Tablature is a unique tool for beginners to learn the guitar that makes the start-up process infinitely easier. While veterans can usually figure their way around it with relative ease, some beginners still stumble through it. One thing that stunts the learning process is the ‘upside-down’ notation on tabs which can make them hard to read and understand.
Guitar tabs are drawn upside down because they are easier to read upside down. When you play the guitar, you look from up to down rather than across from the guitar, which essentially flips its orientation. This orientation flip means that tabs are easier to read upside down.
Along with the orientation of tabs, quite a few other things make them difficult for beginners to wrap their heads around. This article will go into some more detail about them, including how to read them properly and vastly improve your guitar playing with a few beginner techniques.
Guitar Tabs 101: From Zero to Guitar Hero
Whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned veteran, wrapping your head around how to read guitar tabs can be difficult. As a beginner, it can feel like learning a new language and set of skills concurrently. It is admittedly easier for veterans as they already have the skills required and probably a decent knowledge of standard notation.
However, while it might be easier for them to learn tabs as they already have some grasp of notation, it can still feel like learning a new dialect of a language you already know, a relatively easy but still taxing effort.
The starting point for each type of person varies depending on their knowledge. For people with prior knowledge of sheet music, the first thing to take note of is that although some knowledge of standard sheet music will help you here, as it does in almost every area of music, there are still quite a few differences to take note of if you plan to properly learn to read tabs.
After this point, the learning process for both types of players converges. The major thing to note from this point is that guitar tabs are ‘upside-down.’ Depending on how you look at it, this can make it either more difficult or significantly easier to learn. It might seem like making the notation an exact mirror of the guitar strings would have made it easier.
However, once you start playing, it becomes more apparent that a certain level of intuition is involved here that could make this method better than the alternative.
Tabs are written as if you were looking down at your guitar, which is the natural playing position for most people unless you have some special playing style. Usually, you look downwards while playing, and tabs recreate this on the sheet, hence why they are written the way they are.
One easy ‘hack’ would be to place the sheet on a flat surface in front of you such that you can look down at the neck of the guitar and the tab sheet at the same time. Doing this, instead of setting up the sheet on a stand in front of yourself, might seem basic but can vastly improve how easy it is to figure out playing in a different orientation.
Once you’ve gotten past this, all you have to worry about is the learning process.
Guitar tabs are composed of six lines, each representing a string of the guitar. Both the top and bottom represent the ‘E’ strings, with the top line representing the top E string on the guitar and the top line on the tab representing the bottom E string on the guitar. Once you can visualize the guitar strings over the tablature, things usually begin to take shape well enough for you to make solid progress.
The notation is where tablature begins to differ strongly from conventional sheet music. Standard notation is a series of clefs, staves, and symbols designed to give you an idea of what the piece should sound like. Veterans can usually give you a vague idea of what a piece should sound like simply from a glance at the notation.
However, with tabs, things are a little different. Whereas regular sheet music gives you the sounds to produce, tabs show you the hand placement you need to produce the sounds. For beginners, this is usually easier, especially if your knowledge of music theory is lacking.
The main thing to learn here is that tabs use numbers to represent what frets to play on each string. An exception to this is the “0” notation which indicates an open string. This notation means that you will pluck this string without holding down on any fret.
The frets are the thin metal bars on the guitar’s neck, and they start after the nut at the top of the guitar. Most guitars usually have inlays starting from the third fret to help you quickly locate specific frets while playing. Once you can identify the proper strings and frets, you’re on the right path to learning guitar tabs.
One thing to note here is the twelfth fret which has a double inlay (also on the twenty-fourth fret for electric guitars). This inlay is significant because it symbolizes that the twelfth fret is an octave higher than the open strings.
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with fingering the guitar strings according to the lettering on the tabs, you’ll want to learn how to play multiple notes simultaneously. When reading tabs, you’ll need to be reading the entire set of strings left to right like you would a book. You’ll know a chord when you see multiple numbers stacked in the same vertical line. This notation indicates that all the notes in the line are to be played together, producing a chord.
This particular technique can take some getting used to, so patience will be paramount here. Taking it one step at a time will do you a world of good. Proper form and technique will come with time.
Learning the chords, strings, and basic notation will allow you to play a large variety of beginner songs as long as you put the practice in before you move on to more advanced techniques.
Hammer-Ons, Pull-Offs, and Slides
These are relatively advanced techniques that you should only attempt when you’re truly familiar with the basic ones and have spent adequate time with them. These techniques will accentuate your playing and can take your song from beginner composition to advanced.
Hammer-ons are a technique that allows you to produce notes faster than you would be able to normally. The symbol for a hammer-on is an ‘h’ or a line between the frets indicated on the tab.
To play a hammer-on, you have to bring your fretting finger down sharply on the fret indicated in the tab without plucking the string with your other hand. Doing this produces a smoother sound that blends in much smoother to the next note, although it fades quicker.
In contrast to hammer-ons, pull-offs are almost the exact opposite. Pull-offs have the same symbol on the tab as hammer-ons(although they have a p letter in place of the h).
To play a pull-off, you will need to make the opposite motion to what you would make with a hammer-on. Whereas the former requires you to strike down quickly with your fretting hand, the latter has you ‘pulling off’ the indicated fret with the same hand.
Being able to connect both the hammer-on and pull-off is a technique called the legato or roll and will make your music sound much smoother and come out faster. This technique is sometimes important, especially for more complicated pieces that require many notes in a short period. That said, take your time to learn everything in order. You can sometimes forgo the hammer-on and pull-off for conventional plucking and not lose too much steam.
Finally, the slide is a technique where you slide your fretting finger from one fret to the other without releasing pressure from the string. The slide is denoted on the tab with a ‘dash’ between the notes.
While it can sound great when done properly, improper technique will have your note fall flat at the end. A good way to avoid this happening is to maintain adequate pressure on the string during the slide.
There are quite a few more advanced techniques to learn before you can master tablature properly, but these few are essential and will give you a very solid foundation to build on. Once you’ve learned these to a tee, you’ll want to get started trying to play actual songs. A good place to start is Selections from Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It has a lot of songs that are beginner-friendly and familiar to most people.
Guitar tabs are great. Although it can take some time to get used to reading them “upside-down,” it becomes infinitely easier once you get past that. Learning the strings, notation, and a few extra techniques will generally put you ahead of the learning curve and have you on the right path to playing your own songs eventually.
As great as they are, though, try not to limit yourself to tabs alone, as learning proper notation from sheet music is a great skill to have in your arsenal and will vastly improve your playing ability.