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Guitar Tab and How It Works

Updated on February 6, 2022
Jon Green profile image

Kind of hate reading tab, but have got quite good at it out of necessity! Very useful for guitar mags.

Guitar Tab - how it works

Even if you are new to guitar, this is such a simple approach that you might as well have a go!

Guitar Tab has six lines, one line for each string on the guitar, with the 6th string at the bottom (the thickest and lowest sounding string) and the 1st string at the top (the thinnest) The numbers tell you which fret to play at, 0 means open string or no fret.

So - the first note is on string 2, fret 3, then move to string 1, fret 2. String 1 is the highest in pitch, and the one that is furthest away from you.

If you sing along it will help you change chords at the right time, and will also help you play the melody line or tune in time. So the first three notes correspond to "Oh When The...

Saints is where the chords start if you want to get a friend to play them for you. More advanced players can play the tune and chords together in chord melody style.

The chord chart is at the bottom, just count four beats for each bar (the bar lines are the vertical lines) You can use D or D7 where D7 is indicated. The sign is a ditto sign, just stay on the same chord. It's there to make it easier to read.

When The Saints Go Marchin' In

Chords in D

Any song in the key of D will use D, G, A or A7 as the main chords. You might also encounter Em, F sharp m and Bm. (Em = E minor) These chords are all from the harmonised scale of D.

In order, following the major scale notes:

D, Em, F sharp m, G, A, Bm, C sharp m7b5

All other keys work in the same way, with a unique set of chords. This is explained in my other hubs, and on the music theory website.

All the notes in the melody are also from the major scale of D - so you could use them in any guitar solo in this key, whatever the song is - transferring stuff like this will really speed up your progress on guitar. You can also use the relative pentatonic minor scale for solos - as Bm is the right one in D, try using that. The frets numbers starting with string 1 are:

10, 7

10, 7

9, 7

9, 7

9, 7

10, 7

Using the pentatonic scale is just much easier than using the full major scale. It's also more idiomatic for blues and rock styles of playing. The major scale contains seven different notes, but two of them can clash with the chords, or at least not work very well - so leaving these two notes out gives you a pentatonic scale.

In practice, I use this scale as a template, and can add any of the intervening or chromatic notes as required.

Reading Guitar Tab Hints

I find it quite difficult and largely pointless to sight-read tab. Much better to memorise it in short phrases, and singing the notes you are playing is also very valuable.


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