Here are two essential things every guitar player must know in order to read music. I’m not going to lie–this chapter is a little tedious, but absolutely necessary for you to begin a working knowledge of music. You will thank me later. Here we go!
Reading chord diagrams
This is a picture of an E major chord. Imagine that your guitar is in an upright position (leaning against the wall etc.) If you were to take a picture of the fretboard and cut off the headstock it might look something like this (at least if you went back to the days of Atari graphics!) The grid of lines represents the strings and frets on the guitar. The dots and circles are the shape of the chord that is to be played. The six lines that run vertically represent the strings of the guitar with the lowest sounding string (low E string) being the left-most line of the diagram, and the highest string (high E) being on the right side of the diagram. The horizontal lines represent the frets of your guitar, but they are compressed a little closer together to give the diagram a nicer look. A circle above a line in the diagram indicates that the string directly below it is to be played open, without using a finger. A black dot marks the spot where a finger is used to anchor a string. The numbers at the bottom of the diagram refer to which finger should be used to fret the dot on the string directly above. For example, the first dot from the left is found at the 5th string at the 2nd fret, and should be played with the middle finger. Make sure to press the note down just behind the fret itself (or towards the headstock of the guitar) and not on top of the fret. Build your chords from left to right, slowly and you will do just fine.
-Vertical lines are the strings low to high, left to right.
-Horizontal lines are the frets.
-Black dots are where your fingers go.
-Circles are open strings.
-Numbers under the diagram are the recommended fingerings.
Tablature is the most widely used form of guitar notation because of its simplicity and practicality. The tab staff consists of six horizontal lines that represent the six strings of the guitar, the bottom line being our low E string. The next line from the bottom is the second lowest, our A string and so on. What’s important to realize is that the strings are displayed on the tab staff upside down in relation to how the strings are when we hold our guitar in playing position, that is, the lowest line is the lowest sounding string on our guitar (the thickest string, low E) which is on top when we hold our guitar. This isn’t done to confuse the reader, but rather to keep things in terms of pitch–like traditional notation–the lower the pitch, the lower on the staff it is written. Just remember that reading tab is like looking at your guitar upside down. Here’s an example:
In the example above we start with three notes on the low E string: 0 – 3 – 4. Remember these are the frets you play, not the fingers you use so that’s an open string, then fret 3, then 4. Then there is one note on the A string at fret #2. After that you have a bar line, sadly crooked (most fonts you find online are like this one and do not line up straight.)
Reading chords with tab is a little more complex because of the number of notes involved at once. The stack of notes in this example is actually an E chord in tab form. Because the six notes of this chord are to be played at the same time (by strumming our E chord) they are written on the same vertical plane. Start from the bottom of the staff (which would be the lowest string of the chord) and work your way upward. Fretting chords can be a little harder than playing single-note melodies because you may have to try several different fingerings to get a good fit, but so it goes with tab. If there are chord diagrams on the page then you can refer to them for additional clarity. Trust your ear as well—if it sounds wrong than it just might be. Hold an E chord and compare it to the tab to see how it lines up!
Things that cannot be notated using tablature
Most of the time these things are not a problem because the majority of people use tablature to learn songs they have heard, so they already know how the song should sound rhythmically and melodically. Learning what fingers to use takes a little bit of work and playing experience, but usually isn’t a problem either. Start with a simple, recognizable melody until you are comfortable with reading.
Notes and tips
If you choose to print out your material from a website and notice there are some lines from your staff missing check the following page—they are most likely at the top of it. This is a common problem when printing out tablature because your computer treats the staff like text (not like the image we are making with these lines and numbers) and cuts the page where the text ends which is usually in the middle of the staff, so always count your lines before playing, just to make sure. Many a time I have played a very odd sounding rendition of a song I loved only to find out that it was really on the wrong string!
A lot of times tab will look a bit misaligned; this is because different fonts show up differently and each character takes a slightly different amount of space. Take things at face value when reading chords—if it looks almost like a stack then it’s probably a chord.
Other techniques in tab
There are many different types of techniques for guitar playing that are notated in tablature—a lot of them are very different from each other depending on the format of the tab—that is, tab software or keyboard-style. Here are the most basic techniques for homemade tab:
Hammer-on/Pull-off: “h” “p”
A hammer-on is when you “hammer” your finger (without picking the note) onto the string at a fret higher than where it is currently ringing. When done correctly it produces a smoother, more fluid sound than if that note was picked. A pull-off is done by pulling off a finger to a fret below on the string—the exact opposite of a hammer-on. Both hammer-ons and pull-offs are not picked.
A hammer-on is written with an “h” prior to the note that is to be hammered. “3 h 4” means you would hammer-on the 4th fret note from the 3rd fret.
Pull-offs are written with a “p” before the note to be pulled-off, in the same way as a hammer-on. “2 p 0” means pick 2, then pull-off to 0.
Sometimes you will find the “^” symbol used between two notes. This is either a hammer-on or pull-off depending on the notes involved; if the second note is higher then it must be a hammer-on, if it’s lower then it’s a pull-off. “2 ^ 4” means hammer-on to 4 from 2.
Slides: “/” “\”
Slides are done by picking a string, then sliding your hand up or down the neck while holding that string down. Slides are notated as “/” and “\” to slide up or down respectively. “4 \2” means pick the 4th fret, then slide downwards to the 2nd fret.
Bends on the guitar are done by holding the string against the fret and either pushing it upward or pulling it downward. Bends can only go upwards in pitch because the string length is always shortened when it is bended. It is always best to bend a string using the wrist and not the fingers when at all possible. Usually a bend will be written as a “b” after the note and a number following it for the fret the note is to be bent to. “5 b 7” means bend the 5th fret to the note on the 7th fret. Sometimes you will see it written as “5 (7).”
If the bend is to be released to it’s original pitch then an “r” is used. “2 b 3 r 2” means bend from the 2nd fret to the note found on the 3rd fret, then release it.
Vibrato is done by shaking the string with the wrist or fingers. Think of it the way a singer uses vibrato—it can be wide or narrow, fast or slow. Vibrato is written “~” and after the note like this:“5~~~”
These are the most common techniques for guitar tablature. Since writing tabs has never been formally structured there will always be a few gray spots, but you will get used to it quickly. It’s really quite simple and only so many weird scenarios will present themselves to you. In a few weeks of reading you will be a tab master!
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