When you want to learn a song, you simply go to www.ultimate-guitar.com and type in the song you are looking for. But... alas, it has not been tabbed, or all you find are measily 1 and 2 star rated tabs from tone-deaf n00bs! Every other site contains even more mediocre tabs! So, there's only one thing left to do...
Research the artist if you must. A few handy things to know are: do they use power chords? Open chords? How do they tune their guitar? For example, Slash likes to tune his guitar a half step down, while many other hard rock bands use drop D tuning.
Learn music theory. Not every artist may follow chord progressions or stay in key, and music is always changing, but for the most part we can rely on the fact that there are set rules, known as music theory. These rules help to make music sound good to our ears, and knowing these rules can only help us in figuring out other people's works of art. Knowing music theory is very important, to say the least, and it's good for your health.
Watch any videos the artist may have put out. Live videos are always well-desired, but music videos can give hints too. It will help get that tab exact to the artist's version of the song.
Power Chords are a great way to start figuring out easier songs. They're simple, and can be easily moved around the fret board. Also, they can be easily altered into a full minor or major chord.
Power Chord: C5
Full Chord: C major
Once you become more familiarized with the song, then applying the full chords may become necessary, or simply use the power chords if the song is composed of them!
A variation of this method is to play the note on your guitar that sounds like the root note of the chord you want to figure out. So, if I play the note G (3rd fret, 1st string) on my guitar, and it sounds like the chord in the song, then the chord itself is probably a G major or G minor, or some variation. After finding the note, adjust it accordingly to make it into a full chord, whether it be a minor chord, major chord, or something else.
Bass Lines are very helpful. They are usually simpler, and half the time play the root note of the chord. For example, if the bass player plays the note G for several counts, the chord is most likely G major or G minor, or some other variation of G. This method is often useful in punk/pop-punk songs, because of their simple bass lines. Of course, this method may not always work, but it's a very useful one to know, especially for easier songs. This strategy also somewhat ties into the above point.
Graphic Equalizers are great because they can isolate sounds. For example, you can use the graphic equalizer on the computer to turn up the bass and lower the treble, thus easily allowing you to tab the bass part of a song. Or, there's a cool riff in the background, but the singer's high pitched, irritating voice gets in the way. You can isolate the guitar by turning down the singer's levels on the equalizer and turning up the guitar part you want to hear. It's harder to isolate guitar parts in comparison to the bass parts, but this tool is very useful if used effectively.
Slow Down the song, especially if there's a solo that's ripping so fast, it's done before you know it. The newest version of Windows Media Player is great, because you can slow the song to half its speed, without changing the actual pitch of the song! Normally, if you slow down a song on the tape recorder, the pitch gets lower, and if you speed it up, the singer sounds like a frickin' Chipmunk. Thanks to Windows Media Player, you can speed up or slow down the song without altering the pitch! Sorry Mac users...you're stuck with iTunes.
Hum/Sing the notes of the song. This sounds a bit strange, but sing the song to yourself. It will help you find the right chord or note of the song, rather than always playing the song and trying to replicate it on your guitar. If it's a chord, I usually hum the root note of the chord, and then play it on the guitar. I personally use this method a lot, because it saves time pausing and rewinding the song, and it builds your music ear's ability to hear notes and chords. This can be a very handy technique if you get it down.
Fine Tune your tab by adding in bends, slides, hammer-ons, effects, etc., anything that will bring the tab closer to the song you are tabbing. I personally start with tabbing the verses and chorus of the song, then fine tune the tab by adding in the solos for last.
Double Check/Revise your tab, because it's probably wrong. Well, that's a bit harsh, but check to make sure you wrote down what you intended instead of placing a whole line of tablature on the wrong string. Make sure you're numbers in the tab are right, and make sure that it's as neat and organized as you can possibly make it, because it's not you who will be attempting to decipher your tab, it's the rest of us who will be seeing it.
Replay your tabbed version to yourself, without the song. It may have sounded great with the song backing up your guitar, but it may sound horribly wrong with it off. If it sounds okay to your own ears, play it to a friend. Half the time, your own ears are biased to your own tab, so it sounds correct because you spent 3 whole hours making it perfect.
Submit your tab to a website for it to be carefully scrutinized and flamed by heartless internet users. The few that don't say OMG, (insert band) ARE A BUNCH OF SELLOUTS... may possibly give constructive criticism in their comments, maybe even providing a small tab of their own that they think sounds closer. Watch your tab get rated and take the comments to heart, because it will only make you better at figuring out songs.
...So you finally learned to figure out a song on your own, and submitted it with the works. Don't stop at one tab, keep sending in more to those other helpless tab freeloaders! And to think you were once one of them...
The one point that I can not stress enough is to have a good ear. With all the knowledge and theory tucked into your brain cells, they mean nothing without an ear that can pick out the difference between a minor and major chord, or if it's diminished or has a major7 in it...you get the point. So, remember these are only basic tools to help you in the tabbing process...don't expect to figure out Eric Clapton using only these tips (or can you?) And as always, practice makes (near) perfect!
Th-That's all folks!