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Guitar TAB Guide


This Guitar TAB Guide covers many aspects of guitar-tablature, probably more than most beginners need. As a result, you can read what you need for a basic understanding, then return as you need, or want, to increase your knowledge of TAB. Eventually you can use the reference portion of this page to write your own TAB.

In addition, a comprehensive guitar TAB discussion these days should also cover where to find TAB, the types of tools for creating TAB, and why so many online sites that list TAB for popular music are closing down.

Note: The terms TAB and tablature mean the same thing. 'TAB' is used more often since it's faster to write and say.

Guitar TAB Basics

TAB is a form of shorthand for illustrating how to play six-string guitar. It's a simple graphic representing the strings and frets to pluck. It can also show how to pluck the string. TAB allows anyone to pick up a guitar and play the right notes, in the proper sequence, without understanding which notes they are.

TAB tells you almost nothing how long to hold a note, or how fast to play a passage.

If you are very familiar with a song, TAB is a fine way to learn it. However, you will never be able to properly play a song with TAB alone. Use it for it's strengths, but for new music, you need to learn how to read music notation and the fretboard of your guitar.

A Visual Fretboard

TAB is a visual representation of a standard, right-handed, six string guitar, if you were to lay it down in front of you, with the headstock to your left, and the body to your right, like this:

Guitar Neck

TAB uses a series of hyphens to represent the strings. Each string is identified on the far left by the name of the note produced when played open. The high-e (string 1) is at the top; low-E (string 6) is at the bottom. There is no restriction for how long a line of TAB can be, but for readability it should be kept short enough to prevent wrapping on a web-site or printed page.


Lines for TAB

Samples of Guitar TAB

Notes are identified by a number on one of these lines. The number shows which fret is pressed. In the following example, a C note is played by plucking the 3rd fret of the 5th string:


TAB for playing the note: C

Notice that when only one note is played, only hyphens appear above and below the fret plucked.

If multiple strings are played at the same time, such as when playing the A Major chord, the numbers are stacked, like this:


TAB for playing an A Major chord

Sometimes you don't strum the low-E, or A strings when playing an open chord. You show this in guitar TAB by placing an x on the string (see the Silent Night example, below).

Riffs, runs, or chord progressions are easily represented by TAB. First I'll show you the chord progression for the traditional Christmas song Silent Night, then the riff for Day Tripper by The Beatles. I'll used these to discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of guitar TAB.

    C                          G            C
Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm, all is bright.

TAB for Silent Night chords

Repeat 7 times, then shift the pattern & play it on the A string

TAB for Day Tripper Riff

Advantages of Guitar TAB

Tab shows you at a glance where to place your fingers. There's no need to figure out the note names or string names. Simply glance at the TAB, place your fingers, and play!

There's no need for special software to read, modify, or write TAB. A simple text editor is all you need. When browsing the Internet, no plug-ins are required to view TAB.

The reader doesn't need to learn standard music notation to understand concepts like "Repeat 7 times", simply write out your instructions in English.


Disadvantages of Guitar TAB

There are no standards for writing TAB. The fact that most people write it the same way is based on learning from others, and wanting others to easily read what you write. Personally, I like this. Changes can be introduced quickly. Some don't like using a system that might appear differently from place to place.

There is no way to indicate strumming patterns or the duration of notes. Take our examples above. If you know these two songs, you can quickly figure out how to play these passages. But imagine that you don't know them. How long do you hold the C chord at the beginning of Silent Night? How long do you play the notes for Day Tripper? The only indication in Silent Night is the inclusion of lyrics. For Day Tripper, the distance between the numbers gives you minimal information about note duration, but you could never reproduce the riff if you didn't hear someone else play it.

You don't get all the standard information that comes with music notation, such as Key, time signature, tempo, loudness, or style. The author may write them in as additional information, but there is no guarantee that it will be given to you.


Now Go Play!

That's really all you need to know to get started with guitar TAB. You'll find additional symbols, such as the letters h & t. You'll see special symbols with fret numbers, such as 9/7, or b8(10). When you encounter these, they should be explained on the same page. If not, you can always check my Guitar TAB Reference.


Guitar TAB Online

Some Popular Guitar TAB sites

Want to know how to play your favorite song? Take a look at one of the guitar TAB sites on the Internet. They provide a wide variety of popular music.

Most of these sites offer 'free' TAB, chord sheets, and lyrics. A few provide versions that are endorsed by they musician, the writer, or the company that owns the rights to the song (i.e., a licensed site). There is always a fee for access to the licensed TAB or music notation. There are even some unofficial sites that will charge a 'membership fee'.

You should be aware of some drawbacks to using the 'free' sites over the licensed sites (or purchasing a book of official TAB). First, the versions of the songs at the free sites were created by folks who enjoy music and did their best to document how to play the song. It may not be correct. Second, even though these sites don't charge for access to the TAB, most are in the business of making money. You'll have to put up with advertisements, often including flashing banners and pop-up ads. Finally, the original artists do not get paid for these transcriptions. If you like what you find, you should follow-up by purchasing the official music from an licensed reseller.

With those caveats in mind, here are some popular sites for music on the Internet:

One of my favorite TAB Search Engines is This is the a great site for musicians who want to play, not waste time searching! You can search by band, or by song to get a list of tabs grouped by the site where you will find the TAB. You avoid all the clutter of generic search engines, and get just the information you want. lists a large number of guitar TAB, guitar chords, and song lyrics. You can search, or browse. It's routinely recommended by guitarists.

