Guide To Tab Notation

What is Tab? How to read guitar tabs: hammers, bends, pull-offs/ons, slides. How to write tabs? Read this first!

Ultimate Guitar
1.0 What is TAB
1.1 What TAB will tell you
1.2 What TAB won't tell you.

Reading Tab:
2.0 TAB notation - The Basics
2.1 Other symbols used in TAB
2.2 Hammer ons and pull offs
2.3 Bends
2.4 Slides
2.5 Note length information

Writing Tab:
3.0 Getting Started
3.1 To Tab or not to tab
3.2 Things to do when writing TAB
3.3 Things to avoid


1.0 What Is Tab.

TAB or tablature is a method of writing down music played on guitar or bass. Instead of using symbols like in standard musical notation, it uses ordinary ASCII characters and numbers, making it ideal for places like the internet where anybody with any computer can link up, copy a TAB file, and read it.

1.1 What Tab Will Tells You 

TAB will tell you what notes to play - it will tell you which string to hit and which fret to fret it at.

TAB will tell you where hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, slides, harmonics and vibrato are used.

TAB will tell you what tuning the piece is in. If this isn't given explicitly, assume normal tuning. TAB should also give you information on use of capos etc.

TAB will give you an indication of the ryhthm of the piece - I. e it will tell you which are the long notes and which are the short notes. However it will not tell you exactly how long or how short they are. This leads me on to.

1.2 What Tab Will Not Tell You

TAB will (usually) not tell you the note lengths of the notes - so in most cases you will have to listen to the song yourself, with the TAB in front of you to work out the rhythm of the notes.

TAB will not tell you which fingers you use to fret which note.

TAB will (usually) not tell you anything about picking and strumming - you will have to decide for yourself where to use upstrokes/downstrokes and so on.

2.0 Tab Notation - The Basics

TAB is simple to read, and should be simple to write if you want to submit a song you have worked out yourself. The idea is this: you start out with 6 lines (or four for bass). These correspond to the strings of the instrument. The top line is the highest pitch string, and the bottom line is the lowest pitch string. Below is a blank bit of TAB with the string names at the left.
Numbers are written on the lines to show you where to fret the string with the left hand. If a zero appears, this means play the open string. Like standard musical notation, you read from left to right to find out what order to play the notes. The following piece of TAB would mean play the sequence of notes (E F F# G G# A) on the bottom E string by moving up a fret at a time, starting with the open string. 
OK so far? Here we have notes being played one at a time. If two or more notes are to be played together, they are written on top of one another, again just like standard notation. In the next example we have a G bar chord.
So this means play all these notes together as a chord. You might see the same chord written like this:
Which would mean strum the same shape starting at the bottom string, so that each string is hit slightly later than the last string, but all notes will ring together. Below is am example of the same shape again, but now the gaps between the notes are bigger - so you would probably pick the strings separately instead of slowly strumming the shape.
You might ask: "How do I know how fast or slow to play this? Are all the notes supposed to be the same length?"

This is where TAB differs from standard notation. Most often TAB will not give you any information on the note lengths. It is usually left up to you to listen to the song to pick up the rhythm. However don't despair. TAB should give you some indications of timing. In the example above all the notes are evenly spaced so you can reasonably assume that the notes are the same length (maybe all eighth notes or quavers) but this may not always be true - it depends on who wrote the TAB.

As a general rule, the spacing of the notes on the TAB should tell you which notes are the long ones, and which are the short and fast ones, but obviously it won't tell you if a note is a triplet or anything like that. Again, this will depend strongly on the person who wrote the TAB. As an example, here are the first few notes of the American National Anthem in TAB. You should see fairly clearly that the different spacing corresponds to the different note lengths.
Obviously it will be a lot easier to play the TAB for a song you know well than for a song you've never heard of because you will already be familiar with the rhythms of the familiar song.

