How to Write and Understand Guitar Tabs




What good is creativity without an outlet?  About as good as words without a language.  Tabs are another way of writing music that works especially well for guitar.  In this instructuable, I will teach you how to read, write, and understand tabs so you can put "words" to your auditory ideas without tedious memorization of traditional sheet music.  It's surprisingly simple and rewarding.

Step 1: Know Your Guitar

First, before learning to play music, a basic understanding of your instrument it fairly necessary.  Picture a guitar sideways- with the head of the guitar to the left and the bridge farthest to the right.  The vertical lines on the neck of the guitar are called the frets.  The strings, in order from top to bottom (or small to big, high to low) are a high E note, a B note, G, D, A, and lastly a low E.  The mnemonic that helped me when I was learning was Every Bad Guitar Doesn't Actually Exist.
Knowing this just makes understanding what other people are talking about, guitar-wise, a lot easier.

Step 2: The Tabs

Tabs are a simplified version of writing music that works especially well for guitar.  Sheets for writing tabs have 6 lines.  6 lines just like there are six strings on a guitar.  How convenient.
The top line signifies what should be played on the high E string.  The second from the top is the B, third, G, and so on.
Numbers on the coresponding lines tell you where to put your fingers.  A number 2 tells you to put your finger on the second fret.  A 10- tenth fret.  You get the idea.
The notes are read from left to right.  For example, in the picture below, you would play 2, then 1, then an open E, then a 1 again.  Just like regular reading.  You dont skip around.  Pretty simple, right?
One of the beauties of tabs is that you can write them just about anywhere you can draw 6 lines.  This happens to be the back of my history homework.

Step 3: Fancy Stuff

I am a self taught guitarist, among many other successful musicians.  In fact, there are a surpirsing amount of famous players who never learned to read traditional music.  Hendrix, Slash, BB King, and Paul McCartney are just a few. 
But those guys don't just play single notes in a row.  Slash doesn't play twinkle twinkle little star.  And with good reason.  Why accept avoidable limitations that detract from your musical agency?
Because I just kind of picked up a guitar and put two and two together, (6 strings, 6 lines... hm?) the fancy stuff was something I didn't come across until later on.  But what happens when you see something like this?

|----------------------  |-------------------              |
|-------------------13-|-12h13p12/10---13b-  |
|----------11-12-14-|-------------------              |
|--14--14-------------|-------------------              |
|----------------------  |-------------------               |
|----------------------  |-------------------               |

Pandemonium!  Lawlessness!  Those are letters, and they're not even note letters!  H?!?

Here are the basics
b is for bending
h is for hammer on
p is for pull off
/ is for slide
~ is for vibrato
* is for harmonic
X is for muted

These are just the publicly known symbols.  If you have your own, that's just fine if it helps you more easily.  For sharing with others though, this is good to know.

Step 4: Explanations

Hammer on?  Don't have a hammer...
Here are the translations.
Bear with me. 

When you see a b,  bend the string slightly to change its pitch.  Try it.  The best gauge is to listen to the song you are trying to play.  The one downside to tabs is that no tempo/length of notes is signified, so you really just have to listen, learn, and get a sense for your piece.

When you see an h, it will always be between two notes.  It means to "hammer on" from a note.  For example, in 2h3, you pick while your finger is on the two, and then put your finger down on the 3rd fret as the string continues to ring.  This can make picking more smooth sounding and less complicated.  If there is no number before, for example, if you just had a h6, you play the open string, and then press down the 6th fret.

A p is nearly the opposite of a hammer on.  It is called a pull off.  Instead of placing your finger down when the string is ringing, take one off, but make sure that before you do, your other finger is placed in the correct spot.  With 5p3, put your fingers on the 5th and 3rd fret.  Pluck and the one that will sound is the 5th.  Pull off without plucking, and the one that will sound now is the 3rd.

