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How to use guitar tab and chords

Updated on December 5, 2013

Reading tabs

Guitar tab is presented as six horizontal lines, one for each string. The thinnest string, E is at the top, and the thickest string, also E is at the bottom.The number that appears on the lines tells you the fret you should play in. When there is a vertical stack of these numbers, it will be a chord.In other words, play all the notes simultaneously. A horizontal line is a melody, where the notes are played in sequence, one at a time.

Both types are illustrated below

Tip: all the chords will work with the C major scale that is on the tab.

The top line is string 1, or E. It is the thinnest string. The bottom line is string 6, or low E. So fret 1 on the bottom line will be an F note, fret 2 will be F sharp, fret 3 will be G. Later on I will list the fret numbers for each note.

Here is an example. It's all on the top line of the tab, string 1: (see diagram below)

A twinkly starry little tune in the key of E. If you have a guitar-playing friend you could get them to play some accompaniment chords - in this case, E, A, B7 in various combinations. This is because these are chords from the E harmonised scale - see my other hubs for an explanation. This will work for any simple tunes.

The next tab example is on the lower strings,strings 6 and 5. It's a groovy all-purpose bass riff you can use for playing rock n' roll songs. The pattern can be moved across one string for the A7 chord, as in a standard 12-bar blues sequence. Details are in my other hubs on blues riffs.

Try my other hub Guitar Tab 101 for more info, and some examples of tunes written in tab.

The tab system is not new, going back to lute music in the renaissance - but it is only recently that it has been widely used. It is really useful, especially for writing out riffs. In by-passing all the hard stuff of reading music notation it can give you fast results, and make learning guitar much more enjoyable. Once you can read tab, you can work out some of the basics of reading standard notation quite easily.

An important aspect is memorising the tab as you go, maybe a couple of bars at a time.

Guitar tab examples

Tab examples, and all the chords in C

Reading tips

There are a few directions given on tabs: s means slide between notes, h means hammer-on,where the note is played just with the left hand, p means pull-off, where you make the note sound by snapping your finger off the string. p.m. or palm-mute is common in metal styles,where the strings are muted a little by resting your right hand near the bridge. BU means Bend up, where the string pitch is raised by bending the string. A note encased in a diamond shaped box is a natural harmonic - produced by lightly touching the string at fret 12 for example. It gives you that high bell-like sound, a nice effect.

Stating the obvious: tab will not tell you the rhythm to play - you have to get this from listening to the music, or checking out normal notation. generally there are four beats to the bar in most pop, rock, blues, jazz. The other common time signature is 3/4, or waltz time.

Chords in C - this is to demonstrate chord diagrams. Again, the sequence of chords should be memorized - major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, m7b5 - as this works for all keys. if you are new to guitar, these chords can be played in easy chord forms in the first position, down by the nut, and using the first three frets.

Where the notes are

Good news! Strings 1 and 6 are E - so it's buy one, get one free.

Important tip for learning the sequence of notes: they follow the alphabet from A to G. There is no sharp or flat note between E, F and B, C. All the other notes have them.

Many aspects of learning guitar and music in general are optional, but this is not one of them. You really have to learn and memorize the sequence of notes, or waste a lot of time. It doesn't take long, and the sequence is the same all over the guitar neck, and for every instrument.

Fret 0 = E 1= F 2= F#

3 = G (bottom note of a G chord)

4= G#

5= A (dot on your neck)

6= A#

7= B

8= C





After fret 12 everything starts again , so 13 is F again,etc.

String 5 - same sequence of notes, but beginning with A instead.

String 4 - same sequence, starting with D

String 3 - starts with G

String 2 - starts with B

So fret 1 on string 2 =C, top note of a C chord. Fret 3 on string 5 = C, but one octave lower, the bottom note of a C chord.This will help you navigate the fretboard.

It's a good plan to look this stuff up at the excellent site. In the note naming above, I have kept it simple. Each sharp note also has a flat name, for instance F# is the same as G flat(written with small b symbol)This is called enharmonic equivalence, or "the same bleedin' notes" as jazzers would say.

My new hub Guitar Scales and fretboard has a lot of tips on finding the notes on guitar.

Finding good tabs

There are many good guitar magazines which provide reliable and easily understandable tabs. I recommend Acoustic Guitar, Guitar Techniques, Guitar Player - all really great publications. You can buy a digital online version, which really saves a lot of cash. Guitar techniques has a good guide to tab notation, in greater depth than I have gone into here. As there is also a CD with this magazine, you can get a long way by listening and following the score, even without playing anything.

The best way to use tab is to learn short sections and then memorise everything, or just use it for riffs. The last thing I would do is to try to learn a solo by Satriani all the way through from the tab - it's kind of missing the point about improvised solos.

Creating your own tabs

One of the best ways to improve your knowledge and use of tab is to create your own. You can buy notebooks with blank tab templates - a good low-tech way to start. Software packages are available, and you can download trial versions for free. At the moment I am evaluating GuitarPro5 and Sibelius G7. They are both good programmes, with great potential for improving your playing. Sibelius looks more comprehensive, but also harder to learn. Guitarpro5 is cheaper,and in many ways looks more user-friendly with well-designed chord grids and a lot of very useful features. On the downside, there is no manual so you kind of figure it out yourself - the score and tabs look great on both packages.


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    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi - tab can really speed things up, especially for learning riffs. I think chord grids work best for chords though.

    • Used Acoustic Gui profile image

      Used Acoustic Gui 7 years ago from New Zealand

      great information - I wish tab was around when i was a kid learning to play!

    • Frisko profile image

      Frisko 7 years ago from Newbury Park

      that was a lot of help, thanks bro.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks a lot soupinacoustics. Let me know if there is anything you want covering.

    • soupincacoustics profile image

      soupincacoustics 8 years ago

      Great job with your Hub it can really help those new guitar players thanks!

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks Helen. Guitar tab will save you a lot of time, but it's good to memorise everything too. Cheers, Jon

    • profile image

      Helen Neely 8 years ago

      This is quite makes learning Guitar easy. Nice to see that you have lots of pages covering it.

    • bigtroll profile image

      bigtroll 8 years ago from France

      interested in guitars then check out for an interesting slant on a new style capo

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      You're welcome guys - thanks for your comments.Guitar can be really rewarding in that you can get a long way in very little time. Soon I'm going to post some video lessons, when I get the technical side sorted out.

    • nicksstuff profile image

      nicksstuff 8 years ago from Going for a swim in the ocean.

      Awesome, once again. With this and the stuff I've posted about - I'm really flying. Thank you so much.

    • Resolver2009 profile image

      Resolver2009 8 years ago from Bournemouth, UK / Oslo, Norway

      Thanks, really informative and well written hub. Great for beginners. Well done Jon.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 9 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Yes, I agree - but basic rhythm notation helps a lot too. Many Guitar magazines such as Guitar Techniques use both systems together and that works well.

    • profile image

      guitar gear reviews 9 years ago

      Tablature is the best thing to come along. If it wasn't for tablature I would never have learned to play guitar. I struggled for a long time until I found tabs, much easier than trying to read sheet music.