2.1 Other Symbols Used In Tab

So far I've looked at what notes to play: which string to hit, and where to fret it. I've mentioned how to get an idea of note lengths by looking at the spaces between notes on the TAB, but this can only be a rough guide. You will always have to check with the original track to work out details of the rhythm. A lot of other important information can be included in a piece of TAB. This includes hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, vibrato and so on. The standard practice is to write extra letters or symbols between notes to indicate how to play them. Here are the letters/symbols most often used:
h - hammer on 
p - pull off
b - bend string up
r - release bend
/ - slide up
\ - slide down
v - vibrato (sometimes written as ~)
t - right hand tap
x - play 'note' with heavy damping
That last one, the x, is used to get a choppy, percussive sound. You usually use your fretting hand to lightly damp the strings so that when you pick the note it sounds dead. Note that the use of 'x' is totally different from the use of an 'x' when giving chord shapes. For example if you wrote the chord of D, you would see: 
where the 'x's mean do not play this string. In tab it is implicitly assumed that a string is not played if it is not marked. So the same chord in TAB would be:
with no 'x'. The x is is only used in TAB to represent a heavily muted string which is picked/strummed to give a percussive sound.

There are a number of other symbols for things like whammy bar bends, pick scrapes and so on. There seems to be no particular standard way of writing these - details should be given in the TAB to explain what the symbols mean. Bass TAB will probably need a few extra symbols to cope with the different techniques used in bass playing - for example slapping and 'popping' the string with thumb or middle finger. You could use 's' for slap and 'p' for pop as long as you wrote them underneath the lines of tab to distinguish them from slide and pull off which would be written on the lines of tab.

2.2 Hammer-Ons And Pull-Offs

With hammer-ons and pull-offs you might find things like these:
which would mean play the open E twice, then hit the A string at the 5th fret and hammer on to the 7th fret. Pull offs look very similar: 
Here we have a descending blues scale using pull-offs to the open strings. For each pull off you only pick the first note of the pair with the right hand - so in this example you would pick all the notes on the 3rd and 2nd frets, and the open strings would be sounded by pulling off. Because you give the string an extra bit of energy when you hammer on and pull off, you only need to hit the first note with the picking hand. You could even have a long string of hammer-ons and pull-offs like this: 
In this case you only pick the first note.

2.3 Bends

When bends are involved you need to know how much to bend the note up. This is indicated by writing a number after the 'b'. For example, if you see this: 
It means strike the B string at the 7th fret, then bend the note up two semitones (one whole step) so that it sounds the same pitch as a note fretted at the 9th fret would do. (Sometimes the bend is written with the second part in brackets, like this ---7b(9)--- ). Something like this: 
means play the note at the 7th fret, bend up two semi-tones, strike the note again whilst it is stillbent, then release the bend so that the note has it's normal pitch. You sometimes get a note which is bent up only a quarter of a tone or so. In this case it would look a bit strange to write: 
B--------7b7. 5--------
if you have to bend it up half a fret's worth. Instead it's written as: 
 bend up 1/4 tone
with instructions on how much to bend written above the note.

2.4 Slides

The most common symbols used for slides are / for a slide up and \ for a slide down. You might also see 's' used to mean slide. You don't always need separate symbols for 'up' and 'down' slides since a line of TAB reading: 
is clearly a slide up from 7th to 9th fret. However you might also see things like these: 
Where the exact start or finish of a slide is not given. Here you have to know whether you're sliding up or down. In these cases use your judgment to choose the starting or finishing fret. The effect usually desired is to have a note 'swooping in' from a lower pitch or dropping suddenly in pitch as the note fades. You could have a whole series of slides running together, like this
which would mean you only strike the first note with the pick using the sustain to produce the other notes.

2.5 Note Length Information

Occasionally you will find TAB which includes information on all of the note lengths. There seems to be no particular 'standard' way of doing this, but it usually involves a line of letters or symbols above the TAB. See below (Section 3. 2 part 6) for more details. If the explanation of the timing symbols is not given in the TAB then you've got a problem! In this case a quick email to the author to ask for enlightenment is the only way forward.

