Tabs (lesson)

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Hi all. In this 2 part series we are going to look at how we write down what we play. We do this for many reasons - to remember a killer riff we just wrote, to allow others to reproduce what we play, to capture the performances of our guitar heroes so that we and others can learn to play them, or just to simply illustrate a point in the forum like "I am playing this run, and I have a problem with the 3rd note ...". So all in all, being able to read and write music notation in some way is essential.

There are 2 methods of writing down the notes. The first is guitar specific and is called tab, and is the easiest to understand. The second is more general and is called music notation or some variation therof.

Now, I know what you are thinking - "I'll have a look at this tab lesson, because I know tab is easy and it makes sense - I'll skip the second lesson". I'd like to explain why that might be a mistake, and how you will benefit from looking at both parts of this lesson, and I'm doing it here at the beginning while I still have your attention:)

Tab vs Music

So why do we need both? Well they both perform different yet complimentary functions. As a well rounded guitarist you need to understand both.

Tab on its own, whilst it is easy to understand has a couple of serious flaws. The first is that it doesn't contain any timing information at all. That's a fairly serious shortcoming if you think about it. If you have a sequence of 4 notes they could be anything from extremely slow and equal notes, to super fast notes, to triplets. They could even all be completely different durations and you wouldn't know it.

The second flaw that tab has is that it doesn't contain any key information. That's not quite so serious, but can be important if you want to use a tab as a basis, and maybe go on to improvise something similar.

Music on its own also has a couple of flaws. Firstly it is not designed specifically for the guitar, so does not give any guidance on where to play the individual notes. On a piano this is not serious, but on a guitar, it can make a lot of difference exactly which string you play the notes on.

Secondly, again since it is not designed for the guitar, music notation can't convey such things as bends, slides and other subtleties, so if you play guitar from music, it will be very dry and will lack much of the expressiveness that we can use with a guitar vs a piano.

So on its own, each form of music notation has its limitations. Only when they are taken together can they come somewhere near to conveying the subtleties of a piece of music. I'm not suggesting that you become an expert musical sight reader, but I am suggesting that a knowledge of musical notation will help you when you are working on some of the more complex tabs you are likely to meet. So with that in mind, please give part two a look when you are done with part one!

Guitar Tabs

Ok, that's enough of that, lets get down to business! In this lesson we will look at tabs which are the easiest type of notation to start with as they are very intuitive to guitarists.

The basic premise is extremely simple. A tab is a representation of the strings of a guitar, with the lowest string on the bottom. As you read from left to right, the tab has numbers placed on the individual strings that denote the fret you need to play the note at. Here's what it looks like:

Image: Tabs_And_Music_Notation1.jpg

One great thing about tab is that you can also show it in character form - really great for posts:


And heres an example of it in use - a simple scale of C major:

Image: Tabs_And_Music_Notation2.jpg

Or in character form:


So roughly translated, this says:

Play the 5th string on the 3rd fret, then Play the 4th string open, then Play the 4th string on the 2nd fret


I also noted the notes of the open strings - starting from the top line, ehich is the E string or 1st string, down to the bottom E string, or 6th string.

You'll notice that I also marked in the bar (or measures) as lines.

Pretty easy huh? The strings and frets are all spelled out for you step by step. Lets look at a couple more tabs. Sometimes we want to play more than one note simultaneously, either as a double stop, or a chord. To show that,m we simpley stack the notes on top of each other like this chord of C major:

Image: Tabs_And_Music_Notation3.jpg

Or in character form:


Note that we didn't put any number on the bottom E string - this means that we don't play it in this chord as you would expect.

By the way, an essential tip when writing out tabs in forum posts or emails, is to use a fixed spacing font such as courier, otherwise the lines will not match up.

Decorations and Expression

The hard part is over now, the rest is just understanding how we notate specific decorations such as bends vibrato etc.

