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How to Read Guitar Tab [Complete Guide]

How to Read Guitar Tab

What is guitar tab?

Guitar tab (short for guitar tablature) is a method of notating music specifically for the guitar. For guitar players, It’s a far more intuitive alternative to standard notation as it displays the ‘fingering’ e.g. where to place your fingers on the fretboard, rather than just displaying the notes to be played in a similar way to chord boxes or chord charts which display the fingering required rather than the pitches required to play.

All things considered, learning how to read guitar tab doesn’t require a knowledge of music theory, and subsequently won’t take the average guitarist long. Tab is intuitive by design and most guitarists will learn the basics quickly once the layout and symbols used are understood.

But it’s also true that many guitar tabs include more advanced information that a lot of beginner guitarists may not be aren’t aware of, including symbols to indicate harmonics, vibrato, slides, and bends to strumming patterns, including symbols for upstrokes and downstrokes, along with rhythmic information.

So, if you are new to guitar and yet to discover the magic of guitar tab, or feel like you have only scratched the surface, stay tuned.

Types of guitar tabs [available tab formats]

Before you learn how to read guitar tab, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the different types, or formats you are likely to encounter. Keep in mind there are no strict definitions for tab so you are likely to notice differences.

In some cases tab can appear simplistic, omitting basic information such as barlines. In other cases, tab is more sophisticated, making the intention of the composer more easily understood.

And while differences exist (remember there are no standards in place for tab) for the most part we can place guitar tab into three categories. ASCII tab (text-based tab), formal tab, and interactive tab.

What is ASCII tab?

ASCII tab (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) is a text-based tab displayed using ASCII characters. For example, strings are represented by hyphens.

e |-----0------|
B |-----1------|
G |-----0------|
D |-----2------|
A |-----3------|
E |------------|

ASCII code uses numbers to represent characters and is, therefore, a standard code available across a wide range of electronic devices. Due to its accessibility, ASCII tab has been used extensively online and many tablature authoring tools are capable of exporting tab in ASCII format, using either the .tab or .txt file extension.

Some examples of ASCII tab include the string names (notice the lowercase ‘e’, for the high E string and uppercase for the low E in our example above) others do not. While some include additional information such as barlines, the key for the piece of music, and/or displaying the chord name above the tab.

Formal tab (Non-ASCII Tab)

Guitar Tab with Standard Notation

Formal tab is the name used to describe the type of guitar tab you might normally see in print e.g. a guitar magazine or online in more detail than text-based tabs. Formal tab is more difficult for the average person to produce but often contains additional information useful for the guitarist. In many cases, formal tab will also be presented with music notation directly above, which can be useful if you understand rhythm (more on this below).

Tablature authoring tools such as powertab, guitar pro, and tux guitar allows anyone to create tab in this format.

Interactive tab

Lastly, there’s interactive tab, which in most cases is just formal tab with the added advantage of being interactive.

Interactive tab uses a marker (green in the example below) to indicate where in the song the guitarist currently is. Songsterr is a good example of this and depending on the level of access (free or paid membership) the guitarist can also choose to pause, speed up or slow down the tempo, and even transpose the song to a different key.

Learn how to read Guitar Tab with Songsterr - Interactive Guitar Tab

Other guitar tab sites such as Ultimate Guitar have added the ability to auto-scroll their tabs which is also highly useful.

Formal tab and interactive tab are mostly identical except the latter is interactive so we’ll be focusing on text-based And formal guitar tab for the remainder of this article.

How to read guitar tab

Now that we’ve discussed the types of guitar tabs you are most likely to encounter, let’s move on to how to read guitar tab. We’ll start slowly, firstly discussing the basics e.g. strings and fret positions before moving on to more advanced techniques and the symbols used to describe them.

The strings

The first thing you’ll notice when looking at any form of guitar tab is the 6 horizontal lines that represent the guitar’s strings from the top (the thinnest string) to the bottom (thickest string) strings. In order from top (1st string) to bottom (6th string) the strings are E, B, G, D, A, and E. Tab also exists for bassists, but, you guessed it, utilizes just the four lines (E, A, D, and G).