3.0 Writing Tab - Getting Started

Perhaps one of the most important things to do before you start typing up a piece of TAB is to decide exactly how much information to include in it. The trick is to convey the right amount of information in a clear, easily readable form. Questions you can ask yourself are:
  • Is the song played using mostly chords?
  • Are there a number of riffs which appear throughout the song?
  • Is there a clear verse/chorus/middle bit structure?
By planning ahead a little you should be able to produce a clearlystructured TAB which will not only be easier for others to read, butalso easier for you to type in. There are also choices to be made when deciding what package to usewhen typing the TAB in. All you really need is a simple text editor, however a mouse-driven editor will probably make things easier. When you start typing in it saves time if you draw out one blank stave and then make 8 or 10 copies of these before you start typing inthe fret numbers etc. If you use a more complicated package like Microsoft Word thenmake sure that the characters you use are all the same length. If an 'm' character is wider than an 'I' character then your TABis going to look very strange on another text editor. Choose a fontwhere all charcters get the same width - Courier usually does thejob. There are also a number of programs available by ftp which were writtenspecifically to make TAB writing easier. Details of these programs including ftp addresses are in the 'TABBING MADE EASY' FAQ by John Kean, along with other useful hints for writing TAB.

3.1 To Tab Or Not To Tab

If a song can be described well with just chords, then it will be a lot easier to read and write if you just use the chord shapes, rather than tab out the chords. BUT - if you do just send in the chords it makes things much clearer if you give the chord shapes as well. For example, if you wanted to send in Led Zeps 'Gallows Pole' you could write: 
Intro: A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A

Verse: A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A
A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A G D
A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A A7 G/A A7 Am7 Dadd4/A
(You should really have the words underneath as well, but I can't remember them at the moment! ) Now this is OK, but how many people actually know how to play Dadd4/A off the top of their heads? What you need to do is include some chord shapes like this: 
x02020 x02010 x04035 320033 xx0232 x00000

A7 Am7 Dadd4/A G D G/A
To TAB out these chords will take a lot longer to type in, and will probably take people a lot longer to read and understand. Where a chord is based around chords like this, it makes things much easier if you just give chord shapes and names, then show where the chords go in relation to the words.

3.2 Things To Do When Writing Tabs

One of the most important considerations when typing in TAB is to make it clear and easily readable. There are a few simple things you can do to make things work.

- 1. Use spaces!

It's amazing the difference it can make if you insert a few blank lines in the right place. If you are used to writing the words above or below the lines of TAB make sure you leave a few lines free so that it's clear whether the words belong to the line of TAB above or below. Space out the individual lines of TAB and the whole thing will be a lot easier for others to understand.

- 2. Define the symbols you use

It would make everybody's life a lot easier if everyone used the same symbols for hammer ons, bends etc. But if you are convinced that your particular way of writing bends and slides makes much more sense than anyone else's, that's OK as long as you tell everybody what system you use. It makes very good sense to start your TAB file with a list of symbols used. The list of most commonly used symbols is below: 
h - hammer on 
p - pull off
b - bend string up
r - release bend
/ - slide up
\ - slide down
v - vibrato (sometimes written as ~)
t - tap (with strumming hand)
x - muted, struck string
Цhen you get on to harmonics, you might see a variety of symbols used. Even in standard music notation, an accepted way of writing natural and artificial harmonics has never been agreed! However, using brackets is the standard way of writing harmonics, so a natural harmonic at the 12th fret would be: 

Normal brackets () are sometimes used for grace notes or optional notes so 'pointy' brackets <> is the usual choice for harmonics.

- 3. Label bits of the TAB

It makes things a lot easier if you can see where the 'verse' and 'chorus' parts of a song are, so put a few labels in certain places to guide people through it. Many songs will have clear 'verse' and 'chorus' structures - so you can tab out the riffs/chords or whatever for these just once, and then indicate where these are repeated. Or there maybe a couple of important riffs which are used - so TAB these out and label them 'Riff One' and 'Riff Two' - then when they come up later in the song you can just say 'repeat Riff One four times' instead of tabbing the whole thing again. As long as it's clear which bits of TAB go with which label, you will save yourself time this way as well as making it easier to read for others.