Roughstock's Cowpie is dedicated to country music tab, chords, and lyrics. has a huge selection of licensed music at reasonable prices. If they don't have the song for individual download, check in their large selection of music books.

If you don't find what you're looking for at one of these sites, try searching the Internet. Simply enter the name of the song along with the keywords "guitar tab". For example, if you wanted to find the TAB for Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven"
, you'd search for "guitar tab stairway to heaven". You may be directed to sites that no longer display the tab, or have been taken down entirely. Just try the next link.


Search for your favorite TAB now:



Why 'Free' Sites Are Shutting Down

Original song lyrics and music are protected by copyright laws. In December of 2005 the organization that represents music publishers (lyrics and sheet music), the Music Publisher's Association of the United States (MPA), with support from the Worldwide Music Publisher's Association, decided to aggressively protect those copyrights.

That protection, the MPA argued, ensures that people who create written music and related products earn a fair return for their efforts. They earn income from the sales of books, sheet music, lyric sheets, and other published materials. These individuals and companies work with the creators of music to produce well researched, accurate materials for sale to the public. The creation of these publications require substantial investments of time, materials, and fees. The free posting and distribution of TAB, lyrics, or other music notation, they argue, harms those who made those investments, and followed established business and legal procedures.

In addition, the MPA said it is unfair for companies or individuals who did not pursue legally established procedures, including compensating artists, to profit from posting materials they do not own. These profits appear to come primarily from advertising posted at online 'free' TAB and lyric sites.

Do these sites harm the artists, or do they spread the understanding of music? Do they generate more sales of music, or reduce it? Do they provide education and stimulate participation by young people in the creation of music? Do they remove the incentive for artists and publishers to faithfully reproduce official versions of TAB, lyrics, or music notation or do they encourage people to seek official versions when they find the unauthorized versions lack the detail or accuracy they demand?

You'll have to decide the answers to these questions for yourself. The MPA has made its decision and is actively seeking the closure of unauthorized online collections of TAB and lyrics. Many sites remain, while others have closed down or modified their content.

What about the TAB and lyrics on this site? According to U.S. Copyright laws, there are allowable uses of copyright materials, such as extractions for educational purposes. Any TAB, or lyrics, shown on this site are specifically for teaching, using the reader's knowledge of the tempo and sound of a song to facilitate the written material. In addition, I show only excepts from familiar songs, not the entire song. I also encourage readers to obtain full versions of the sheet music from an MPA recognized site. The only exception to this approach is for songs no longer covered by copyright law (songs now in the Public Domain).

To their credit, the MPA has created a Copyright Resource Center where you find information to assist with researching copyright ownership, get free forms to request permission for use, and find links to useful sites related to obtaining, protecting, and obtaining permissions with regard to copywrited material.


Guitar TAB Tools

You can use any text editor, such as TextEdit (Mac) or Notepad (Windows), for creating TAB files. You must, however, use only monospace fonts. If you use a variable-space font, you'll struggle to align the notes. If you decide to post your TAB to a web-site, you'll probably have to enclose it within <pre> and </pre> HTML tags.

In addition to the alignment problem, there are other problems with using a simple text editor. For example, you'll have to align all the notes of a chord yourself... it's not easy to insert a new passage... if you make a mistake you can't just move the note... and to your system, it's just another text file. If you want to programmatic help to simplify your work, or if you want extra power (such as song playback, chord charts, and scale generation): use a TAB program.

Here are a few that are widely used and recommended:

Power Tab is a Windows-only TAB authoring tool. This free tool is useful for electric, acoustic, and bass guitar players. In addition to TAB and TAB-symbols, Power Tab can display chord diagrams.

Guitar Pro 5 is a comprehensive tool for composing, transcribing and playing back music. In addition to TAB, you can create music notation for guitar or many other instruments. The program can display music notation or TAB, can generate chord charts for you, and lets you synchronize lyrics to the music. Runs in Mac OS-X or Windows.

TablEdit is an odd name for a powerful guitar TAB and notation tool. In addition to editing, printing, and listening to your music, TablEdit can import and export a variety of file types, and supports a number of stringed instruments. Priced at about $55, TablEdit runs on Windows, Mac OS-X and PocketPC systems.


Guitar TAB Reference

I've tried to document the most common TAB notations and conventions. However, since there are no standards, you may find other symbols and uses of those listed here.

Symbol  Meaning   Example                 Note
------ --------- ------- ---------------------------------------
b Bend b7(8) Bend the string until it sounds like
the pitch of the indicated fret
h Hammer-On h5 Rap your fingertip down to at the fret
p Pull-Off p5 'Strum' the string with the fingertip
of your fretboard hand
PM Palm Mute PM The strumming hand muffles the strings
s Slide 8s9 Play the note at the 8th fret, then
slide your finger up to the 9th fret
Both notes and the slide are audible.
/ Slide Up /9 Slide up to the ninth fret. Where you
start is up to you
Slide Down 8 Slide down to the 8th fret. Where you
start is up to you
T tap T Tap the string with a finger of your
strumming hand to sound the note
v Vibrato v7 Vary the pitch slightly by wiggling
your fretboard hand
~ Vibrato ~~ When used like this, the "~" is often
written above the TAB to indicate about
how long the vibrato lasts
x Mute x Use your fretboard hand to muffle the
<> Harmonic <7> Play the harmonic (place your fingertip
at the indicated fret and apply very
light pressure as you pluck the string



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