Guitar tabs are the guitar equivalent of the alphabet; they allow anyone to read and play music without knowing music tablature. There are guitar tabs for virtually every song available online. Learning how to read and follow guitar tabs is an essential skill for any aspiring guitarist.
In this blog post, we will take a look at some easy guitar tabs for beginners. We will start off with something simple – the “Happy Birthday” tune – and move up progressively to an advanced tab (“Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns ‘n’ Roses). We will also learn how to read guitar tabs and pick up a few tips on playing the guitar effectively.
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How to Read Guitar Tabs
Before we jump into actual guitar tabs, let’s do a quick review of how to actually read guitar tabs.
Guitar tabs are the textual equivalent of musical tablature (also called ‘sheet music’). Musical tablature, for the uninitiated, looks like this:
Guitar tabs, on the other hand, look like this:
Unlike sheet music, guitar tabs do not relate any time information. That is, they can tell you which note to play, but not how long the note should be played. Because of this, guitar tabs are suitable only for songs you already know.
Reading guitar tabs is quite simple. The six strings – E A D G B E – are represented on six dashed lines. The tab is meant to be read from bottom to top, i.e. from the top thick E string to the bottom (thin) E string.
The numbers on the dashes represent the fret that must be played. 0 stands for ‘open string’, i.e. the string must be played without any fret being pressed.
Thus, this means “play the six strings from top to bottom one by one without pressing any fret”
This means “Play all open six strings together”
This means “Play the second fret of the last (thin) E string”
And this means ‘Play the first fret on the fourth (G) string, second fret on the fifth (B) string, and first fret on the sixth (E) string”.
You can also represent guitar-specific actions such as hammer-on, pull-off, slide, etc. like this:
\ = Slide down
/ = Slide up
h = Hammer on
p = Pull off
b = Bend
r = Release
v = Vibrato
Now that we know how to read tabs, let’s jump straight into learning some easy guitar tabs even beginners can play.
1. “Happy Birthday”
Let’s start out with a tune everyone knows: the humble “Happy Birthday”. Sure, it won’t set the room on fire, but because it’s a great tune to start with, mostly because it is played on a single low E string:
“Happy Birthday to You”
“Happy Birthday to You”
“Happy Birthday dear _____”
“Happy Birthday to You”
Play it slowly, trying to get the timing right. Remember that guitar tabs don’t contain any information about the duration of each note. You have to rely on your ear to strike a rhythm that works.
“Happy Birthday” should be quite easy because it is played on a single string. More importantly, it makes good use of a wide expanse of the fretboard – from open strings all the way up to the 10th fret. This should give you some practice moving your fingers over the fretboard.
Try playing the same tune on a different string. Do you notice any difference in the tone?
Try moving every note down “one step”, i.e. playing two frets down. The first measure, thus, would look like this:
In musical terms, this is called “transposing”. The objective is to increase/decrease the pitch of the notes. Transposing requires some knowledge of music theory which you can learn about in this course on painless scale positions.
Make sure that every note rings out completely. This requires that you place your finger (index or middle) directly behind the fret that is being played. Don’t worry about rhythm and timing until you get the finger positions right.
Take your time with this tune. Play it slowly, letting your fingers slide over the fretboard. Can you play it without looking at the frets?
Once you’ve mastered this simple song, let’s try something with a little more meat on it.
2. “Come as You Are” – Nirvana
Nirvana was a great band not only for producing music that would define the 90s, but for writing incredible songs with the simplest of riffs. Consider the opening bass riff from “Come as Your Are”:
Don’t let the length of the measure intimidate you. This is a fairly easy tab that makes use of just the top two strings and first two frets. Getting the timing right might be difficult at first, especially since you have to squeeze in up to four notes per beat.
Play each note slowly. Don’t worry about the rhythm. Sing the song aloud as you play each note. Try to match your singing to the notes.
This is a “bass” riff, i.e. it is meant to be played on the bass guitar. It makes use of the top strings, typically called the “bass” strings. Bass riffs often run throughout a verse or a chorus. In “Come as You Are”, this bass riff plays through every verse.
Try using your fingers instead of the pick for playing the top two strings. The best way to do this is to make a hook or claw with your hand and use your index and middle fingers to strike the top two strings. Does it feel more comfortable than using the pick? Most bass guitarists eschew the pick in favor of their fingers. You can learn more about finger-picking in this course on finger-picking blues.
3. “Iron Man” – Iron Maiden
Let’s take things up a notch with a tab that not only requires playing two strings at once, but also requires using the slide.
This looks pretty intimidating, so let’s break it down into smaller pieces.
This means that the seventh fret on the E string, and the ninth fret on the fifth A string have to be played together. On the guitar, it looks like this:
The next tricky part is the “slide”:
We’re doing something pretty radical here – we are not only playing two frets at the same time, we are also changing frets by sliding down, then up.
Try playing the part without the slide first. This will give you an idea of what it should sound like. Then play only string at a time – from 10th to 9th and back to 10th fret – before adding the other string to the mix.
Take your time with this tab. It might be difficult at first, but once your fingers harden, sliding will become much easier.
4. “Wonderful Tonight” – Eric Clapton
We’ll introduce another key guitar effect – the bend – in this, ahem, wonderful tab by Eric Clapton.
Forget about the ‘3’ on the E string in the beginning and focus on the first movement:
This basically translates as: “Play the 14th fret on the G string, bend it up one step, release it to 14th fret, then play the 12th and 14th fret normally”.
The hard part here is the bending. Bending a string basically means pushing the string up with your fingers. This will require some degree of finger strength, so don’t get disappointed if you can’t do it at first.
String bending is the most important feature in guitar sound. This is an effect few instruments can achieve. String bending allows the guitarist to “play” multiple notes at the same time. It’s an effect used in pretty much every solo. When done right, as in this song, the effect is extremely pleasing.
5. “Sweet Child of Mine” – Guns ‘n’ Roses
The intro to “Sweet Child of Mine” is one of the most recognizable solos in the world. It’s not exactly easy to play, mostly because it requires a high degree of precision and the ability to play notes quickly. But master this tab and you’ll leave your friends impressed.
There’s a lot of information in this solo. You are also playing way down on the fretboard, which can be tricky if you are on an acoustic guitar. The trick to mastering this tab is to play it one measure at a time, plucking each note slowly.
Use all four fingers while playing, including your pinky finger. This will be pretty difficult at first, but persevere; using the pinky finger is essential to playing some of the most advanced tabs.
Start off slow and increase speed gradually. You won’t beat Slash in the first go, so play within your limits.
This is a great example of a tab that follows a pattern yet manages to create a melodic sound by changing a single note. Identify these notes. Try changing them to see how it affects the sound.
Can’t play that far down the fretboard? Try transposing it a couple of frets above – starting from the 9th instead of the 12th fret.
This is just the beginning to mastering the guitar. This course will teach you more tips and tricks you can use to take your guitar from beginner to advanced level.