- 4. Include Artist/Album

It's useful for others to know where to find the original song, so at the beginning of each TAB include some information on the artists who recorded the original, and the album on which the song can be found.

- 5. General Comments

It's also useful to include a few lines at the beginning of the TAB to explain the style of the song, or to point out important features such as alternative tunings, use of capos etc. A few words along the lines of "use a staccato, funky kind of strumming style for the chords, then change to a sustained feel for the lead line" will help people to get an idea of how to approach the playing style. Information on the type of guitar (electric/acoustic, 6 string/12 string) and effects used would be useful.

One point on the use of capos and alternative tunings: it's a lot easier for people to understand chord names etc if they are written as though played without a capo. For example, if you have a D shape chord played with a capo at the 2nd fret you should write it as D major even though you will actually be fretting notes at the 4th and 5th frets. Also - for TAB using a capo, it's standard practice to write the numbers of the frets relative to the position of the capo. So again, if you had a D major chord with a capo at the 2nd fret the TAB would be: 
even though you actually fret the notes at the 4th and 5th frets. It's similar with TAB for guitars tuned a semitone or tone lower than usual. If a song should be played with the guitar tuned to Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb, and it has this chord: 
it makes things a lot easier to understand if the you call the chord 'E' rather than Eb. That way, if you decide to play in standard tuning, you don't get confused.

- 6. Timing Information

You may want to get really serious and include details giving the precise rhythm of the piece. This will involve a lot more typing, but it means all the information necessary to play the piece is given explicitly. One way to approach this is to write a line of dashes interspersed with numbers which count the beats. So in 4-4 time, you would have: 
1---2---3---4---1---2---3---4--- etc
Under this you can write a line of d's and u's to represent down and upstrokes. Here is a simple example where the rhythm is 2 crotchets (quarter notes) followed by 4 quavers (8th notes)
1---2---3---4---1---2---3---4--- etc
You could expand on this to use upper and lower case letters to indicate accents and so on. If you use this method make sure that you clearly separate the 2 lines of rhythm information from the 6 lines of TAB. One other way of including timing information is to use one letter/symbol for each note type. For example use e for 8th note (quaver), s for 16th note (semi- quaver) and so on. The letters you use may well differ depending on whether you're used to the American system of quarter notes, 8th notes etc or the English system of crotchets and quavers, but the method is the same. If you're not sure of the 'translations' here they are: 
whole note - semibreve
half note - minim
quarter note - crotchet
8th note - quaver
16th note - semiquaver
32nd note - demisemiquaver
64th note - hemidemisemiquaver
Simply write the letters above the corresponding note in the TAB. (Make sure you define which letters/symbols you use). Here's an example of what this looks like. This is the opening riff from the Beatles' Ticket To Ride: 
 q e e t t t q e e t t t 

Here I've used q for quarter note, e for 8th note and t for triplet quarter note. If you want to send in a TAB with rhythm information like this then it's essential to explain the system you use. I've seen a lot of different systems of letters and numbers of varying degrees of simplicity and readability. Whichever you choose to use, you'll have to explain all your symbols to make sure others can work out what the hell you're on about. If you want to give a few clues as to the rhythm of the TAB, but don't want to get too involved, use of bar lines is an effective way of conveying timing information. Simply insert a vertical line of |'s to indicate the end of a bar. So using the national anthem example I had before, with bar lines it looks like this: 
- 7. Lyrics

It's a lot easier to follow a piece of TAB when you've got at least some of the lyrics to follow, and you can match up the notes/riffs in the TAB to the lyrics. Try to include lyrics for at least the first verse and chorus. If you're not sure of the words you can ftp - there is a large collection of song lyrics held there. Failing that a request to the newsgroups along the lines of "Please mail me the lyrics to such and such so that I can make a proper job of the TAB I'm working on" will usually get a sympathetic response.

