How to Read Tabs

This is only for beginners who are trying to learn how to read tabs.

Ultimate Guitar

Understanding Tablature

Tab (or tablature) is a method of writing down music played on guitar, bass, drums etc. Instead of using symbols like in standard musical notation, it uses ordinary characters and numbers. Tablature is possibly the best way to learn music for those who don't know special music notation. Reading tabs is easy, you won't have to go through this lesson twice.

Guitars usually have 6 strings (there are 7-string and 12-string guitars also, but we'll ignore them now). The first thing you have to know is the names of all the 6 strings. The top string is the thickest string, and it is called the 6th string or E-string because it plays E note at open fret (when you don't hold down any frets and just pick the string), assuming standard tuning. The next string is called 5th string or A string for similar reasons. The other string in order are 4th or D string, 3rd or G string, 2nd or B string and 1st or e-string (thinnest string). As the 1st and 6th string are both E notes, we distinguish the 1st string by writing it in a smaller case "e".

Now we are ready to move to tabs.

How to Read Tabs

The first thing you will notice about tabs is that there are six lines. They represent the six strings of the guitar and typically look like this:
We have written the string names (the note each string plays when you don't hold down any frets) on the left, this may not be given in all tabs. If it is not given, you'll have to assume that it is the same as we've written here.

Note that the top string of your guitar (the 6th or E string) is written at the bottom of the tab, and the bottom string (1st of e string) is written at the top. Many beginners get confused at this, but this is the standard way to write tabs.

Also note that in some cases the string names may be written differently. These are the cases when the song is not played with standard tuning. That means the open strings don't play the notes E, A, D, G, B, e but some other notes. As this lesson is for beginners, we will stick to standard tuning guitar tabs.

The next thing you notice on a tab is the numbers. The numbers represent frets. 1 means 1st fret, 2 means second fret and so on. A 0 (zero) means open string. For example:
Tabs are meant to be read from left to right. Here in this tab, first you play D string at open fret, then G string at 2nd Fret, then B string and 3rd fret and so on. If you know your chords, then you would notice that this tab plays the notes of a D major chord.

Another example:
The difference between this tab and the first tab is that here multiple strings are hit at the same time, so this indicates strumming. At first you hold down and A and D string and 2nd fret and G string at 1st fret and play all 6 strings. If you're familiar with basic guitar chords, then you will notice that this is E major chord. According to the tab, E major chord is strummed twice. The next chord is A major which is strummed once and then D major is strummed twice.

The x indicates that that string is not played. Meaning you don't hit that string with your strumming hand. It could also indicate a dead note. This means that you play that string with your strumming hand but it doesn't make a sound because you muted that string with your other hand. Holding a string lightly (rather than pressing it firmly down at the fretboard) and hitting it creates a dead note. Whether or not a string is not played or it's a dead note can be confusing as they are both represented by x. Listening to the song will often give you a clue. For a beginner, assume that the x indicates that the string is not played.

Basic tablature symbols

Now for the special symbols used in tabs:
/ = slide up
\ = slide down
h = hammer-on
p = pull-off
~ = vibrato
+ = harmonic
x = Dead note
b = Bend
pb = Pre-bend
br = Bend release
pbr = Pre-bend release
brb = Bend release bend
Let's explain some of the most commonly used symbols with a tab:
e |------------------------------------------------|
B |------------------------------------------------|
G |-----------------------9-11-11h12 12p11--9h11---|
D |-9-9h11--11p9--9-11/12--------------------------|
A |------------------------------------------------|
E |------------------------------------------------|
First, D string at 9th fret is played. Then we notice 9h11. This means you put your finger at 9th fret, pick the string than hammer the 11th fret. Hammering means you pick a string with your finger at one fret, then without picking that string again you use your fretting hand to hit another fret (in this case 11th fret) hard enough to create sound. Remember, you pick once but get 2 notes when hammering.

Next we see 11p9. This means pick the string at 11th fret then "pull-off" that finger while another finger is already placed at 9th fret. It's like pincing the string at 11th fret with the fretting hand while you have a finger placed at 9th fret. The effect is like reverse hammering. 2 notes are played with one picking of the strumming hand. Hammering and pull-offs are often done in a row like 9h11p9. It's playing the 9th fret, then hammering the 11th fret and then pulling-off to 9th fret again. All with just one pick of the strumming hand. Sound difficult? You will learn it if you practice. It's not that hard.

As we move along the tab, we notice 11/12. This means you hold down 11th fret and pick the string, then without releasing the pressure, you "slide" the finger to 12th fret. Again, you pick once but get two notes when sliding.

