Guitar tablature, also known as guitar tab or, simply, tabs is a time-honoured system for indicating where to find the required notes on the guitar for any given piece of music. That’s it in a nutshell. It's quite different from standard music notation in the way that it conveys information.
Standard notation tells you what the notes are, when to play them and how long they last, but doesn’t usually tell you where to find them. That's something that you have to learn slowly but surely as you learn the notes of the guitar fretboard.
Guitar tab, by contrast, (in its most basic and common form) tells you where you can find the notes but doesn’t tell you when to play them or how long they last. You have to know that already by knowing how the song sounds.
The six lines of the tab diagram below represent the six strings of the guitar, with the lowest pitched (thickest string) at the bottom. The numbers placed on the lines tell you at which fret to press the indicated string in order to play the required note.
You read and play those numbers/ frets from left to right and play in time. In the case of most guitar tab, playing in time requires that you already know how the music sounds, and are familiar enough with it to play the right note lengths from memory (like you do when whistling or singing).
The spacing of the numbers can give a clue as to how long the notes last and also when to play them. In the above example, you can see that there are four evenly spaced numbers in each measure, except the last, suggesting that there are four beats to the bar in this song, and the notes are played on each beat - each note lasting one beat. You may even recognise the tune by doing that. If so, then you can use your memory to play the notes of the last measure in time too. However, you can't rely on spacing to help you, especially in hand-written tablature.
Tab notation programs
There are music notation programs that can produce tabs with more information than is found in basic guitar tab. The example below is the same as above but with more info provided; the most important addition being the vertical lines below the numbers. These represent note durations as used in standard notation. For those who understand note durations, the single vertical line represents a quarter note, the last measure contains a dotted quarter note plus an eighth note and finally a half note. For those who don't know what a quarter or half note is (but want to know), see the link to my 'note durations and timing in tablature' hub at the end of this one.
Other info included above are things like time signature, tempo, measure numbers and the open string names. The string names are not really important unless the song requires a non-standard (altered) tuning.. Otherwise the standard tuning, EADGBE, is always assumed.
If you know the tune in the examples, then you should be able to recognise it by playing the notes in time. It's the first phrase of Ode to Joy from Beethoven's 9th symphony. If you didn't recognise it after playing it, then it means that, either you don't know it to begin with (but are now playing a tune you've never heard before) or else you do know the tune but can't recognise it because you're not doing it right.
This is tab created using ascii text characters. It's the type of tab seen all over the Internet because it's very easy to make on any computer and post or send online. It's just simple text characters using a font like New Courier to ensure even spacing. It's the most basic form of tab and also the least trustworthy judging by the lack of accuracy of many online tabs. However, notation programs usually provide it as an option and can include more info such as note lengths shown by letters (W = whole note, H = half note, Q= quarter note and E = eighth note.)
Having note durations included brings guitar tab a significant step closer to standard notation. It means that, like standard notation, it's possible to read and play something you've never heard before. Standard notation still has the edge there, though, as it can show complex multi-line melodies more easily. Guitar tab can't handle that so well. The more complex the music, the less suitable tab is at separating the various melodic strands.
Of course, there's one way to bypass most of the shortcomings of guitar tab as well as some of those of standard notation. Use both systems together!
Chords in guitar tab are shown as vertically stacked numbers, indicating that all the notes are to be played at the same time. This is mostly used for solo arrangements where melodic lines and chords are interspersed. For general chord playing where the chord shape and strum patterns aren't fixed but left up to the performer, then tab isn't so useful. Simple chord sheets, where the chord name is placed above the appropriate word of the lyrics are much better suited to that style.
Here's an example of guitar tab using both chords and single-line melodic phrases.
Auld Lang Syne
More signs and symbols
Like music notation, guitar tablature features many signs and symbols that give directions on how the notes should be played. Some are unique to guitar tab while others are taken from standard notation.Some can be seen in the previous example of Auld Lang Syne, such as the upward pointing arrows, which indicate downward strums, (i.e., from low pitched strings to higher pitched). That's why the arrow points upwards, representing a rising of pitch through the strings.
A curved line joining two notes of different pitch is called a slur in standard notation, and in guitar music this is most often achieved by the techniques of hammer on (if ascending in pitch) or pull off (if descending in pitch).
Another common and important sign (absent from standard notation) is the sign indicating string bends, shown by a small curved upward pointing arrow.
For fingerstyle players, there are two common conventions to indicate the thumb and three fingers of your 'picking hand' (as opposed to your 'fretting hand'). One comes from Spanish and classical guitar. It uses abbreviations of Spanish words for the fingers:
p = thumb (pulgar), i = index, m = middle and a = ring finger (annular)
The other is usually found only in guitar tab.
T = thumb, i = index, m = middle and r = ring
There are many other signs, but unfortunately there is no standard. so different publishers/ programs of tab often use different signs from each other. They're usually not that different though. Some are exactly as used in standard music notation, while others are mostly self evident.
Tab v standard notation
Standard notation is universal; tab can only be understood by guitarists.
Standard notation takes many months or even years to learn; tab is self evident and can be learned almost instantly.
Tab gives fingering information; standard notation gives musical information. A good standard notation reader can have a pretty good understanding of the music at a glance by seeing the contours of the melodic lines and the arrangements of chords. It's much more meaningful visually than tab's bunch of numbers.
Tab is perfect for altered tunings. Standard notation readers are mostly lost when it comes to reading a piece of music in an altered guitar tuning such as DADGAD or open G, etc. Most of the notes are no longer where they used to be and need to be relearned for every tuning. Altered tuning presents no problem at all for tab readers as the fingering automatically indicates the required fret, regardless of how the guitar is tuned.
As you can see, for guitar music, both guitar tab and standard music notation have advantages and disadvantages. Overall, standard notation is considered superior given that it provides complete musical information understood by musicians of all persuasions - not just fingering instructions for a specific instrument.
Going back a few centuries, all guitar music was written in tablature. This was at a time when the guitar wasn't considered a serious instrument but was only for simple music played by peasants. Tab was an easy way for players to notate the fingering of simple folk tunes. This also applied to other fretted instruments such as the lute.
In 16th century Spain, a close, but more sophisticated, relative of the guitar, called the vihuela, attracted the attentions of serious classical composers who began to write more advanced vihuela music using standard notation. Improvements in guitar design then enabled vihuela and lute music to be transcribed for guitar, as well as enabling original and increasingly complex guitar compositions, also by using standard notation. Tab was sidelined from then on and only started making a limited comeback with the advent of steel string guitars and pattern-based guitar learning systems such as movable chord shapes and scale fingering patterns, for which tab was suitable.
However, it was the Internet that really paved the way for tab to make a serious comeback. As shown above, tab can easily be written in ascii form by anyone on any computer. Standard notation on the other hand requires special notation software, plus an in-depth knowledge of the standard notation system.
Both guitar tablature and standard music notation have their place in modern guitar music, and I would encourage every guitarist to be familiar with both systems.
To learn more about how note timings and durations can be incorporated into guitar tablature, visit my lesson: Guitar tablature - timing and note durations.
If you would like to learn about standard music notation for guitar, then feel free to read my standard notation tutorial articles by clicking Standard Music Notation Tutorial for Guitarists.