As a final note on writing TAB I should say that whenever you post to the newsgroups always cross post to both guitar groups, and also mail a copy to so that it can be included in OLGA. For more information on posting to the guitar newsgroups and OLGA see the other FAQs regularly posted to the guitar newsgroups.

3.3 Things To Avoid

- 1. Tab Wraparound

One of the most common problems in writing TAB is text wraparound. This makes the TAB almost impossible to read but is very easily avoided. The problem occurs when you write a line of TAB which is maybe 80 or 90 characters long. For a lot of people this is too wide for their screen, so what should be a single line of tab ends up being split onto two lines. Here is what it looks like: 

Now this will probably look pretty weird when you see it. When I wrote it, using Windows 'Notepad', it looked fine because I could fit the whole thing on one screen. For most newsreaders though, it is too long and you run into problems. All you have to do is be careful when you type in TAB so that you the maximum width of line is say 60 characters. I've tried to do that in this FAQ so that the maximum width is about this much. If you limit your TABs in the same way, you should be OK. Of course, if TAB does get wrapped around the author might not realise because it looked fine on his/her screen when they wrote it. It might be worth letting them know of the problem, so they can be careful in the future. (This includes me! If parts of this FAQ are too wide for your screen, please let me know).

- 2. Very Squashed TAB

It's amazing how easy it is to ruin an otherwise good piece of TAB by not spacing it out so that the end result is a mass of cramped TAB, explanations, labels etc. When you finish typing up, go back through the TAB and see if you can insert a few blank lines here and there to separate verse from chorus or whatever. It really does make it a lot easier for others to read. It might also be worth considering if you've included too much detail in the TAB. Usually this will not be the case, but I have seen a few TABs which go into great details, but are extremely off-putting to try to read because of the sheer quantity of information.

- 3. Unnecessary Repetition

If a line of TAB or a particular riff is repeated a number of times then save yourself the effort, TAB it once. It's also easier to read like this. That's all I think you need to know about reading and writing TAB. If there's anything important you think I've left out or if there are bits of the FAQ which you can't understand then let me know.

