Are you learning to play the guitar? Whether you’re trying to master modern rock guitar or play classical guitar pieces, you’ve probably noticed that sheet music for the guitar isn’t quite the same as sheet music for other instruments.
Guitar has its own unique system of musical notation, known as tablature. Although it may look very different from standard musical notation, guitar tablature has a lot in common with the standard five-line staff in addition to some unique features.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to read guitar notes. You’ll also learn how to read the special characters used in guitar tablature to signify bends, slides, hammer-ons and other elements of modern guitar.
If you’ve never played guitar before, it helps to be familiar with the basics of guitar before you start reading tablature. Learn the fundamentals of reading chord charts and tablature in our Beginner Guitar course.
The basics of guitar tablature
If you can read standard musical notation, you may have already noticed something odd about guitar tablature. Instead of the five-line musical staff, guitar tablature has six lines (seven in some cases) that are used to represent notes.
Unlike standard musical notation, in which each line or space represents a different note, guitar tablature uses each line to signify one guitar string. From bottom to top, the six lines represent the E, A, D, G, B and e strings of the guitar.
Make sense? You may have noticed numbers on each line of the staff. These are fret indicators. Each number represents a fret on the guitar’s neck – 0 indicates an open string, while 1 represents the first fret, 2 the second and 17 the seventeenth.
Numbers can be used to represent single notes (for example, a 3 on the A string is a C note) or chords. When more than two notes are ‘stacked’ on top of each other, the tablature represents a chord, where notes should be played simultaneously.
Like standard musical notation, tablature reads from left to right. Notes that appear one after the other are played on their own, while notes that are lined up vertically are chords that should be played with a single strum.
Do you need more help learning the basics of reading guitar tablature? Take a peek into the Complete Guitar System course to learn how numbers and strings are marked on a sheet of guitar tablature.
Rhythm and guitar tablature
This is because guitar tablature doesn’t show the rhythm of a piece. This isn’t a big issue if you know the music you’re learning, but lacking rhythm information can be an annoyance when learning a complicated or unfamiliar piece.
To overcome this obstacle, guitar tablature uses standard rhythmic notation to tell you how long each note should last. Barlines are used to indicate the length of each, while double barlines and final barlines mark breaks and the end of a piece.
If you’re already familiar with rhythmic notation, you’ll have no problem identifying whole notes, half notes, quarter notes and so on. If you aren’t familiar, don’t worry – rhythmic notation is easy to understand, even for a beginner.
Do you want to learn how rests, whole notes, sixteenth notes and more are drawn in musical notation? Enroll in our Basic Concepts of Music course to learn how to read rhythmic notation for sheet music and guitar tablature.
Bends, pull-offs and more
With an understanding of fret markers and rhythmic notation, you’ll be able to play almost all guitar tablature. However, you may have noticed curves, parentheses and other interesting icons on your tablature, as well as Latin alphabetical characters.
These are technique markers, and they show you where to bend the strings, slide from one fret to another or hammer on a note with your finger. Each technique is marked using a different character and symbol:
- Hammer-ons are two linked notes marked with an H character
- Pull-offs are two linked notes marked with a P character
- Slides are two linked notes marked with a line and an S character
- Ghost notes are single notes surrounded by parentheses
- Bends are single notes marked with an upwards-facing arrow
Other technique indicators signal natural, artificial or pinch harmonics, as well as vibrato and other common techniques. Detailed guitar tablature may also include notation for the vibrato bar and volume knob when appropriate.
Do you want to learn how to perform pull-offs, hammer-ons and other cool guitar techniques? Learn finger picking, trills and other stylish guitar techniques in our Guitar Techniques instructional course.
Bass guitar and seven-string tablature
If you’re learning to play the bass guitar, you may have noticed that your tablature looks slightly different. Bass guitar tablature uses the same principles as a normal guitar, albeit with the top two strings (the B and e strings) removed.
In addition to the smaller staff, bass guitar tablature uses a selection of technique indicators that aren’t found in guitar tablature. These include the thumb slap and pop, which are marked with S and P characters.
Likewise, seven-string guitars use the same tablature as six-string guitars, with an extra B string listed below the low E string. While this extra string notation might initially be off-putting, you’ll find it easy to switch between the types of tablature.
Would you like help learning how to read tablature for lead guitar? Learn how to master the fretboard and make even the most complicated solos simple with our Introduction to Lead Guitar course.
Are you ready to start playing?
At first glance, guitar tablature can look and feel confusing. However, once you’ve adjusted from the five-line staff of traditional musical notation to the four, six or seven lines of guitar notation, you’ll find reading guitar notes effortlessly simple.
Are you ready to start playing guitar? Put your skills to the test and try learning a simple guitar song. Our blog post on the best beginner guitar tabs lists five classic guitar tracks that will help you familiarize yourself with rhythm and lead guitar.