How to Read Guitar Tablature

The Tablature Staff

Tablature is a way of notating music for guitar. Music is notated on a six-line staff where each line represents a string on the guitar. The top line represents the high E string and the bottom line is the low E string. Each line usually begins with a 'clef' that reads 'Tab'.

The image below shows the six-line tablature staff. Each line is labeled with the pitch of the string that corresponds to the line.

Six-line tablature staff with the open strings labeled

What the Numbers Mean

Numbers are placed on the lines to indicate the fret. For example, a '2' placed on the top line indicates the second fret of the high E string.

Numbers on the tab staff

Some publishers may place the numbers on spaces rather than lines. This is a bad practice, but luckily only a few publishers do it (Mel Bay, I'm looking at you).

Stacked Numbers

Numbers stacked on top of each other indicate to play the notes together. Below is an example of how a C major chord might be notated in tablature:

Numbers stacked on the tablature staff

What a '0' Means

A '0' indicates an open string. The tablature below indicates the third string (G) should be played open.

Zero indicating that the string is to be played open

Numbers in Parentheses

Numbers on the tablature staff may occasionally be enclosed in parentheses. This indicates that the note shouldn't be played. Parentheses are generally used with bends or other techniques where you may play several different pitches without plucking the string again.

Tablature with Rhythms

Tablature does occasionally include rhythms. The rhythms are notated by adding stems, flags, and beams to the numbers. An example of this is shown below:

Tablature notated with rhythms

Most tablature doesn't include rhythms, so you should use the tablature with the standard notation if it is provided. The standard notation is a source for the rhythms and other performance information, while tablature provides the pitches and positions to be played.

Variations in Notation

Different publishers may use different symbols and text in their tablature. Most books include a tablature guide that explains the symbols, so look for one if you find an unfamiliar notation in music you are reading. Some publishers may even create their own notations for unique playing techniques.