It might seem strange at first that the low E is at the bottom and the high e string is at the top, making it seem like it’s written upside down. But, typically with any form of music notation e.g. standard notation, the lower notes are always shown at the bottom. The simplest way to visualize it is to take the guitar from your usual playing position and sit it on your lap directly in front of you.

In some cases, guitar tab will include the string names. Note, the difference between the high e string (represented in lower case) and the low E string (represented by an upper case E) in the example below.

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Bar lines

Just as standard notation includes vertical lines (also spelled barlines) to indicate a measure, tab in many cases, does also. A measure is simply a representation of time musically e.g. the number of beats within a bar (more on rhythm at the end of this article).

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The numbering system

The numbers displayed represent the frets to be played in their order (left to right) e.g. where the fingers are placed on the fretboard.

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Open strings

If the number displayed is 0 this means the open string is played. In the example above the A string is played as the first and fourth notes.

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Stacked numbers/chords

Numbers can be used to represent melody e.g. single notes or as harmony (notes played in unison e.g. chords).
When chords are displayed the fret numbers are stacked vertically, and the chord letter is sometimes displayed above the tab.

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The example above first shows an E Major chord. As you can see, the root of the chord e.g. the high and low E are both represented as open strings (0), and the chord letter name ‘E’ is displayed above the tab.


Arpeggios e.g. Chords played sequentially (one note at a time) do not show the numbers as stacked in ASCII tab.

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However, when a piece of music is tabbed out in formal guitar tab arpeggios may be displayed as stacked numbers with a wavy line placed beside the fret numbers, as per the example below.

Formal Guitar Tab - Arpegio

How to read guitar tab symbols

If you understand the strings and numbering system, guitar tab is intuitive enough for most people to begin learning songs right away, especially if they already have a sense of the song and its timing. However, there are many additional special symbols used to represent different techniques on the guitar including pull-offs, hammer-ons, and slides amongst others. These symbols instruct the guitarist on how specific parts of the music are intended to be played.

Fortunately, the symbols used in tab are also quite intuitive but it can be a good idea to brush up on the meaning of each if unfamiliar.

The chart below shows the most common symbols used in guitar tab, in both ASCII and formal tab, and below the chart is a more detailed explanation of each.

Common guitar tab symbols

NameASCII Tab ExampleFormal Tab Example 
Fret hand mutingxFret Hand Muting - Guitar Tab Symbol
Palm-mutingP.M. ————-|Palm muting - guitar tab symbol
Rakingrake -| or xRake - Guitar Tab Symbol
Slide up/Slide Up - Tab Symbol
Slide down\Slide Down - Guitar Tab Symbol
Hammer-onshHammer on - Guitar Tab Symbol
Pull-offspPull off - Guitar Tab Symbol
Trillstr~~~~~~~~Trill - Guitar Tab Symbol
BendsbBend - Guitar Tab Symbol
Bend and release5b7r9Bend and Release - Guitar Tab Symbol
Pe-bend and releasepPrebend and Release - Guitar Tab Symbol
Vibrato~~~~~~~~~~~~~Vibrato - Guitar Tab Symbol
Upstrokes^ or UUpstroke - Guitar Tab Symbol
DownstrokesV or DDownstroke - Guitar Tab Symbol
Natural harmonics<5> or harm —Harmonics - Guitar Tab Symbol
Artificial harmonicsA.H. or A.H. —Artificial Harmonics - Guitar Tab Symbol
Tapped Harmonics0(12)Tapped harmonics - Guitar Tab Symbol
Pinch HarmonicsP.H.Pinch Harmonics - Guitar Tab
Ghost NotesX or ( )Ghost Notes - Tab Symbol
TappingT e.g. t9p2h5Tapping

Fingerstyle guitar tab symbols

  • Usually shown above or below the tab or within the standard notation above if included.
Pinkyc / e

Rhythmic guitar tab symbols

Time signaturee.g. 4/4
Half notesh
Quarter notesq
Eighth notese
Sixteenth notess

Fret hand muting

Muted notes e.g. fret-hand muting is represented by the X or cross symbol within both ASCII and formal guitar tab, as per the example below, Neon by John Mayer. (not a song to learn for the faint-hearted 🙂

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On the other hand (pun most definitely intended) palm muting is represented by the letters P.M. and, at least in most cases, the dotted line that extends above the tab, from the first to last note being palm muted.

