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What are Guitar Tabs?

By A.E. Jaquith
Updated May 23, 2024
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Guitar tabs are a form of musical notation that tell the player where to put his or her fingers on the guitar neck, rather than what note and pitch to play. Many believe that tabs are a new form of writing music, but in actuality tabs have been used for centuries. Many find that they are much easier to read than the standard form of musical notation.

Guitar tabs appear similar in some ways to other musical notation. A staff is drawn with six horizontal lines that represent the six strings of a guitar, with the top line being the high E string, and the bottom line the low E string. A number on one of the lines represents which fret should be held down to produce a typical note. For example, a three on the bottom line would indicate that the next note in the song is a G, played on the low E string.

Chords are represented on guitar tabs in much the same way as notes. The G power chord would be represented as a three on the top line of the staff (sixth string) with a five on the two lines directly below. Many tabs will also put the letter representation of the chord above the tablature to aid the reader in determining the chord.

Guitar techniques can also be easily written into guitar tabs. Usually each tab will have a key to explain the symbols. Slides are often represented with a forward slash between the two notes or chords. Hammer-ons, when in a book of guitar tablature, are often represented as an arc above and between two notes, with the pull off a reversed arc underneath them. A slide is often represented with a tilde symbol (~).

There is a veritable encyclopedia of free guitar tabs available online. Nearly every song ever written can be found somewhere on the Internet in tab form. At one point, many such sites were temporarily shut down due to possible copyright issues. The reasoning behind this is that many felt that by making guitar tabs free they were essentially violating the original artists right to reproduction of their original materials. Most of these sites have since become available again under the reasoning that the tabs are there merely to instruct people how to play their instrument and exist as educational tools only.

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Discussion Comments

By Proxy414 — On Mar 01, 2011

In order to fully understand and innovate using new chords of diverse forms, the scales must be learned. These can be learned in the traditional musical score or by using guitar tabs. The problem with learning them by tabs is that you will be unable to translate them to other instruments, since there are no standardized "piano tabs" or "violin tabs."

By Tufenkian925 — On Feb 28, 2011

Learning scales is more important than learning tabs. Once you have various scales down, you are able to more appropriately view tabs and recognize the larger pattern of the melody and the rhythm. This enables you to effectively innovate new riffs in a jam session without going off key.

By klow — On Jun 02, 2010

Among experienced guitarists, there is quite a lot of debate over the value of guitar tabs. Some say that this form of notation is incomplete because it doesn't accurately depict the rhythmic component of a given song. Most tabs just show the guitar part strung together without any indication of syncopation or offbeat patterns. Tabs are also notorious for often being incorrect representations of guitar parts. This is often true, especially with more complex songs where a particular guitarists unique approach to chord voicings and arrangement are shown incorrectly. On the other hand, many guitarists believe that they are good, unintimidating way for beginning guitarists to learn songs they like.

I personally think that tabs are a great launching point for the beginning guitar player. Once a guitar player gets more comfortable experienced however, they should start learning songs by ear if they want to explore the subtleties of the instrument.

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