Lets look at bends first as these crop up a lot in tab. To notate a bend, we give the starting fret number, and the number of the fret that sound like the number you are bending up to. So for instance, if we wanted to start on the 12th fret and make a 2 semitone bend, that would be equivalent to playing a note on the 14th fret, so we show both notes, with a "b" in between to denote the starting point, the fact that it is a bend, and how far the bend is. In our example we would write "12b14". Sometimes, the 14 would be in brackets - "12b(14)" and occasionally the b is missed out to give somehit like "12(14)". One thing to realize about tab is that there is a variation in how different people write them.

The opposite of a bend is a release, and you would use the same convention to show it, with an "r" in between the two numbers, for instance "14r12". And often you might string bends and releases together like this : "12b14r12". In this case it is obvious that the release will be back to 12, so that can be missed out to give "12br". Graphical tabs may use other symbols such as arrows to denote a bend.

Lets look at that tabbed out:

Image: Tabs_And_Music_Notation4.jpg

Or in character form:


Next up are hammer-ons and pull-offs. They work the same as bends, using the letter "h" for a hammer-on and "p" for a pull-off". Graphical tabs use an arcing line (this is called a slur and is borrowed from musical notation):

Image: Tabs_And_Music_Notation4b.jpg

Or in character form:


After that, there is a list of of different symbols that modify the way notes are played. Here are a few of them:

Image: Tabs_And_Music_Notation5.jpg

These are the most common. Remember that these do vary and you may see things done differently by different authors. Most tabs include a key somewhere, and you can use this to figure out any variations on what I have given you. Common sense is a must when interpreting tabs, and it usually helps to have the track to listen to as well if it is available.

Tabbing Programs

Tabs work great as characters, but there are also programs out there that will take your tab and show it in a neat graphical format - like the images I have included. There are two notable programs that do this - PowerTab which is free, and the slightly more accomplished Guitar Pro, which is available for purchase online. These programs are great - they let you lay down a musical idea quickly and very neatly for display to other guitarists. They will also generate musical notation for you (very helpful if you are just learning) and will also play back what you have entered through your computers speaker. Whilst they will never take the prize for sounding musical, they are extremely helpful for allowing you to either see if you have got your ideas down correctly or if you are working with someone elses tabs, to check you are playing it right. Tabs made by PowerTab or Guitar Pro are also exchangeable by email, or can be downloaded from various websites. For instance, has a large number of tabs, and a large proportion of them are in PowerTab or Guitar Pro format.

An Example Tab

Ok, just for fun, here is an example tab - it is none other than "Curious Coincidence" by our good friend Kristofer Dahl - this is a great tab as it covers a multitude of techniques. Here is the first page, and you'll notice it includes music notation too for you to start to have a look at in preparation for the next lesson. I created this tab using Guitar Pro, using Kris' character tab as a basis, and used the video itself to work out the correct timing (since timing isn't included on the tab, but is required to enter a tab into a program like Guitar Pro).

Image: Tabs_And_Music_Notation6.jpg

Finally, for reference, here is a reasonably full list of tab abbreviations that you might see.

Tablature Legend

  • L - tied note
  • x - dead note
  • g - grace note
  • (n) - ghost note
  • > - accentuded note
  • NH - natural harmonic
  • AH - artificial harmonic
  • TH - tapped harmonic
  • SH - semi harmonic
  • PH - pitch harmonic
  • h - hammer on
  • p - pull off
  • b - bend
  • br - bendRelease
  • pb - preBend
  • pbr - preBendRelease
  • brb - bendReleaseBend
  • \n/ - tremolo bar dip
  • \n - tremolo bar dive
  • -/n - tremolo bar Release up
  • /n\ - tremolo bar inverted dip
  • /n - tremolo bar return
  • -\n - tremolo bar Release down
  • S - shift slide
  • s - legato slide
  • / - slide into from below or out of upwards
  • \ - slide into from above or out of downwards
  • ~ - vibrato
  • W - wide vibrato
  • tr - trill
  • TP - tremolo picking
  • T - tapping
  • S - slap
  • P - pop
  • < - fade in
  • ^ - brush up
  • v - brush down

That's it for now - in part two we will explore the more complex world of traditional musical notation.