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P.M. -------------|

There must be a distinction between the two. Palm-muting still includes actual notes, mostly in the form of power chords, whereas fret-hand muting doesn’t include a fret number as it’s a percussive technique, often described as a ghost note.


Similar to fret-hand muting, rakes are played by ‘raking’ the pick or fingers over muted strings usually before playing a note on a higher or lower string.
This technique can be applied over 1 string before playing a note or several strings and is displayed using the same symbol as used for fret hand muting. In some cases ‘rake -|’ will also be written above the tab to indicate the length or number of notes being raked.

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    rake -|

How slides are displayed in guitar tab

Slides are displayed by forward (/) and reverse (/) slashes in ASCII tab and longer diagonal lines in formal tab.

Regardless of the slide being displayed by ASCII character or longer diagonal line, if the end of the line points upward e.g. the guitarist is instructed to slide up the neck (toward the bridge), as in the example below on the A string. In this case, the guitarist is being instructed to slide up from the 2nd to 4th fret.

If the symbol points down the guitarist slides the note lower e.g. toward the headstock.

Slide symbols can be used between notes or to indicate sliding into a note from a higher position, or a lower position as per the examples on the E and B strings in the tab below.

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How hammer-ons and pull-offs are shown in guitar tab

ASCII-based tab displays hammer-ons using the letter h between notes, as per the example below.

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Formal tab displays hammer-ons using a curved line above the two fret positions.

Hammer on - Formal Guitar Tab

Pull offs are displayed using the p character

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In formal guitar tab a pull-off is represented with an upside-down curved line below the two fret numbers.

Pull off - Formal Guitar Tab

How trills are displayed in guitar tab

Trills are repeated hammer-ons and pull-offs.  For example, if you performed a trill between the 5th and 7th frets of the G string, you might hammer on to the 7th fret from the 5th fret and then rapidly hammer on and pull off between the two notes.

In ASCII tab trills are often displayed using the letters tr. You may see tr written between the two fret numbers as per the first example below. Or, in some cases, h and p are used to indicate a more precise number of hammer-ons and pull-offs.

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In other cases, trills are displayed using the letters tr above the tab and may also include a line to indicate the length of the trill. The additional fret number may also be displayed within brackets.

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How bends are displayed in guitar tab

Of all techniques on guitar, bending a note is perhaps the most expressive. And, because of this, there are many nuances to bending notes, including bending half, full and 1 ½ steps e.g. a minor third), release and pre-bending. All of which can be displayed using guitar tab.

In text-based, or ASCII tab a bend is displayed using the letter b or occasionally the ^ character. The letter r is also used to indicate when to release the note, and p is used to indicate pre-bending. A cool technique involving bending the note before playing it.

As per the example below, sometimes an additional fret number is displayed which indicates to the guitarist the desired pitch of the bend e.g. bend the pitch of the 5th fret B string (E) to the same pitch as the 7th fret (F#)

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In formal guitar tab bends are always shown in a more intuitive manner with the length of the arrow indicating the pitch of the required bend. In some instances, the arrow will be accompanied by a number indicating the extent of the bend required e.g. 1/2 or 1/4.

The example below shows both full and half step bends, followed by a bend and release. The last note indicates pre-bending is required and can be identified due to the line representing the bend being straight up and down as opposed to curved in the preceding examples.

Different bend techniques - Formal Guitar Tab

How vibrato is shown in guitar tab?

Vibrato is used to add an almost voice-like expression to single notes. The technique involves the rapid bending of the note up and down on the fretboard (some guitarists also play horizontal vibrato) and is usually displayed using the tilde symbol ~

The symbol for vibrato is usually displayed within the tab itself (first example below) or above, used in the same way as P.M. is used to indicate the length of the vibrato as shown in the second example.

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In formal tab, vibrato may include additional information based on the thickness of the line displayed. E.g. the thicker the line the wider the vibrato.

Vibrato - Guitar Tab Symbol

How strumming patterns are displayed in guitar tab

Strumming consists of upstrokes and downstrokes and the order of upstrokes and downstrokes dictates the strumming pattern of a chord progression. As a result, additional information included in guitar tab that allows for more information to be shown regarding strumming patterns can be very useful, especially if you are not familiar with the song.

