Guitar tabs (short for tablature) are easier to read than sheet music for most guitarists. Tabs can be overwhelming and a little confusing at first but are definitely worth learning. Also, they are usually free and easy to access, making them the go-to for learning a cover of just about any song out there.

I remember the first song I ever learned on the guitar…

After pulling up the tabs for “Time of Your Life” by Green Day, I was completely and utterly lost. I realized I needed to learn how to read guitar tabs ASAP. After some reading and watching a few videos, and it didn’t take long before I was strummin’ and pluckin’ away, and having the time of my life.

After reading this article, you’ll hopefully be off reading tabs and playing all your favorite tunes!

The Numbering System:

How to Read Guitar Tabs

Okay, first things first…

There are three basic numbering systems that a guitar player needs to know. These include the frets, the strings, and the fingers you use to play each note. For beginners, it’s important to first familiarize yourself with these systems, as they are the foundation for learning how to read chord charts and tabs.

  • Frets:

Frets are the metal bars that move along the neck of the guitar. The first fret is the one closest to the top of the neck (furthest from the body), and the second one is second, etc. all the way down the neck. Most guitars have between 19 and 24 frets.

Some dots mark certain frets to help more advanced guitarists skip around the fretboard without having to think or count. These include the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 15th, 17th, and 19th frets. The 12th fret has a double dot and signifies an octave higher.

If you’re a total beginner, don’t worry about this for now. You’ll be shredding in no time!

  • Strings:

Next, you have the strings. The six open strings of the guitar are the notes E A D G B E. Keep in mind that the smallest, thinnest string is the first string (high E), and the thickest one is the sixth (low E).

  • Fingering:

Also, you need to understand fingering and the numbering associated.

The fretting hand (usually the left hand for those who are right-handed) has a numbering system. The index or pointer finger is 1, the middle finger is 2, the ring finger is 3, and the pinky finger is 4. This finger numbering system is especially helpful when looking at chord charts and figuring out how to play them.

Fretting hand with thinnest string

Tab Layout:

Now, for the tabs!

When looking at guitar tabs, you’ll see usually see some standard notation at the top and the tab below it.

The horizontal lines of the tab represent the open strings of the guitar. The top line is the first string or the high E string, and the bottom is the 6th string or the low E string. For e.g, the lowest line represents the E string.

This can be counterintuitive, but don’t fret. Once you get practicing, you’ll be rocking out in no time!

Then, there are the numbers that move along the horizontal lines (strings). These represent which fret to play on that particular string. When the numbers are beside each other, it means you play them as a single note. When the numbers are stacked on top of one another, you are playing multiple single notes and together creating a chord. Ta-da!

Remember the 0 means the string is open, and the rest of the numbers (notes) start from fret 1, as we talked about earlier.

You’ll see it’s pretty easy. You can try on this smells like teen spirit guitar tab, you can listen to the song and try to play it yourself on the same time.

smells like teen spirit guitar tab

Tricks & Stylizing:

Okay, so we’ve officially covered the basics of how to read tabs. There are a few other things that will usually show up on the tab sheet that represent different stylizing techniques. These are used in songs to spice things up a bit and are what gives every guitar player their special style.


There is sometimes a symbol that looks like an “X” on the tab sheet that takes the place of the number on the string. This represents a muted or “dead” note and is a technique used by many guitar players.

Palm-muting is when you mute all the notes with your entire hand while you continue strumming for rhythmic purposes. This is indicated on the tab with a P.M. and a dotted line (—-) that represents how long to mute/strum.

If you don’t know how to do this, no worries! Fortunately, there are tons of resources out there on YouTube that can show you how to play muted notes.

Bending and Sliding:

The symbol for bending notes on a tab sheet is a curved arrow pointing up from the fret number. It usually will determine either a half or full bend depending on the length of the arrow.

Bending Symbol

Sliding shows up on a tab with two different fret numbers (or notes) with a slanted line connecting them.

Sliding Symbol

If you don’t know how to bend a note or slide, consider learning this styling technique to level up your rock n roll edge!


Vibrato is when you make the sound of a note wavy by slightly bending and releasing it quickly over and over for effect.

On a tab sheet, this looks like a long and thin squiggly line that somewhat resembles a water symbol. There are even slight variations in the level of vibrato that is indicated on the tab. For example, heavy vibrato will have a thicker line and a more subtle vibrato will have a thinner one.

Vibrato Symbol for guitar tablature

Think Led Zepplin vs. Stevie Wonder…

Pull-offs and Hammer-ons:

Pull-offs and hammer-ons are both shown on a tab sheet by a little semi-circle or arc above two or more notes. It can look a bit like the slide up or slide down symbol, but it is over the notes like an umbrella rather than in between them.

 Hammer-ons and pull offs symbol guitar tab

Upstrokes & Downstrokes:

Some songs will have special picking patterns which are indicated on the tab with little shapes above each note. An upstroke is represented by a V shape and a downstroke is like an upside-down bracket or U shape.

Guitar tab upstroke downstroke symbol

Other Techniques:

We’ve covered the most common stylizing techniques, however, there may be other techniques or symbols that show up on the tab sheet. Unless you are super dedicated to playing the song exactly how the original guitarist plays it, this may not be as important to note.

guitar playing

Lead & Rhythm

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are many different versions of tabs for one particular song. If you want, you can learn lead and rhythm guitar parts from different tabs and find the one that fits your preferred style.

Many of the descriptions above are for tabs that include the details of picking patterns, individual notes, solo guitar parts, and chord progression all in one tab. This may or may not be the case, and you may need to search around for one that includes the information you want.

For rhythm guitarists, sometimes there are chord strumming patterns indicated just by the letter of the chord itself with the upstroke and downstroke symbols mentioned above.

You can also choose to learn a song using chord chart tabs; in this case, the tabs will usually be simplified and may just have a chord chart at the top, and then letters that mark the chord progression.


How to read tabs ?

Lyrics will sometimes be included above or below the tab chart moving along with the notes, and sometimes they will be formatted in some other way, such as in paragraph form at the bottom. They might not be included at all, and you may need to memorize them before or after learning the guitar part.

Get Groovin:

Now, you should be able to read guitar tabs and de-code some of the symbols used for stylizing techniques. I suggest you go out and find a simple tab for a song you dig and try to read it while going through this article.

After that, you’ll hopefully be able to finally play all your favorite songs and rocking out in your bedroom in no time!

Guitar React GIF by The Wiggles