solo. The ease and simplicity of hitting the ground running is probably the biggest’ pro’ to reading it correctly.

Pros – Exact note positions

It may be helpful to say that traditional sheet music works best for an instrument like a piano. Why? There is mainly only one key on a keyboard that plays a particular note. A guitar is different because many locations play the same note with the same pitch.

For example, the same E note is the same pitch – not an octave. It can be played on the 12th fret of the E string, the 7th fret of the A string, and the 2nd fret of the D string. Sheet music doesn’t make that distinction. However, a piano, a specific note refers to a particular key on the keyboard. The guitar tab takes the guitarist’s viewpoint into account and shows you exactly where to play.

Cons – Timing

Not to be a downer here. There is one particular area where the guitar tab may be lacking. As a total solution for learning to play a specific piece of music., it does have shortcomings.

One thing that tab doesn’t do very well, actually, not at all. Tab does not show the duration and timing of a note. Sheet music is designed by nature, where each type of note depicts how long a note is to last. All you have with guitar tab is just a number on a line. Yes, it shows you where to play the note. However, it doesn’t tell you the amount of time it’s supposed to ring out.

Understanding guitar octaves

Understanding guitar octaves

If you’re trying to learn a song or solo that you already are familiar with. This may not be that big of a deal, as you already have a pretty good idea of timing. Using a tab to play a song you have never heard before is a challenge.

This is one good reason why having sheet music on the top is good. You can use the tab to get the fingering positions right and then develop your reading standard notation as time goes on with practice.

Conclusion

Learning how to read guitar tablature is a skill that doesn’t take much time. However,  it certainly can significantly benefit you and your other guitar-playing band members. Gone are the days when you had to know how to read sheet music (which is typically set up for piano anyway). Or work on getting your ear developed enough to figure out a song by listening to it over .and over…and over…

Sure, it’s not the complete answer or replacement for traditional sheet music. However, it’ll get you pointed in the right direction a lot faster. That alone is worth the price of admission. All that is required is nothing more than taking a few minutes of your time to understand how it works. That is time well spent!