Downstrokes and upstrokes

Downstrokes are shown using the V symbol above the tab. Alternatively, upstrokes are displayed using the ^ symbol.

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    v       ^

Downstrokes and upstrokes may also be displayed using the letters D and U beneath the tab, aligning with the notes or chord being played.

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       D        U

In formal tab, different symbols are used, as per the example below. The first two chords use upstroke and downstroke symbols. The second example, while seen less often, utilizes arrows to indicate strumming direction.

Downstroke and Upstroke Symbols - Guitar Tab

How harmonics are shown in guitar tab

There are essentially four ways to perform harmonics on the guitar: natural harmonics, artificial harmonics, tap harmonics, and pinch harmonics and each can be displayed in guitar tab.

Natural harmonics

Natural harmonics are produced by lightly pressing directly above the fret wire on the 5th, 7th, 12th, or 19th frets while hitting an open string.

They work on these frets as they are integer divisions (e.g. divisible by the length of the string itself) and align with the fret wire e.g. the 12th fret is half the length of the string, the 7th fret divides the string into 3, and the 5th into 4.

Natural harmonics are most often displayed in guitar tab enclosed within ‘greater than’ and ‘lesser than’ symbols. You may also see them within brackets, using an asterisk, or the shorthand ‘harm’ may be displayed above the tablature. In some cases, this will also include a dashed line indicating the number of notes to be played in this way.

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              harm           harm ---

Artificial harmonics

Artificial harmonics are more difficult to produce than natural harmonics and involve pressing above the fret wire, at an integer of the string length above the note being played.
Keep in mind, as per the example above of natural harmonics, there are harmonics available at 5, 7, and 12 frets above any note being played. However, in most cases, artificial harmonics are played 12 frets higher than the note being played.

For example, if you are playing a note on the 3rd fret of the high e string (G) the artificial harmonic would be produced by placing a finger above the 15th fret on the same string and gently plucking the note using your thumb behind the 15th fret.

Artificial harmonics are often displayed in guitar tab by enclosing the fret number within brackets as per natural harmonics or adding the letter AH above the tab. This may also be accompanied by a dashed line indicating the length.

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                 A.H.           A.H.--

Tap harmonics

Tap harmonics are harmonics created by fretting a note and then tapping a harmonic higher on the neck. In tab they are displayed with the fretted note first, followed by the tapped harmonic in brackets.

On open strings, for example, you would tap lightly on the 12th fret wire. When playing fretted notes e.g. 2nd fret on the D string (E) you would tap the 14th fret wire as there would then be 12 frets between the fretted note and the harmonic.

Guitarists often use this technique to tap out chords e.g. Am as per the example below.

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Pinch harmonics

Pinch harmonics are more common on the electric guitar but can be performed on the acoustic guitar also. They are displayed in tab by placing the letters P.H above the tab aligning with where the pinch harmonic is to be played.

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They are played by choking down on the pick and then touching the string lightly with your thumb immediately after the note is played. The location of the picking hand in relation to the notes being fretted is important as it will dictate the harmonic being played and must be positioned at an integer of the string also. As a result pinch harmonics are much easier to produce if you are playing notes lower down the neck e.g.the first four frets.


Tapping is indicated in text-based guitar tab by using the letter t beside the tapped note, usually in combination with pull-offs and hammer-ons.

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It is often also displayed using the letter T above the tab.

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    T     T     T     T

In formal tab it is more likely to be shown as the following:

Tapping Symbol - Guitar Tab

Ghost notes

The term ‘ghost note’ is often used interchangeably to represent muted notes and optional notes, or notes with very little attack.
In most cases, ghost notes hold rhythmic value only. If this is the case they are essentially the same as fret-hand muting and displayed with an X as per fret-hand muting.

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In other cases, they may indicate additional, optional notes (used to embellish a piece) and if played, are often played softly.

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How to read guitar tab for fingerstyle

Pima Symbols

In the majority of cases, fingerpicking patterns are usually shown as individual fret numbers with no indication of the fingers used. However, dedicated fingerstyle guitar tabs also include this information in the form of PIMA symbols.

