How to Use Guitar Tabs

Guitar tablature is a great way for beginning guitarists to disect some of their favorite songs without the express need to read real sheet music or even necessarily have a working knowledge of scales and chords.  While learning to read music is a definite way to take your guitar and songwriting to a new level, it not necessary at all to play along with guitar tabs.  That’s exactly what they were created for.  Still, there is a small learning curve.  You have to learn how to use guitar tabs, but fortunately, you have come to the right place.  We are going to show you how to get started playing with guitar tabs for beginners.

The Basic Concept

Guitar tabs have lines that run horizontal, very similar to sheet music.  These lines are actually the strings of the guitar.  As you look at tab, the bottom string is your thickest string, the E that is the first one you see when you look down at your guitar.  From there, the lines represent the other strings, ending in what would be your thinnest string, also E but much higher.  It is designed so that you look at the tablature the same way you look down at your guitar when you go to put your fingers on the fretboard.

Easy enough, right?  You got it.  Next, there are numbers on these lines.  These represent frets.  Depending on your guitar, you may have the dot system to help you know which frets are which at a quick glance.  Guitars with these features usually have dots at every third fret and two dots to show the twelfth fret which is the octave.  That just means that at the double dots, it basically starts over, albeit higher in pitch.  So, all you are doing is playing the note that corresponds with the string and the fretboard.  If a zero is on the tab, it means to play the note “open.”  This means that you strike the string with no fret pressed down.

If more than one note is in a perpendicular line, they are to be played together.  This could be a chord shape or some sort of lead guitar double stop move.  This is the basics of guitar tablature.  It’s really that simple.  The rest is up to you.

Higher Levels

Tabs may include moves for more seasoned guitarists.  For example, string bends are denoted on tabs with symbols that connect two numbers together.  The idea here is to bend the string until you reach the pitch of the fret connected.  Half and whole-step bends are common in tablature.  You may also see a line that goes straight down all of the lines.  This usually indicates using your index finger to bar all the strings shown to make a chord shape.

Open For Interpretation

There are many ways to play any note or chord on a guitar.  When you are reading guitar tabs, you are basically viewing the interpretation of whoever made the tab.  On the Internet, these interpretations could vary widely.  Sometimes it’s good to get a second opinion if the tablature you are following doesn’t sound like you thought it would.  It’s also possible that the way it is tabbed is not necessarily the most fret-economic way to play it.  Maybe using a different string or scale might make a note more accessible.  Sometimes it has to be the way it is to get the desired sound, regardless of fret locations and convenience.  Tabs vary widely, especially in the uncontrolled web environment.  If you think the tab isn’t turning out all that great, it may very well be because it’s wrong.  Take online guitar tabs with a grain of salt.  They are better to use as a launching point for figuring things out on your own than as guitar gospel.

Where Tabs are Lacking

Tabs can have a difficult time portraying timing and things like that.  Sometimes the best way to follow a tab is to throw the record on and see if it makes more sense when playing with the actual music.  You may find that the notes move much faster than it seemed in tablature form.  Or you may be rushing through them when they actually have a lot of breathing space in reality.  Tabs are a great way to get an idea, but a lot of the feel and rhythm is going to have to be determined some other way.  For this reason, tabs are not nearly as accurate as sheet music.  For example, it would be very difficult to play a guitar tab of a song you did not have any knowledge of and play it exactly right by the tab alone.  Sheet music is actually designed so that someone can come along and play it straight from the music.  This is where tab is different and much less consistent.

The Verdict — Use Tabs At Your Own Risk

Tabs are a great way to crack that amazing solo that is giving you fits, but don’t rely on tabs too much.  Learn the scales and even some music theory, and you’ll find yourself relying on tabs less and less.  This will pay off big dividends in the long run for your playing, both privately and when you jam along with a band or friends.  Still, tabs are very useful tools, and there are dozens of sites online where people have donated their own interpretation of the tablature for songs.  It’s fun to check these out, and maybe you’ll even want to make a contribution of your own.  Just know that not every tab is a slam dunk for accuracy, and there’s always a second or third opinion out there just a click away.

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