How to Play Guitar Tabs

Many popular stories relate to famous musicians who couldn’t read music.  Sir Paul McCartney, Noel Gallagher, and most of the band Metallica are among those who supposedly are unable to read music.  While it can be argued that being able to read music will enable a person to become proficient quicker, it is also the case that the informal nature of music means anyone can sit at a piano or pick up a guitar and just play.


For guitarists, guitar tabs are the most common and perhaps the easiest way to start playing.  Rather than trying to decipher sheet music, people can look at a sequence of numbers instead.  Guitar tabs opens up playing the instrument to a wide range of people who might have previously thought that being able to read music was a prerequisite for success.

Understanding the Basics

Guitar tablature is presented as six lines, each one representing a string on your guitar.  There’s no strange arrangement that influences how you look at them, you simply see the strings in the order they are on your instrument.

You’ll then see numbers on each ‘string.’  This is simply telling you which fret to close before playing the string, while the number ‘0’ indicates a string should be played open.

Reading individual strings and notes to play is straightforward enough when it comes to guitar tabs, and even new guitarists should be able to pick it up relatively quickly.

Guitar Tab Chords

Chords are a huge part of music, and being able to play them is an equally important aspect of becoming a competent guitarist.

Understanding chords in guitar tabs is similar than doing so with individual notes.  Rather than seeing one number on one string, the closed frets will appear in a vertical line; all that is left for you to do is assume the position and play the note.  If you are looking for guitar tabs either online or in a book at a music store, look out for tabs that actually write the chord name above the sequence.

While guitar tabs might be great for getting started, as you develop as a musician knowing what E major, for example, sounds like and how to play it will be important for your on-going learning.

Additional Guitar Techniques


A hammer-on is when you play a note and move from one fret to another, closer to the bridge, on the same string without re-picking it.

A hammer-on will appear as a ‘slur’ – a curved line – between and above the fret numbers, or more conventionally with the letter H between the fret numbers.

For example, if a song called for a hammer on from frets four to six, it would appear as 4h6.  In some magazines or websites you might also see the ^ symbol used to indicate a hammer-on.


These are very similar to hammer-ons, moving up the fret board and away from yourself rather than towards you, as you do when playing a hammer-on.

Therefore, a slur may also be used, and you simply move from one fret to another as you did earlier.  Alternatively, you might see a pull-off written with the letter P, as in 6p4, or the ^ symbol used again.

The truth is that knowing the difference between a hammer-on and a pull-off is not that important, as it is the same thing but in a different direction.  As you develop as a guitarist, you will soon find yourself playing both hammer-ons and pull-offs without much thought.


Again, this is not too different to the previous technique, but depending on how the tabs are written, there may be more to take in and understand.

Slash symbols – / or – are most often used to indicate a slide.  / indicates an ascending slide, while the opposite.

For example, if you were sliding from the fifth fret, to the second, and back to the fifth, the tab would read 52/5.  Sometimes you will encounter the / or before the fret number.  This means you can slide onto it from wherever you wish, although it is usually best to keep it simple and transition naturally from the previous string or chord, if possible.

Slides may also be indicated with an S, as in 5s2s5, however if there is a slide before the fret number you will not know whether to slide up or down to it.

String Bends

String bends are easy to understand when reading tabs, but difficult to master until you have really started to become confident playing guitar.

The most common ways a string bend will be indicated are 9(8), 9b(8), or 9b8.  All of these mean that you should close the ninth fret, pick and then bend until it sounds like the eighth fret.  That’s easy, the challenge will be knowing when a note sounds like it should.

You might also encounter 9b8r9, the letter R indicating that you should bend the string and bring it back while the note is still playing, which can be a challenge.

Problems with Guitar Tabs

Although guitar tabs remain a popular way to get started with the instrument, they are not without their flaws.

Criticisms of guitar tablature include:

  • Most examples give no guidance in relation to rhythm, therefore making it difficult to learn songs if one doesn’t know it first
  • Tabs that do include rhythm can look quite complicated, so it might be quicker and easier just to learn how to read standard notation sheet music instead
  • Tabs are native to the guitar, unlike standard notation that could be applied and used whatever the instrument

Guitar tabs are never going to become something we see widely used by musicians, but they are a great way to familiarise yourself with your instrument and become confident at playing.  Even if you do not become a technical musical genius or are able to read standard notation, tabs will give you a decent enough grounding for developing your talents.

Image Source: Kerem Tapani Gültekin

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