\ is just sliding in the other direction. So 5\3 means slide from 5th fret to 3rd fret, picking only once (at 5th fret).

~ means just vibrating the finger when you hold down a string at a fret. It gives a nice effect.

b means bending the string at a fret to give the sound of another fret. For a beginner, we would suggest avoid string bending for now, and don't try to play the tabs that have a lot of string bending.

My final advice for the beginner who is now ready to read his first tab: start with a simple tab like "Come As You Are" - Nirvana or "Hurt" - Johnny Cash.

We hope this was helpful.

Don't give up on tabs, be patient, keep trying and you'll eventually succeed in playing your favorite songs on guitar!


A bunch of short explanatory videos we've made to help you get used to tabs.

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Check additional information on tablature notation at UG Wiki.

224 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Hi. Excellent notes! About the tabs being written with the bottom string on top and the top string at the bottom, it is because that is the way the player will see it when he looks down at the board. That makes it immediately easy, just so long as they don't confuse the bars for frets
    It's actually because the higher the note is on the tablature, the higher the pitch. The E string is the heaviest and therefore the lowest when played open, so it'd be low on the tablature.
    only thing is, if these people are right bigginers, mabye they should have some more easy stuff. but the lesson is simply amazing, shame i learned tab myself, i would have loved to learn from here.
    Asif Zaman
    In the tab, the you can see that 022100 is written twice (vertically). That means you play it twice. 022100 means E-major chord. Since the numbers are in a vertical line, that means you are supposed to strum it. And since the numbers appear twice, you strum it twice. Hope that answers your question.
    Trevor Quips
    I still don't know what ^ means because I'm trying to learn how to play nothing else matters and it has Eb--7^0--- and I was like what does that mean
    Two years late, but if you haven't figured it out yet, I think it was meant to represent 'Bend up'
    im still confused about what strings to play, do i only play the ones with numbers???
    you read them left to right like if it has a two on the e string you play the second fret on the e string
    If a tab calls for 9b11 what note is bent. The 9 or the 11?
    It means play the ninth fret and bend the string until it sounds like the eleventh fret. If that's it, "---9b11--- then you want to stop the string from ringing before you release the bend.
    Jasmine52 wrote: thank you so much this helps alott but i wish knew more about what you meant by hammering
    That made me laugh. xD Anyway, thank you. [:
    Use some creative common sence! a zero means you pluck the string OPEN, meaning no fingers used to fret. cherijb- that is a D chord: Index finger on the G string at 2nd fret, middle finger on the B string at the third fret, and your ring finger on the thinnest string at the 2nd fret. You only pluck 4 strings starting at the D string, but the D string is open, so you do not fret it. E and A string get muted by your thumb, or do not pluck those. Their are different ways to apply your fingers to these chords, use what is most comfortable for you, without twisting your fingers in a knot.
    Hi everybody ! I'm Moroccan so I don't really understand english as well as you do, so can someone, please, translate to me just a little bit of what was written before (just the most important). Thank's !
    I'm sorry I'm new at this... just wanna know how do you do when there is two numbers one under the other and u ar suppoused to play them at the same time I mean: e---3 B---5 ?? help? thanks anyways!
    it simply means you put one finger on e---3 and another on B---5. As for your strumming hand, maybe you should do away with a pick and use your bare fingers for that song so you can play 2 strings at once. hope it helps
    Asif Zaman
    VSBM: Yes, you play the strings with the numbers. laurib90: Yes, you are suppose to play the strings at the same time if there are 2 numbers (one under the other).
    Im a beginner so..... Its confusing But I will try and learn from this
    I have a question: how can i play tabs that show 6 numbers at once? I mean, i dont have 6 fingers!! Or five! because there are songs where there this is the case!
    You must bar some of the strings to play more than five with a five-fingered hand. Google "bar chords" or "barre chords" to learn more. You press one finger, typically the index finger, flat all the way across the fretboard in order to fret all of the strings at that fret. If the index is used on the third fret, you can add the middle, ring and pinky fingers to create a G major: e-3- B-3- G-4- D-5- A-5- E-3- ...since it only takes one finger to fret the E, B and e strings.
    I understand... nothing. The ''another example'' is easy to do, but all the other tabs on this website are different. i can't see chords to do in the tabs. In the example it's vertically. I see i have to G---1 D---2 A---2 like E Chord. But what i've to do at: e -----2----- B -----3---3----- G ----2-----2----- D --0----- A ----- E ----- ???Mind fu***** thats not vertically
