Guitar tablature, or tab, is a system of writing down the notes that are to be played, and how to play them. It differs from standard musical notation (the lines with all the notes ♬♪♫), in that it is easier for most guitarists to read and write, mainly because we generally tend to be stupider than other sorts of musicians.
Okay, that last part is a lie. But it does illustrate the kind of myth that we guitar players have to deal with. The reason why most guitarists use tab instead of standard musical notation is simple: our instrument is laid out in such a way that facilitates an easier way of writing music. Think about it: a piano is the only other instrument that’s laid out in an even more linear form than other instruments, but there are so many notes in one single direction that it’s easier for pianists to read standard notation, which divides up the notes into lines on a staff. Brass and woodwind players have the least linear instruments, as they are given a relatively small number of valves which must be played in combination to produce a relatively large number of notes. In other words, they can play many more notes than they actually have fingerings. It wouldn’t be very easy to invent a better notation system for them, either.
But for guitars, there are (usually) six strings, with only two octaves to deal with per string (or even less for most guitars). This makes it an ideal instrument for which to write using a more basic form of notation which is simultaneously more visual and mathematic. In short, it’s easier to read because it’s logical, and having notes written in the form of numbers (one per fret) leads to a more direct relationship between the physical instrument and the written representation of music to be played on it.
Unfortunately, the tablature system for stringed instruments is lacking in one major area: rhythm. Tablature by itself can tell you exactly what notes to play, even which string to play the notes on, and how to play the notes – even what to do with the notes once they’ve been played, but it cannot tell you how long to play the note for, or how long to wait until the next note is to be played. That’s why in most publications with sheet music written especially for the modern guitarist, a combination approach is most often used: standard notation on top, with tablature on the bottom. That way, note values (or durations) can be read right alongside the fret number and string. Plus, more traditional guitarists can simply ignore the tablature and read just the standard notation.
Okay, that’s a lot of words. Too many words. I’ve just gone too far. Let’s just get on with it, shall we?
Let’s look at the example below. The first thing you’ll likely notice are the lines. There are six horizontal lines, representing each of the six strings of the standard guitar. From top to bottom, they are E (high), B, G, D, A, and E (low). Look at the example below, and turn your guitar upwards so you can see the fretboard straight-on. Notice what’s going on here? This is a direct visual representation of the strings, with the skinniest string on top, and the fattest string on the bottom – just like the tablature itself!
The major difference is that the vertical (up and down) lines do not relate to the fret, but to the timeline of the song that’s written out. To represent frets, numbers are written directly on top of the string that is to be played. For example, if you see the number 3 written on top of the next to lowest line, that means the third fret of the A string (the next to lowest string). The number 9 written on the third line from the top represents a note played at the ninth fret of the G string, the third string down from the top.
As I’ve stated, the vertical lines represent time. The further along in the tune, the more lines you’ll be passing on your way to the end. Just like reading text (for those of us in the Western hemisphere anyway), we read from left to right. A few beats into the song and a line comes to tell us where we’re at. A few more beats and another line tells us we’ve progressed a little further into the song. By the time you’ve played through a couple dozen lines, you’ve been playing for maybe a minute. These divisions of time are called bars, and they will always represent the same number of beats each. More about that in another lesson.
In the third bar, above, you might have noticed that there is a whole line of numbers stacked right on top of each other. That means to play the notes at the frets indicated simultaneously – in other words, a chord rather than an individual note. The zeros mean an “open” string, or an unfretted string. So from top to bottom: open E (no fingers on any fret of the E string),�open B, first fret of the G string, second fret of the D string, second fret of the A string, and open E. (This particular chord is an E, aka E major.)
So… the flat, horizontal lines represent strings, the numbers represent frets, and the up-and-down vertical lines represent time. It just makes a whole bunch of sense, right?�No crazy symbols to interpret, although we do still have to deal with note values – the duration of the notes played. Not to mention how long between each individual note. That aspect of standard notation is covered in another lesson.
In addition to plain old fretting the note and playing it straight, there are a number of different techniques you can use, like bending the note up or down, or sliding from note to note. Plus, there has to be a way of writing down all the cool little squeals and skronks and chunky-chunk noises the guitar can make! Below are examples of additional techniques that can be applied to enhance the overall performance, written in both standard notation and tablature, with explanations for each.
Please note that you can click on each example to be taken to a page with additional information. (I plan to add video examples to those pages later on, too.)