Just picked up the guitar and want to learn your favourite songs? Lee Wrathe gives us the rundown on how to read guitar tabs for beginners

Just starting your 6 string journey and searching for an easy way to learn songs?

Then look no further, here’s our ‘guitar tabs for beginners’ guide. Guitarist and Ibanez big dog, Lee Wrathe, put together this brief run-through that explains: what tab is, how to read it, where to find it, and how to create your own tab to share with others.

What is TAB?

Tablature or TAB, is a representation of musical ideas for stringed instruments, in the form of graphics. Its origins stretch further back in time than standard music notation and it’s really easy to read, making it a great way for musicians of all ages and abilities to share Musical ideas.

Guitar TABs for beginners

Here are a few pointers and some beginner TABs for you to try out if you’re new to all of this, check out the example below.

The horizontal lines represent the strings of the guitar (the thickest E is the line at the bottom as if you are looking at the strings whilst playing). The topmost horizontal line corresponds to the high E string (the thinnest string) on a guitar. The number on the horizontal line represents the fret number on your guitar neck. For example, the number 5 on the topmost tab line would indicate the 5th fret of the high E (the thinnest string).

TAB example


There isn’t much more to it than that really. You play each note from left to right and if the notes are in a vertical line together, you play them all together. There are hundreds of extra symbols that can accompany TAB which try to explain the phrasing of each note, for instance, whether to slide into the note or hammer the note on with your fretting hand.

TABs drawbacks

TAB’s only real drawback is that, unless it is accompanied by standard notation, you can’t tell the duration of each note. In TAB books and many professionally created TABs, the standard notation is also present, usually above the corresponding TAB (as per our examples). However, if you already know the piece of music and just need a pointer or reminder on where to play it on the fretboard. Understanding TAB comes in very handy.

If you’re new to guitar playing or just looking to improve your skills then a good place to start is with the Major scale. Learning this pattern will open up a whole world of Musical possibilities to you.

Try this position as a starter, it’s the C Major scale.

C Major TAB

Got that?

Okay, so you can read single-note lines in TAB and you’ve casually just learnt the Major scale too, excellent! Now try some chords, here are some beginner-friendly open chords to get your eyes, fingers and ears around.

C Major Chords

If you have a looper pedal such as the BOSS RC-3, you could potentially play any of the chords from example 2, in any order. Record a loop of that and then play any notes from the scale in example 1. They all belong to the same Musical family or “key” so, in simple terms, they sound lovely together. which means you’ll sound like a musical genius!

In addition to the TAB and standard notation in example 2, there are also chord boxes. Chord boxes are a great way to help you visualise the shape of the chord where it is unclear from the TAB which finger to place where. The numbers on a chord box represent the fret position (all of our chord examples are around fret 1). This time the horizontal lines are the frets, the vertical lines are the strings and the dots display which notes to play. Finally, the “X” and “O” symbols mean “don’t play” and “open string” respectively.

Some TAB files to get you started

1. One of the simplest patterns is a classic 12-bar blues:

2. If you’re into punk, rock, metal, etc., then you’re going to come across a power chord or two and there are many bands who’ve carved out decades-long careers off the back of them:

Go forth in search of TABs!

Now you’re armed with the basics, you can start to explore the wondrous world of online TAB. The internet is now full of TABs for virtually every song ever written so you should be able to find what you’re looking for.

A word of caution though, not all TABs are written equally! Cross-check a few TABs before settling on one to practice with or you could be strumming up the wrong tree (or mixing your metaphors…ahem). My advice would be, if 3 or 4 TABs look identical from differing authors then they stand a better chance of being correct (some sites even allow for feedback from users, so check that out too).

Reputable companies such as Hal Leonard and JamTrackCentral, employ professional transcribers to produce their content, so you are in safe hands with them. There is also a myriad of Guitar magazines with helpful lessons and TAB so you are only limited by your own research efforts, this is the Information Age after all!

Dawsons Music also stock plenty of guitar music books to get you started, including the exceptional JustinGuitar.com songbooks.

Doing it for yourself

Ask any “really good guitarist” and they will tell you that almost nothing beats trying to work songs/solos out for yourself using your most powerful weapons, your Ears. It’s not easy but, like anything worthwhile, the more you practice the better you get at it and it’s that type of practice which is the key to being able to listen to your radio/MP3 player etc. and just play along.

TAB is a wonderful thing, but it shouldn’t be your sole method of figuring out your favourite songs, just think of it as another tool in your musical toolbox!