50 comments sorted by best / new / date

    How do you Dampen a note. All you say is "You usually use your fretting hand to lightly damp the strings " What the heck does that mean? How do you dampen a string?
    He's basically describing a palm mute. Usually done with grungy guitar effects to produce a heavy, wet sound or just to simply mute the strings.
    I mean just simply slightly touching the strings with your finger to minimize or eliminate sound. What I said earlier was non-sense. Lol.
    and could ya tell me what a bracket around a note means ? i mean somethin that goes like e|-----(5)----- B|----- ----- G|----- the rest of the lesson is kewl, man ! keep em comin !
    ok im new to this stuff, its under beginners, and u dont explain dampening and the other stuff very well. you would think some1 looking under beginners would prolly not know any of this stuff. also too long break it up into sections like 3 different lessons that all go together.
    Kick Me
    OK.... I understand it ALL except the dampening.You accually put water on the string? I cant figure out how to play this tab Counting On Me by KoRn.plz help.ill give u a cookie.....
    anybody who's ever played Guitar Hero will know what a hammer on or pull off is. it's not that hard. as for the lesson, thanks a lot. im already learning ride the lightning by metallica.
    This lesson seriously sucked in my didn't go into detail and it was very hard to understand. That is why I gave you 1 star! =)
    you say it is for beginners and iyou don't explain the hammer stuff or the li\slide and theose things so if you would just tell me id apreciate iit other than that it was super amazing thnk you it really helped me sooo
    On my guitar Pro software, What does A.H. and N.H. mean and how do i get that sound?
    hammer on is when you pluck a note then use hit the same string with another finger to soubd the fret you hit
    Guys, relax. This is an intro to TAB NOTATION, not a guide on how to play guitar. It explains what different things you can encounter in a tab. If you don't know how to play that, you'll have to find another lesson on how that particular thing is done.
    To "dampen a note", you should slightly touch the string so it won't make a sound.
    thanks, this really helped. before i didnt really understand pull-offs, hammer-ons, and slides but now i do. this is a great explanation for beginners.
    i got it yeah hey thanx a lot i dont see how anyone would not understand this its so easy!!! you did a kool job thanx agian!!
    barely_inmexico: I've a question for you: I get all the tab notation as explained here, by the way, great job! What I dont get is that when I look at a tab notation for a song, in addition to the tab, there are chords immediately above it. So do I play the tab? The chords? what? [POSTED: 04 December 2003 - 00:56]|
    Seemed in your example that the chords on top are the names of the tab you're playing. I'd just go with the tab. spam deleted
    Guys... I've been playing guitar for only 2 weeks so my explanation might be iffy. Say at one point in the tab you have 5h7 (whatever the cord). Use your index finger on the five and play the note. Then use your ringfinger (well that's what I use) and just strike the same cord at the 7th fret and leave it there. That's a hammer on. Pull off is very similar. Say you have 7p5. Put your index finger on the 5th fret and ringfinger on the 7th fret. Play the cord, then just lift off your ringfinger, that's it. If you have an electric guitar, put as much distortion as you can and it will be easy to do. Great arcticle, thanks!
    Real helpful but you need to explain hammer ons and pull offs are cos i still dont understand. Dont spend so much time talkin bout writin tabs either cos not many people who read this will want to learn that. Otherwise good job
    Do you guys even have a guitar with ya when you're trying to figure this out? Or do you guys even own one? I don't understand how you guys can't understand how hammer's and pull's work... I explained it well enough in a comment earlier on that my roommate's 8 year old kid brother understood. Or are you guys so damn lazy you expect to learn and understand everything in 5 mins? If that's the case, just go hit your head against the wall a couple times then contemplate about how little a number of brain cells you possess. This guy did an awesome job at explaining it, if you don't understand here, give up or go take some private lessons cos you are hopeless.
    I've a question for you: I get all the tab notation as explained here, by the way, great job! What I dont get is that when I look at a tab notation for a song, in addition to the tab, there are chords immediately above it. So do I play the tab? The chords? what?
    So it would look something like this (I made up the chords, have no idea which would actually be correct) Am G D Am F E----- --0-- B---0----- -0----- G-----1----- 1----- D----- 2----- A----- ----- E- ----- Get it now? First you say, "just hit each string at the fret indicated" but then what do I do about the damn chords?!!!
    Hi,Iam an older musician who never knew how to read music.My nephew got me started on tabs and I think they're great.Thanks a lot guys and keep up the good work.
    Say what?!? You're gonna have to use easier terms for slo ppl like myself. All i want to understand is the timing :/
    i really new in this area. how do we really do with the right hand fingger to do hammer on and pull off?
    Im pretty sure that dampning a string means pressing your finger against the string but not right down onto the fret so that you do not get a note from it.
    somebody tell me how to bend and dampening strings and sliding cuz i dont know how to do it (email
    uh this stuff is so frustrating...if you ask one question they go on they keep on telling you the same ol stuff overing in over, its to much stuff to jam into muh head at one time but yea neways yea muh question is does ne one noe how to bend, and slide, hammer, n all that other stuff?
    Dampening a sring is easy! Wats wrong with u people? okay heres how to do it. Take your left hand (or right if you play a lefty guitar) and lightly put it across the strings. Strum the strings and it makes a light scratchy sound. Dont press down all the way on the strings with your fretting hand or you will make a normal sound. Being gentle is the key. I hope you guys get it. Its so fricken easy. Email me for me details on guitar. or
    I agree with UG Stranger...I understood this completely...I wish I had this when I learned how to play....
    that lesson was really helpful in some ways but i still dont really get how to do bends.....
    Hi...i kinda understand tabs now, but i don't get where theres like 6 numbers on top of each other, how do you play those 6 at the same time?
    quick question and it may sound dumb but.... one song i am trying to learn Never Too Late by Three Days Grace... i believe its either the verse or the chorus.. the E, A, D, strings have "L's" on them. what do the "L's" represent?