A 101 On Tablature

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What Is Tablature?

Tablature is a means to aid in learning to play a song by laying out the neck of a guitar with lines representing strings and jotting numbers down all across it to show which fret should be hit on which string at what time. That’s the simple explanation. Tablature, or tabs, can be kept as simple as that or with the aid of symbols can sometimes become a viable alternative to sheet music.

That much all depends on who is writing the tabs out and how much attention to detail they feel like putting into it. Tablature by nature is not complicated so how useful a given set of tabs turns out depends on two things. How good was the ear of the transcriber and how effectively did they use the symbols? This write-up is about the latter of the two.

How Do Tabs Work?

Tabs are about as easy as it gets. There is one line drawn for every string available. Unless you’re learning Max Cavalera’s or Keith Richards’ stuff you’re going to see something akin to this a lot.

 E||---------||
 B||---------||
 G||---------||
 D||-------2-||
 A||----2----||
 E||--0------||

Just looking at it it’s pretty self-evident what’s going on. The letters on the left refer to the tuning used and the lines to the right of them regard the respective strings. The numbers shown refer to the frets you are being instructed to play. The 0 refers to an open E string (hold no fret) while the two 2’s refer to the second fret on the A and D strings.

Past that an array of symbols are used to aid you in not only knowing what to play, but how to play it.

Tablature Legend

h – Hammer-On

Without picking the string fret the string with enough force to produce a pitch.

 E||---------||
 B||---------||
 G||---2h4---||
 D||---------||
 A||---------||
 E||---------||

p – Pull-Off

More or less a reverse hammer-on. Without picking you pull off the string to sound a lower pitch on the string.

 E||---------||
 B||---------||
 G||---4p2---||
 D||---------||
 A||---------||
 E||---------||

x – Dead Note

Rest your fretting hand on the strings enough to muffle the sound and get more of a percussive sound. Enough to keep the strings from sustaining, but not enough to actually sound any tones.

 E||---------||
 B||---------||
 G||---x-x---||
 D||-----x---||
 A||---------||
 E||---------||

(n) – Ghost Note

Ghost notes are to be played exceptionally quietly.

 E||---------------||
 B||---------------||
 G||---(2)---------||
 D||---------------||
 A||---------------||
 E||---------------||

b – Bend
br – Bend Release
pb – Pre-Bend
pbr – Pre-Bend Release
brb – Bend Release Bend

Bending is exactly what it sounds like. When you bend the string up to match the pitch of a higher fret. Things like pre-bends and releases happen before and after picking to add flavor to the technique.

 E||---------------------pb4r2----------------||
 B||------------------------------2b4r2b4-----||
 G||---2b4------------------------------------||
 D||--------2b4r2-----------------------------||
 A||----------------pb2-----------------------||
 E||------------------------------------------||
/ - Slide Up and Tremolo Bend Up
 \ - Slide Down and Tremolo Bend Down

Slides and tremolo are a bit irregular in that they use the same signs to note what to do. It’s a bit inefficient and requires you play it by ear to an extent, but never the less it is what’s become standardized so we all have to deal with it.

 E||-------------------------------||
 B||---/5------5\------------------||
 G||-------------------------------||
 D||----------------5\4/7----------||
 A||-------------------------------||
 E||-------------------------------||

~ – Vibrato
W – Wide Vibrato

Vibrato happens when you do quick, rapid little bends to add a warble effect to the sustaining tone.

 E||-------------------------------||
 B||---5~~~------------------------||
 G||-------------------------------||
 D||----------------5WWW-----------||
 A||-------------------------------||
 E||-------------------------------||

t – Tapping

Tapping. We all know how this one works. You use your picking hand to perform two-handed hammer-ons and pull-offs.

 E||-------------------------------||
 B||---10t5t11t5t17t5--------------||
 G||-------------------------------||
 D||-------------------------------||
 A||-------------------------------||
 E||-------------------------------||
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Kyle Smitchens

Kyle Smitchens is the Guitar-Muse Managing Editor, super hero extraordinaire, and all around great guy. He has been playing guitar since his late teens and writing personal biographies almost as long. An appreciator of all music, his biggest influences include Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Vai, Therion, and Jon Levasseur of Cryptopsy.

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