The / in between notes indicates to slide.  Pluck the first note, and continue to press down the string until you reach the other note.  Just like the last one, if there is no first note, play it open, hammer on from the first fret, then slide, all in one smooth motion.

~ indicates a vibratto.  This means that you have to wiggle your finger a little bit, creating a bit of a vibrating, bendy noise that keeps the string ringing longer.  Its more of a stylistic sort of thing, and it's not absolutly necessary, but it adds a lot of feeling to a piece if used correctly.

When a * appears near or above a note, this means that you hit the harmonic.  Harmonics can be a little tricky and can become complicated.  If you're just learning how to do tabs, that's probably a lesson for another day, but don't let that stop you from atleast trying it.  If you see a *12 on the high E string, that means to lightly place your finger on the area of the 12th fret, but dont push down- just touch it.  You may have to play around with it a little bit, but it should end up making a softer, higher pitched noise.
Notes right under eachother indicate that they are played at the same time, in a chord.  For example, a C chord.  All the notes are pressed and strummed simaltaneously.

An X indicates that a string is muted.  This means you place your finger on it in such a way to stop the ringing of the string.  Not to be confused with the harmonics.  With harmonics, you want a spacific noise.  With muting, you're, well... muting it.

That's it!  You learn this, and you can be a guitar master!

Step 5: Off You Go

Off you go with all your new knowledge. 
From personal experience, there a lot of good websites with just bajillions of tabs for you.  Nearly any song you want has already been tabbed for you to play.  Or go and write your own, by all means.  Excersize your creative muscles. 
A few good ones include and
Strumming patterns and time/length of notes can be a problem, but only if you don't know the song you're playing.  All I can say is to get a feel for it.  It makes guitar playing fun.  Play songs you like.  We're done with that hot cross buns nonsense.  You know it all!



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    12 Discussions


    8 years ago on Step 1

    When I was learing guitar, my teacher taught me: Easter Bunnies Go Dancing At Easter! This really helped me. I have never forgotten the string names now!

    2 replies

    Reply 2 years ago

    I learnt Every Boy Gets Desserts At Easter. Both work i suppose. Just depends on which one you learn first


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Do you have an instructable for learning violin? I've found some good online resources, but I'm always open to more!


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    The head on mine says fender.
    But it's a very common design- the red strat.  I'm not surprised.
    Hope you're putting it to good use :)


    9 years ago on Introduction

    thank you so much for this it opened up way more playing for me

    I have been playing guitar for quite some time and i feel that is imperative that when one journeys into the realm of more complex musical thought one must have, at least, a basic understanding for traditional sheet music. Tab is a great place to start but one should seek out a more traditional approach as time goes on and ones skill increase. Also this can be done without a teacher there are various sites such as that provide assistance with this task. Anyways, cheers, great instructable, but I would just like to stress the importance of not letting tab become your only means to retrieve music from text.

    1 reply

    Always great to hear the opinions of a fellow guitarist. 
    I, myself, have a very basic knowledge of traditional sheet music (you know, FACE, every good boy does fine.) 
    But, with an interrest in rock and roll culture, I am contiunally surprised by the ammount of creatively gifted and famous musicians who haven't a clue how to read a note.  There is a 'cultural' aspect of rock 'n roll that seperates... say... classical, country, genres like that. Tabs are more accessable in the rock 'n roll genre than any other.  Personal preference, I suppose. 
    Learning sheet music defenatly makes sharing with others easier.  I would be interrested in finding some patterns in sheet like I have in tabs.  An aspiration for another day.
    By no means did I mean to imply "don't learn sheet," because, honestly, I would like to be able to sight read, but it just doesn't come naturally to me.
    Keep on playing :)  Thanks for the comment


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Excellent instructable, I wish this had have been on hand when I was learning to read tableture. You do a great job of not only providing information, but realistically sounding enthusiastic and encouraging.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    That's a good explanation. I had the same problem as you where i started off with the easy tabs and then on the harder ones, I saw the letters and stuff and I was like, 'What the heck?'.