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How to Read Guitar Tablature

Guitar tablature, or just tab for short, is a notation system that graphically represents the frets and strings of the guitar. Tab is guitar-specific, and it tells you what string and fret to play. Use the tab if you’re ever unsure as to which fret or string a note falls on.

Music for guitar usually comes either in tab or with two staffs, one using standard music notation (the one with the treble clef), with a tab staff just beneath it, like most of the examples of guitar music you'll find on this site. The tab staff aligns with and reflects exactly what’s going on in the regular musical staff above it, but it’s in guitar language.

The following figure shows a tab staff and some sample notes and a chord. Here are a few points to keep in mind when reading tab:

  • The lines of the tab staff represent guitar strings, from the 1st string on top (high E) to the 6th string on bottom (low E).

  • A numeral appearing on any given line tells you to press, or fret, that string at that numbered fret. For example, if you see the numeral 2 on the fourth line from the top, you need to press down the 4nd string (D) at the 2nd fret (actually, the space between the 1st and 2nd fret, closer to the 2nd metal fret wire).

  • A 0 on a line means that you play the open string — that is, unfretted, with no left-hand finger touching the string.

  • When you see stacked notes, as in bar 3 of the figure, that notation tells you to play the fretted strings all at the same time, which produces a chord. The fretted strings in the figure form a D major chord.

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