A (bad) explanation of how to read guitar tablature

Reading tablature is easy to do – once you know how! Tablature – or simply ‘tabs’ – are an alternative to the more traditional music notation.  Tabs have the reputation of being easier to read than traditional music notation because they use the more direct approach of showing you exactly where to place your fingers on the guitar. However, this representation of the fret board is ‘flipped over’, making the tab diagrams seem upside-down to the untrained eye. This is one of those things that ‘clicks’ over time, making any explanation of tablature essentially a bad one – just give your brain time to adjust to the inverted pictures, and you will be reading tabs in no time!

Help! My tablature is upside down!

If the tabs seem upside down to you – that’s because they are! Tabs are written from the perspective of the guitarist – as if the guitarist is upside down! Like this:


You might be wondering how this makes any sense at all! But, if you think about it, the natural position of your head when playing guitar is ‘upside down’, since you are essentially bending over to look at the fret board. If you exaggerate this bend, you will begin to notice that when you are in the guitar-playing position, your perspective of the fret board ‘flips over’ and now the bottom of the fret board actually looks like the top!

It is for this reason that tabs are written ‘upside-down’, and the more you read them, the more intuitive this becomes. So when reading a tab remember that the line at the top of the tab represents the thinnest string – the one closest to the ground. The bottom line of the tab, then, represents the thickest string! It’s backwards!

Can you see that this tab below therefore represents a song that only uses the bottom string?


Why are there numbers on my tabs?


Essentially there are only two variables when starting to look at tabs: which string should be played and which fret should be played. We already covered the topsy-turvy way that strings need to be played. The numbers seen on tabs are an indication of which fret should be played. Remember that the frets are the vertical spaces between the strips of metal on the fret board.

In the example above the first number is a 0. This indicates that the string should be played open (i.e. without pushing down in any fret). Another zero follows which means the same note should be played open again. After this there is a 2, this means that a finger should be placed in the second fret and that string plucked.

Picking (single notes) versus strumming (multiple notes)


In contrast to the tab above – where only one note at a time is played –  there are also tabs that represent multiple notes being played at the same time.  If notes are meant to be played at the same time, they will be placed one under the other on the tablature, as seen on the left.

Let’s take a quick beat to talk about timing

Tabs have the worst timing – bar none! In tablature the spacing between the notes is meant to indicate the timing. The larger the space the longer the wait before playing the next note.  However, this is often left out in tabs found online and you may have to figure out the timing by listening to the song.

Wrapping your head around tabs

Watch this 5 minute tutorial to help you wrap your head – and fingers – around guitar tabs!

That’s it!

Hopefully it is now clear that any explanation of guitar tablature is going to be frustratingly bad because tablature itself is frustrating counter-intuitive! But don’t give up! With enough time and practice you can trust that this counter-intuitive setup will also do a flip, and before you know it the tablature diagrams will be intuitive to you. When this happens, you will know that you are well on your way to becoming a guitarist!


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