Sheet music is complicated. It work well for pianists, not so well for guitarists. Think about it. As a pianist, you look at a note, and can translate it into an action with a single finger. In guitar, it requires you to think about several things. You have to decide (A) Which string to pluck, (B) which fret to press on (if any), (C) how long it should be held in order to produce the desired note, and (D) if you want to do anything special with it (bends, hammers etc.). This is a pain, which is why someone developed tab. If you are a musical genius, you probably don’t need this. If you are like the rest of us guitarists, this is an essential skill. Guitar tab is, however, lacking in rhythm instructions. For this reason some tabs include sheet music above them.

Tab gives you everything. Or, at least, almost everything. It shows you which string to pluck, which fret to press on, and any special modifications you need to make, in as much or less space then traditional sheet music. It may seem a bit daunting. But it is actually rather simple.

What you see below is a piece of guitar tab for the song Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Although it may look confusing, it actually makes quite a bit of sense once you know how to read it. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will be able to look at that and play it.


You can think of guitar tab in a similar way to the game Rock Band or Guitar Hero (or Band Hero, or…). Below I have numbered the lines of the guitar tab, and, on the right, indicated which string they indicate (note, you will NOT get this in most tabs, this is just for instructional purposes).


In some ways you have to flip this over in your mind. When playing a guitar (at least, if you play it normally), you will be holding it so the lowest string (in tone), will be on top. The A string will be directly below, the D string directly below the A string, etc. I tab, the lowest string (E) is on the bottom, the A is above it, and so on. Technically this is correct however. If you imagine the tab as a guitar neck facing you, then the strings are exactly where they are supposed to be.

Now that we got that out of the way, we can get into actually reading it. Guitar tab is read just like written word, left to right, although not completely up and down. You can imagine the tab as one “line” of text. The numbers on the “strings” indicate what frets should be pushed when the note is plucked.

Let’s start at the beginning of this. Notice, the first note is a 0 on the 4th (D) string). This indicates that we should pluck the D string open (i.e. without pressing on any frets) fairly straightforward. The second note is exactly the same, so we do the same thing again. After this, however, it changes. There is a 3 on the 2nd (B) string. This indicates we should pluck the 2nd string will pressing on the 3rd fret of that string.

We can continue like this until we reach those three notes on the 5th string. Notice that it says 3(0)3. What does this mean? You ask yourself. If you listen to the recording of this song, you can here at that point a subtle note in between those two notes on the A string. The parenthesis indicate both the fact that it is such a short note, and that it has a palm mute (which we will discuss later). Chances are when you look for tab you have already heard the song. If this is so, you can generally figure out what things like that mean. The problem with guitar tab is that there is not really an established standard for how to indicate things other then notes (by which I mean effects). You have to figure it out some times.


That being said, I can still help you out here. The original tab looks like this:

                pm                 pm          h      po     po

Notice slashes between some of the notes. This indicates that there needs to be something special between the notes. Notice the letters above the tab, these indicate what that something special is.

There are 5 basic effects in guitar tablature:

  • Hammer on – Instead of placing a finger on a new fret and then picking, you simply press down quickly and hard without picking. Then note changes, but you don’t have to pick again. This is NOT just for convenience sake, but has a distinctive sound.
  • Pull off – Opposite of a hammer, but in this case you simply remove a finger and let the note continue to ring.
  • Bends – Stretching the string by pushing on it to raise the pitch.
  • Slides – Moving from fret to fret without lifting a finger.
  • Palm Mute – Putting your palm on the strings so they produce a muted sound when plucked.

Although there are more, these are the most important.

In the tab above, we see three different effects. The palm mute (pm) the hammer (h) and the pull off (po). The parantasees show where the palm mute should be, and the slashes indicate where the hammer and the pull off should go. As I have said, this can be different for different tabs, as there is no established standard. But, if you listen to the recording, you can generally figure out what the tabber is trying to indicate. Frequently tabbers will include a list of effects with the symbols they use at the beginning of the tab.

Try this out and let me know how it goes. You can find the whole tab from this tutorial here. Note, it has both guitar parts in it. And never forget, reading guitar tab is like reading text. You may start out slow, but I guarantee you will get faster. And, if you are feeling daring, you can use this knowledge to try to write your own tab!

And, if you need a recording, never fear! I am here!

Categories: Instruments