PIMA is simply an acronym taken from the Spanish abbreviations for the fingers and thumb and indicates which fingers are used to play specific notes as part of a fingerstyle picking pattern.

The table below shows the corresponding thumb and fingers and includes their Spanish and English equivalents along with the strings most commonly played by each.

ThumbPulgar (p)4, 5, 6
Index FingerIndice (i)3
Middle FingerMedio (m)2
Ring FingerAnnular (a)1
PinkyExtremo (e) or (c)1

The pinky is rarely used in fingerstyle (particularly classical guitar where the Spanish term is taken from) so is not usually included, but when it is, it is referred to as E or C.

When included in guitar tab, you may see the letters beneath the tab or in some cases above, where they are aligned to the fret numbers.

For example:

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    p  p  p  i  p  p  p  i  p  i  p  m  p  i  p  m  p  i  p  m  a

If standard notation is included above then it’s likely the PIMA symbols will be added here instead of directly above or beneath the tab.

Where’s the rhythm?

One shortcoming of guitar tab, as opposed to standard notation, is the lack of rhythmic markers. The fact is, most guitar tabs don’t include symbols to indicate timing at all, but that’s not to say they don’t exist. For example, some guitar tabs will include a w above the fret number to indicate a ‘whole note’. h, q , e, and s are also occasionally used to indicate half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes respectively.

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    q  q  q  q       h     h          w                 h     q q

It’s also true that in many cases tab is accompanied by standard notation (often shown above the guitar tab) and can be used as a reference for rhythm. Typically, most guitarists I know utilize tab to learn their favorite songs, and while not knowing the music (hence relying on tab) already have a feel for the piece they are playing and know the rhythm.

But, it can be useful to understand some of the terminology used to describe rhythm in standard notation, as explained below.

A quick guide to time signatures, whole, half, quarter notes, and rests

In standard notation the time signature is represented as a fraction e.g. 4/4 or 6/4 etc. Some tabs include this at the beginning of the tab, but many do not.

The top number represents the number of beats per measure (the individual sections within the staff) and the number on the bottom represents the value of each note e.g. the note value that represents one beat.

So, in 4/4 timing for example there are 4 beats per measure, and a quarter note gets one beat.

The length of each note e.g. how long the note sustains within a measure is represented by symbols including whole, half, and quarter notes, along with 16th notes, 32nd notes, and beyond.
In 4/4 timing a whole note would sustain over the entire measure, as it represents 4 beats. A half note would sustain over half the measure, and a quarter note would be played on the beat e.g. 4 times within a measure.

The example below indicates a whole note over a 4/4 time signature in the first measure. The second measure consists of two half notes. This means each note sustains for 2 bars. The third measure contains single notes. This means 4 notes per measure are played.

The last measure includes a whole rest symbol. This indicates a rest for the entire measure. Rests can be indicated in the same way as notes and use different symbols e.g. half and quarter note rests.

Standard Music Notation

While not part of guitar tab, as mentioned above standard music notation will often accompany formal tab. So, if you are playing a piece of music you are unfamiliar with, knowing these symbols can be useful.

The history of guitar tabs

You may be surprised to learn that tab has been around for a long time. And, aside from guitar tab other forms of tab also exist, and have been in use as far back as the renaissance period, mostly for fretted stringed instruments such as the lute.

For those that can remember a time before the internet. Guitar tab was once only found in dedicated guitar tab books (licensed by the artist in most cases, and highly accurate) and guitar magazines such as guitar world and guitar player. And, at least in my case, I’d often decide if the magazine was worth buying based purely on the tab included in the magazine.

Nowadays, thanks to a plethora of free tab websites such as Ultimate Guitar, and songsterr you can find the tab for just about any song you want to learn, and in many cases, the tabs are user-generated and voted on in terms of accuracy.


If you made it to the end of this article, congratulations! you should now have an in-depth understanding of guitar tab. Keep in mind while tab is a great tool it does have one distinct weakness, it is designed specifically for the guitar.

One advantage standard notation has over guitar tab is its ability to allow musicians (regardless of instrument) to communicate. But all things considered, Tab has been a very positive thing for guitarists and helped beginners and experienced guitarists alike learn a plethora of songs or share their own creations by tabbing out their music.

As always, if you have a question or comment please feel free to use the comment form below.

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