    If the numbers aren't arranged in a vertical line, the individual notes are picked, not strummed together. The example you've posted (can't tell if the formatting has been retained) looks to me like an open "D" string (pick) followed by the second fret on the "G" (pick), then the third fret on the "B" and the second fret on the "e" are played together (tiny strum).
    thanks, I do looking for this, well written even something were not put. thanks again.
    how would the slide work if it didn't have another fret next to it like /-12?
    This was very helpful. I was looking at the Queen: "Don't Stop Me Now" solo tab, with not the slightest idea of what the numbers meant. Now I'm good though, thanks.
    What does it mean when it says 12\ am i sliding to any note in particular or do i just slide it all the way up the fretboard?
    If that's all the notation, slide to the nut. In words, that says "12th fret, slide down" with no place specified to stop. In contrast, "--12\10--" would mean "12th fret, slide down to the tenth fret".
    Hello! Thank you for posting this! There is something I fail to understand, someone else might have asked but I'm sorry the comments are too much to read through! If, on a tab, you are to hit two or three notes at the same time, and they are spaced- e.g a2+g5+e3. What happens to the strings inbetween if nothing is indicated on the tab?? How can I play these strings without touching the ones inbetween? Thanks!
    Unless there is an X on a string in the place of a number, which is often the case on the low E, you play that string "open" (no fingers touching).
    i have a question about how many spaces to put between tabs. E.g.: e---6-7----- B----- G----- D----- A----- E---- - or e---6--7----- B----- G----- D----- A----- E----- ?
    Let's look at the first example in this tutorial, showing how a D-major chord is played. It has a diagram showing that two fingers should be on both the 2nd and 3rd strings, whilst the 1st string only has 1 finger: e -----2----- B -----3---3----- G ----2-----2----- D --0----- A ----- E ----- What are the extra fingers showing on the 2nd and 3rd strings for? That is extremely confusing, not simple at all. Furthermore, the explaination just completely skips mentioning why the extra '3' and '2' are there? The diagram should just be (Is this not all that is needed to describe a D-Major?: e -----2----- B -----3----- G ----2----- D --0----- A ----- E -----
    Read the tab in slices from left to right. The first slice is the notes of each string, "EADGBe". After that, it's a couple of columns of hyphens. This is empty space to make the tab overall more readable. Left to right, next you come to a hyphen on the E row, a hyphen on the A row, a 0 on the D row, and hyphens on the G, B and e rows. That means don't play E, A, G, B or e, but play the D string open. After that, it's hypens on E, A, D, B, and e, and the second fret on the G string. So play the second fret on the G string and don't play any of the others, since they had hyphens. The next vertical column is, in order from E to e, -, -, -, -, 3, 2. This means do not play E, A, D, or G, and play the third fret on the B string and the second fret on the e string together. Listen to the source material to get timing information, as this is poorly captured in tablature if at all. Hope that helps.
    I have only just started playing guitar and I don't like change. I play by sheet music (showing the position of fingers on the strings). Is Guitar Pro 6 capable of showing the chords that way please?
    Would someone explain How to read a tab when it has  1st.. & 3 of the 2nd with roman numbers also.  I am so confused trying to follow along and play (IN ORDER)  the song Preludio De Adios. I understand the double bar with asterisk means repeat back to previous asterisk. Thanks to all who respond.
    help!!! i'm a begginer so i don't really understand the tabs i'm confused about the third example can someone please help me!!
    If you put your forefinger on the 9th fret, pick that note, then bring your ring finger down on the 11th fret without picking again, you have hammered the second note. One way to look at it is that this is the same as sliding from 9 to 11 but with hammering you are skipping the 10th fret. When you employ the hammer, then just pull the ring finger back up and you have used the pull-off. You can do all this and just pick that first note.
    can someone pls tell me what you do when it looks like this: ----- -3----- ----- -5----- -7----- ----- are they are all played at the same time? how! thanks in advance...
    I think you do play them all at the same time. use the fingers of your strumming hand, since you have more than one finger
    Yes, that says to play them all together. That's a stretch, but totally possible. Use your index finger on the 3rd fret on the B string, your middle finger for the fifth fret on the D string, and reach your pinky out to the 7th fret on the A string. It will be tough to play this as written though, as you aren't supposed to touch any of the other stings (including the G, which is between the B and the D). You're probably supposed to mute some or all of them. Tabs are mostly created for free by the community, so they aren't necessarily complete or perfect.