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How to Read Guitar Tabs

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Here is an essential lesson for all guitarists : how to read a guitar tab.

Basics required for this lesson : None
Practice this lesson : None

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What is a tab ?

Without doing a course on the history of the music writing, it's necessary to know that this discipline has often evolved during the history. The tabs have been around a long time (the word "tablature" would be although older than the word "score" in the french language) for many instruments other than the guitar, and the current form is only one version, probably temporary, that will evolve in the years to come.

The main point to remember is that the musical notation is not a static science. Before making choices on the apprenticeship of the reading and writing, it's thus advisable to understand the specificities of each method. No psychological analysis here, just a summary of the characteristics of the tabs.

Unlike scores, on which we find a representation of the height and duration of the played notes, the tablature is a physical representation of gestures to perform in order to play a piece. This simplification brings the advantage of facilitating the apprenticeship, but brings the disadvantage of losing a lot of information on what we play. Indeed, one single note can be played at several places on a fretboard, therefore faced with a score we are a bit lost to know where to play the melody that is written. The tab tells us straight away where we must play without asking questions, but we lose the theoretical side of the music, and we find ourselves to carry out a sequence of movements without necessarily understanding what we play.

The tabs commonly found in the trade (the « songbook ») are usually very complete. They are accompanied by scores, and many symbols helping the interpretion of a piece. With a songbook correctly written, you can theoretically play a piece accurately that we never heard before.

Since the appearance of internet, the tabs are on the rise for several reasons, in particular the fact that we can represent a tab with beast figures, which is very easy to make on the Internet, while the notes require a chart more difficult to integrate in a website. Unfortunately the only way to write the rhythm is to use these said graphic symbols, so the tabs commonly found on the Internet are rarely written with the rythm.

Unlike the scores, in which the writing answers to specific rules used for hundreds of years, the tabs found on the Internet do not have yet a stable system and used by all. There are many elements of the music which are written in various ways, and not always very logical or readable.

There are obviously alternatives: some sites offer the tabs in graphical format, with the music that accompanies it in order to have the pace, others offer these tabs in e-book format, others rely on specialized softwares, best known being Guitar Pro. Without going into details of functioning of this software, the tabs (with rhythm) are stored in specific files that can be exchanged on the Internet.

Do not confuse a tab with other types of writing. Notably, the chord found on many websites dealing with the guitar. These chords are generally similar to a sequence of chord names, sometimes accompanied by lyrics. This is NOT tabs, therefore we will not learn how to read them in this course, but do not worry we'll go there very soon!

In all this jungle it can be difficult to find a tab that is identical to the original, or that is easily readable, or that looks like all the other tabs we've already seen. In this course we will see then the basics, the rest requires personal work: it's necessary to read a lot, try to understand the different symbols that we meet, if possible, learn to read music and never never never forget to make the connection between what is written and what we hear. If in doubt, always trust your ears rather than what is written.

Reading a guitare tablature

Let's go straight to the point, and let's see how a tab looks like:
guitar tablature

We can thus distinguish six horizontal lines and a bunch of numbers scattered everywhere. The lines will represent each string of the guitar, and the figures represent the frets that we must play. To read it correctly, some additional explanations are however required:

The bass strings are located at the bottom, the treble strings are then at the top. No it's not written "backwards": First, it respects the ancestral tradition of any musical notation form where we place the bass at the bottom of the score, and second we must consider it from the point of view of the guitarist: When we look at our guitar, we end up with the bass strings at the bottom of our field of vision.

The strings are generally identified by their name. From bass to treble, we talk about strings semi bass, A, D, G, B and semi acute. They bear this name because when we scrape them in neutral they produce the corresponding note.

The frets of a guitare are delimited on the neck by the frets (the small shining metal strips inserted into the fingerboard). Fret 1 is between the nut and first fret, the box 2 between the first and second fret, ... And how we play the fret 0 you ask? Simply by playing the string (fretless on this string of fret).

A tab reads from left to right. The horizontal axis represents in fact the time that passes, so we take the figures one by one and we play them one after another. And if we end up with more numbers stacked, we should play them simultaneously, what is generally called a chord.

We ONLY play what is written. If a string has no number on it, we do not play it.

You can note on the tab (and the video examples) an « x » that appears from time to time: this is what is called a dead notation or a stuck string. It's actually very easy to do: you just have to touch a string, just touch it without fretting it, and scratch it. It will sound dull, dry, very percussive. Theoretically speaking this is not a notation, it's a percussive effect that brings a lot to the rhythm, but we will not quibble about terminology. Usually the dead notes do not appear on only one string, but on several in order to give them a little more extent.

Until now, we saw the basics on the reading of the tabs, but many things do not appear in this course: we can mention the game effects (using specific symbols), we did not talk at all about the rhythm, we completely neglected the harmonic side, and we barely talked about the scores, we do not know what finger should be used to play the notes etc ...

In short, this course is just a start in your learning to read music,

An example with Seven Nation Army

In this part, we will take this tab of "Seven Nation Army" from the "White Stripes":

For those who have already snooped a little on internet in search of easy pieces to play, you've probably seen several versions of this tab. Indeed, as I specified in the first part of this course, a note can be played in several locations. A sequence of notes can be found in many forms, and one song can be played in many different ways. This tab is not THE tab of "Seven Nation Army", it's just one tab. Feel free to use different ones, assuming that the others are obviously correct, this would be a shame to choose one which does not duplicate the original!

As it's a piece for beginners, there is no big surprise, just take each note one by one and play them.

We begin with fret 7 of the A string that we play twice. Then we go in fret 10 on the same string, to return to fret 7. Here we change the string to go on flat E string, which will hoop in fret 10, then 8, and ending in fret 7. The second half of the song is almost identical, the notes played on the A string does not change. On the other way, when we go on flat E string, we will play consecutively fret 10, 8, 10 and then 8 again, and finish on fret 7.

It's not too difficult to read these notes, however to play it with fluidity requires a lot of works. We will detail how to work a simple melody in another lesson, because there is a lot to say on this subject, and it's neither the place nor the time to talk about it!



More Tabs for beginners


If you want to practice a little more, here are two, three pieces of tabs to begin:

Ozzy Osbourne - Crazy Train :

Marylin Manson - Sweet Dream :

Au clair de la lune :

If you have any questions, feel free to come and post them on this topic on the forum, however make sure to read the first post because it uses the commonly asked questions with the corresponding answers.


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